Chain of Command:
Management Principles for Managing Partners (The)

This article was reprinted with permission and published in the September 2001 issue of Managing Partner. For more information on Managing Partner, contact Helen Hassan at

By: Peter M. Newton

The structure of a law firm has a direct effect on communication, and the overall success of management techniques. Structure becomes even more crucial in firms with more than one office, as there is a very real danger of each site operating as a single unit, as oppose to part of the whole firm. Peter Newton of Hildebrandt International, suggests a variety of straightforward techniques law firms can implement to enhance lines of authority and optimize communication.

Spacey & Rocket LLP is a large, international law firm based in Seattle, with several offices throughout the Pacific north-west, including one in Spokane. S&R is run by an executive committee of elected members, and is chaired by George, the managing partner. There are also several practice group leaders, including Riley, who is a partner in the Spokane office and is head of the litigation practice group firmwide. Uriah, a litigation partner in Spokane, is thought to be engaged in shady dealings and is chewing up associates. As concern intensifies in Spokane, Uriah asks Riley to transfer him to Seattle. Riley does so. Some time later George discovers that Uriah is in the Seattle office. "How," George fumes, "could that passive-aggressive rogue, Riley, transfer Uriah over here without talking to me about it?"

The answer to the above example is that the structure provides for it. Riley has the right to authorise a transfer, because he is litigation practice group leader firmwide. He does not have to consult George about it because, in common with the other practice group leaders, he has no reporting relationship to the executive committee. In a small firm, the practice group leaders might form the executive committee or be obliged to report to it on a regularly scheduled basis. But in a large firm, they might constitute a separate operations committee chaired by the managing partner who would report to a chairman and a strategy and policy board, elected by the equity partners. Instead, Spacey & Rocket's organisational structure makes no connection between practice group leaders and upper management. Anatomically, the firm's brain and skeletomuscular system are disconnected. The regulated boundary that should exist between the practice group and the larger firm is instead a chasm. Riley's passive-aggressiveness may have inclined him to exploit and even to enjoy the opportunity to dump Uriah on Seattle, but it did not create it. Each of us has some inclination to act in anti-social ways. Good structure discourages these negative inclinations and encourages the collaborative, responsible sides of our natures.

The above example invites incredulity, yet it really occurred in a well-known law firm. In fact, while it is now common for US firms to be divided into practice groups, the connections between practice group leaders and top management is often ambiguous, informal, and even, as in the S&R example, non-existent.

Leadership for structure

In Systems of Organization, the Tavistock consultants Miller and Rice wrote, "Organization is the means by which an enterprise secures the performance of its tasks." Key features of organisation are social structure and group boundaries. Like people, these require leadership. The primary responsibility for the Uriah surprise rests not with Riley but with the firm's top management-the managing partner and the executive committee. It is their job to make certain that the structural arrangements are in place to manage the firm's boundaries. If we are to call Riley passive-aggressive, we should call top management irresponsible, although in fact they are mainly just unknowing and overworked, especially George, who travels frequently to the far east to meet with important firm clients.

Practical theory
For the busy managing partner, considerations of organisational structure may seem too theoretical. What's wanted is advice on what to do, and I will offer some shortly. This disquiet with theory has several sources, chief among which are the suspicion that it will prove only of academic interest, and the fear that one will not be able to understand it. To take the latter concern first, it is the case that much theory in the social sciences (which includes management and organisational studies) is difficult not because it is complex, but because it is incompletely thought out and poorly written

Practical utility is, in my view, the primary justification for indulging in theory. There is nothing so practical as a good theory, because it will guide action in such a wide variety of situations. In thinking about organisational life, theory connects the dots among apparently disparate events and reduces complexity. In the absence of theory, the sheer magnitude of the dots overwhelms thought. One needs too large a collection of lists of dos and don'ts to deal with such a variety of concrete situations and behaviours. Good theory allows you to identify which ones constitute a group and apply the same technical principle to all members of the same class. In the S&R case study, the class of phenomena is lines of accountability and the principle-unknown to the executive committee and the managing partner-is, 'manage the boundaries.'

