Gary Sasso is another dear friend from my three decades in the legal world and on Litigation Magazine. Towards the end of this period, he transitioned from one of the most talented lawyers to one of the talented Managing Partners in law. He shares some of the wisdom learned in the process:
Moving to Management
By Gary L. Sasso
President & CEO, Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, PA
Lawyers go to law school to become lawyers, not business leaders. So most lawyers are not especially eager or prepared to lead a law firm, office, or practice group. But law firms today cannot just run themselves.
Law firms have changed. Thirty years ago, a large law firm had 75 to 125 lawyers. Now that’s a boutique or local practice. Lawyers managed their own practices then with little coordination across the firm. They shared office space, a receptionist, and a law library when we still had law libraries. The role of managing partner or “chair” was largely titular. The head of the firm carried a full load as a practicing lawyer.
Now law firms now have hundreds or thousands of lawyers working in offices all over the country and sometimes the world. They produce hundreds of millions – or even billions – in revenue. We no longer divide the country up geographically respecting each other’s turf. The “industry” now has great mobility. Clients use metrics and demand “unbundled” services, forging “virtual” law firms to meet their needs. We have practice groups, industry groups, task forces, accounting departments, IT departments, marketing departments, talent managers, chief diversity officers, recruiting departments, and on and on.
What’s more, large law firms, unlike accounting firms, cannot use non-compete agreements. So the glue that holds our firms together is either personal relationships, money, or both. The larger the firm, the weaker personal relationships become, increasing the importance of money. So we have seen big, iconic firms implode over night, triggered by a financial misstep or two, prompting defections by rainmakers who had been recruited and retained with money. Can we insist any longer that law firm leadership can be handled on a casual and even incidental basis?
Of course all this begs the question why any practicing lawyer would ever dream of moving from a full time practice to leadership. I asked myself this question often when I was asked to serve as the leader of our firm. But the rewards have been immense.
Many of us reach a point in our lives when we want to build something of lasting impact. I have had the opportunity to do that, and I find it gratifying and exhilarating. I have had to improve and draw upon all the skills I’ve needed as a life-long litigator and more: investigation, judgment, analysis, planning, project management, competitiveness, team building, collaboration, mental toughness, courage, creativity, communication, and persuasion. I make as many or more oral presentations now and often to larger and more skeptical audiences inside and outside the firm. I have the opportunity to spend time with more of our clients and other private and public leaders – accomplished, gifted individuals with great values and life stories – from whom I have learned a great deal. I have gotten to know my colleagues much better as we work together to help our clients and to build our firm. And I have had the opportunity to contribute to our profession and communities in a way that I could not do as one lawyer, representing one client at a time.
There are trade-offs, to be sure, but there are great rewards as well, if the timing is right for you and if you believe in what and who you have at your law firm.