Currently, the perspective of culture is in wide use when one thinks about law firms. We rely on it to help understand aspects of the firm that are not simply the expression of the personalities of key actors. Our understanding of the firm is greatly enhanced if we add to culture the perspective of social structure. In fact, within the organisation, culture and social structure are always intertwined. The firm's cultural values will be institutionalised to some degree in its social structure; thus, for example, the high value placed on the professional autonomy of the individual partner is typically made concrete in a governance structure where an executive committee and managing partners are elected for short terms. This very limited grant of authority to management protects the cultural value on professional autonomy. Attempts to change the culture of the firm to make it more business-like will require a change in its structure.

Invisible structure

Social structure can be murky to the people who lead the organisation, as well as to others who work within it. When one looks around the room in a committee meeting, one sees only people. In fact, however, no one is present simply as a person. Each occupies a particular position within the firm, and his or her behaviour in the meeting is more or less influenced by role requirements upon positions. These requirements are invisible and their effect may not be fully understood even by the person themself. The understanding of their position may be imperfect, and they may be under contradictory role requirements-as is the case, for example, when the leader of a practice group is made head of the budget committee. Here the obligation to secure ample resources for the practice group contradicts the obligation to secure an equitable distribution of resources among the several groups. If you are a stranger in this group, the budget committee chair's behaviour is impossible to understand without knowing his or her position within the organisation. Without taking the role-strain into account, we are likely to overestimate the contribution of personality to the way the meeting is led.

In reality, we have no choice about whether a task will occasion structural arrangements, including a measure of hierarchy. Each inevitably does, as patterns develop and become ingrained concerning who engages in which part of the work, and who decides what. This happens between husbands and wives in marriages, as well as in formal work enterprises. Once in place, structural arrangements help to determine productivity, as well as satisfaction, morale, creativity, and stress. Bad structure obstructs and fetters the competent, responsible worker and, in time, dispirits him. Facilitative or obstructive, structure is resistant to change. Leaders need to choose these arrangements wisely and, once chosen, monitor them closely, making the changes required by alterations in the firm's internal life and external environment.

Facilitating structure
A facilitating structure is one that will take care of various problems with minimal managerial involvement, and allow the individual worker to fully exercise his or her competence and creativity. It is an extra tool, in addition to individuals, who come and go and show up for work from time to time more or less competent to perform their duties, due to the ups and downs of ordinary life. Had Spacey & Rocket had a facilitating structure, George would not have had to worry about bad apples rolling in from eastern Washington and showing up in his office; he would have known about the Uriah problem and been deliberating upon its solution, since it would have been Riley's routine obligation to report it to him and the other practice group leaders in the operations committee. The managing partner and Riley would have been working together all along to manage the boundary between firm and practice group.

Good structure can even make up for inadequate leadership. American history provides numerous examples of mediocre presidents presiding over a surviving, even prospering nation. The framers of the constitution devoted themselves to creating structural arrangements that would protect against undesirable leaders and endure beyond them. Without a facilitating structure, brilliance, heroism, and good luck are required on the part of leaders, not to mention the constant need for their personal intervention.

How does one go about creating a facilitating structure? There is no single best structure; what is 'best' depends upon the task it is designed to achieve and the particularities of a given law firm-its strategy for the future, its marketplace and position, its history, and its leadership capacities. The social psychological complexity of organisations is too great ever to permit a simple, one-size-fits-all approach. Instinct, feel, judgment, perspective, and wisdom-not to mention luck-on the part of consultants, as well as leaders, will always be needed. Acquiring the same intellectual curiosity about organisational structure, and leadership that the managing partner took in the practice of law, helps to enliven interest and to accept the inevitable mistakes for their educational value.

Ten management principles

I offer below a list of ten suggestions concerning the leadership not just of people but also of structure and boundaries. They are based on long thought, study, teaching, and consulting experience in diverse organisations, including law firms. These recommendations can be summarised in one sentence: build structure and speak clearly about it. Each serves the purpose of easing the manager's burdens and making the enterprise more competent by building a facilitating structure. The ideal that they aim towards is a state where the managing partner engages only in work of an informed and imaginative fashion regarding new opportunities for the firm.


1. Keep organisational structure clear, coherent, and as simple as possible.
Organisational life tends to be confusing, and it is hard for confused people to be competent and responsible. Those workers who are inclined to behave in a competent and co-operative manner need to know who has authority and responsibility for what, while others, like Riley, should not be given obscurity to exploit. The alternative to a structure that is clear and rational is that, confused, everyone will bring every problem to the managing partner, or, dubiously motivated, fail (like Riley) to bring important matters to your attention.

People animate structure. They can also vitiate and destroy it, particularly when it is new. Bad personnel decisions can be fateful and this is an area where mistakes are frequently made. Why was a passive-aggressive rogue put in charge of the litigation practice group firmwide? Good personnel decisions require time and thought. Alfred Sloan, CEO at General Motors, was a decisive man who took inordinately long periods of time to make personnel decisions, because he had learned that his first, strong inclination was usually wrong. A telephone conversation with a friend, and fifteen-minute interviews by ten partners, will not suffice to hire the lateral who is going to head up your new intellectual property practice group.

T.S. Elliot was asked if he had had second thoughts after the first draft of The Waste Land was finished. Elliot replied, "All my thoughts are second thoughts." So should ours be when we are making important hiring decisions?

Be alert to the ethnic, gender and age demography and leadership in your firm, and be aware of the patterns that you are creating when you hire and promote people. Notice if there are no women on the executive committee, people under 45, or minority members among your equity partners. Keep it in mind; ask yourself why this is the case and how it matters to the quality of decision making, marketing and client relations, recruitment and retention of associates. Do not, however, hire, promote, or assign leadership roles primarily on the basis of demographic qualification.

2. Do not violate your own structure.
If you want structure to work (remember that the alternative is that, in the end, you do everything), it has to be respected and if you don't act in conformity with it, few others will. Structure that is not established by tradition requires conscious observation until practice becomes habitual. This is more likely to be a matter of years (but not decades) than of months. The point is not that structure should never be circumvented, but that you need to be mindful of its requirements and the costs of not meeting them. If you find that there is no way to do something that needs to be done within the existing structure and this problem recurs, then a change in structure is needed.

3. Respect group boundaries and the authority of group leaders to manage them.
Well-managed boundaries are essential to the orderly transaction of business by any group. For example, if you have created practice groups as components of your structure, each with its own head, do not bypass the head of the group to intervene directly with one of its members about a practice group matter. Do not, for example, direct the head of the mentoring committee to intervene directly in a partner-associate dispute within the litigation practice group. It doesn't matter if the practice group leader wouldn't mind; it will weaken his or her authority (and accountability) and vitiate the structure. In fact, his not minding may arise from a preference that you never ask him to do anything, but rather do his management job, too. Note also that it will diffuse responsibility between the practice group leader and the head of mentoring, and add unnecessarily to your burdens by leaving you with two partners reporting about the same matter. When you first hear about the problem, go directly to the practice group leader and suggest that he involve the head of mentoring. If he's smart, he will do so; and if he doesn't, and the problem is unresolved, you will want to know why.

This example points out that it is useful to think of your enterprise as a living system with its own boundaries. As with other living systems, the firm's external and internal boundaries are permeable and require management. For a group within the firm, the larger organisation constitutes a key part of the group's environment. In the S&R example, an operations committee led by the managing partner and comprised of the practice group leaders would have constituted a structure on the boundaries of all practice groups and the larger firm and provided for their regulation

4. Discourage reports, formal and informal, from people who do not report directly to you.
Accepting them tells others that yours is the only authority that matters and that managers, like practice group leaders, can be safely ignored. Done often, it will also create a culture of gossip, intrigue, and prurience. Beware of your own rationalisations in this regard; they often take the form of clichés such as 'open door policy' and making oneself 'available to all.' You should be interested in all your employees, but only in appropriate ways about appropriate matters. Doors can be left open and audience seekers redirected in friendly ways, such as "That's interesting. Be sure to tell Riley that." Or, "That is troubling. I want you to take that right to Riley." The executives who fall victim to illusions of omnipotence are the very same ones who can be heard to complain bitterly that they have to do everything.

5. Do not create groups and committees willy-nilly.
Other things being equal, it is better to assign a new task to an existing committee than to create a new one. From a system perspective, every major new committee constitutes a change in structure and integration with other, already existing groups. Otherwise, the work activity of one group tends to act as a constraint upon the activity of others. On the employee level, any individual who has too many committee assignments (e.g., more than two or three) will fail to show up regularly, or will show up in a passive attitude, and otherwise limit participation. Psychic energy-the ability to invest attention, interest, imagination, and concern-is limited; no amount of rational argument or appeals to duty can increase it much.

7. Do not assign an important task to any group that is co-led.
Co-leadership has multiple possible consequences and all but one of them is bad:

a) The work will be carried out competently,
b) Each co-leader will assume that the other will take responsibility for moving the matter forward and nothing will happen,
c) Both co-leaders will move forward independently creating:

i) A wasteful duplication of effort,
ii) Confusion among subordinates as to who is in charge of the matter,
iii)Maddening multiple subordination of subordinates and coworkers, or
iv) Contradictory instructions to coworkers and subordinates.

If you are serious about an assignment being carried out, assign it to one person, or to the leader of a group, such as a practice group leader, in his or her role as leader. Making assignments to a collectivity (e.g. ad hoc committee, partners meeting, practice group) defuses responsibility. Having delegated a task to an individual, neither disappear nor interfere, but maintain a consistent, light supervisory interest on the level of, "How are things going with such and such?"

8. Name groups logically.
Do not, for example, create a merger and acquisition group within the corporate practice group because it is not clear which is the whole and which the part. Instead, call it a team. More correctly, a programme may be undertaken or a team formed by a unit, one or more units will fit within a department; one or more departments will operate comfortably within a division; one or more divisions may make up a centre and so on. There are, by contrast, law firms that have by way of structure, an executive committee, a compensation committee, a partner associate committee, a mentoring committee, practice groups, pools, and families.

Consider what this language asks us to envision; what is a family doing within a complex commercial enterprise, anyway? It is accepted among consultants that when an employer tells an employee that the firm is really a family, the employee is about to have his rights violated.

9. Positions should be named in such a way that the title indicates the incumbent's relationship to the task.
Ask yourself, "Would an important client be able to tell what this person does from his or her title?" Do not give someone the position of director if he has little or nothing to direct other than himself. One modest-sized company we know has a host of senior vice presidents and executive vice presidents, with different grades within each.

Some of these people are unable to determine what their role is and, feeling bad about making so much money, run about chaotically trying to exercise authority and assume responsibility to no particular purpose. What do these titles tell us about the relationships between senior and executive vice presidents? Who is superordinate, who subordinate? Who is responsible for what? Beats me (and them, too).

10. Try to assign roles to relevant positions and name them correctly.
A person occupies one position in an organisation and from that position performs multiple roles. For example, if the position director of professional training (DPT), exists within your structure, and it later occurs to you that someone should head a mentoring programme, you should have very good and clear reasons why this new role should not be assigned to the DPT.

11. Watch your metaphors.
In the hands of those of us who are not skilled, disciplined writers, they are often misleading or communicate unintended unconscious meanings. While these connotative meanings get away from us, they may not be lost on listeners. When we call the head of a law firm the managing partner, and the adjective 'managing' merely qualifies the noun 'partner,' we are conveying the idea that the primary requirement upon the incumbent of this position is not to manage the firm but to be a partner-that is, someone who brings in money by practicing law. In so doing, we express the low value generally placed on management within law firms. Language inflation and false drama create cynicism where-in the law firm as in many other enterprises-greater honesty, clarity and trust are usually what is needed.

Keeping the above principles in mind and behaving accordingly will help when forced to act in the face of ignorance-a common state of affairs for managers of law firms and leaders of other enterprises. At other times, when your own feeling and instinct lead you strongly in other directions, go with your intuition and try to analyse the results objectively. Analyse the results when you act to clarify and support structure even when your own inclination is to do otherwise. Bear in mind throughout that only a facilitating structure can relieve you from utter dependence upon human qualities that are highly vulnerable to anxiety and stress-judgment, competence, responsibility, and collaborative spirit.

Dr. Peter Newton can be reached at (510) 521-3848 or at