Indeed, one of the biggest issues we hear new leaders wrestling with is the amount of time it takes to do the job. Many of them are not full-time MPs, and fuzzy responsibility boundaries encourage some to mistakenly believe that supporting an active practice in parallel is possible. In fact, a recent Citibank/HBR 2014 Client Advisoryprovided commentary on this challenge to current law firm leadership:

One development which gives us concern is that some of the newer breed of leaders continues to maintain busy, full time practices.  In this scenario, their clients’ needs are likely to take priority, to the detriment of the management of the firm.  If we could see any change, it would be that firms recognize that to be effective, the firm leader is best performed as a full time role.

Certainly, one of the biggest dangers of poorly detailed responsibilities is the propensity to underestimate—and in some cases, dramatically—the scope and responsibility of managing an entire firm. How detailed is detailed enough? This is subjective, of course. But, while a measure of firmwide distribution of details needs no perspective—firmwide is firmwide—a gleaming example of “sufficiently detailed” is one description that we examined, which encompassed around sixty bullet points of responsibilities.

Complimentary to this is establishing and policing best practices for the way that others should work with you. How do you prefer to receive information—in person, by phone, in writing? Is your door open or do you prefer that people arrange appointments? How do you feel about being called at home? These questions and ones like them can help, immensely, where managing and optimizing your time is concerned.

SECOND, get a crystal clear understanding of your partner’s expectations. A common misconception is that, when combined with their mandate, an MP’s strong reputational capital and prior track record of success guarantees the support of the partnership. This false sense can result in their solely focusing on the technical aspects of implementing strategy, while (wrongly) assuming that a critical mass of support is already in place.

Complicating matters is that as a partnership’s expectations of the MP increase, so does the emotion in, and intensity of, the environment, making it difficult if not impossible to separate support from anxiety, or excitement, or anger, or emotions otherwise. First time MP’s, in their rush to make their mark, often mistake emotion for support and can act first and ask questions later, damningly neglecting to factor a true measure of their partners’ appetite for change.

When Vincent Cino began his incumbency at Jackson Lewis P.C., he was sure to avoid this mistake:

I spent a considerable amount of time—some in-person visits, some telephone calls because our offices are so widespread across the country—talking to senior partners, some new, and some lateral partners, just to get a sense of ‘How do you think we’re doing?’ ‘How can we do better?’ ‘What do you think the future holds?’ And just talking to them about what [they think] our priorities should be over the next five years. Number one, people loved that I was asking their opinions, and number two, I got a lot of good ideas.

As a new leader, you must use your time—ideally before your actual transition—to gain significant information that will refine, and potentially redefine, your strategic agenda going forward.  In most situations, your initial concern should not be to hit the ground running, but to hit the ground listening. As early as possible, get input. Conduct one-on-one interview sessions with your partners and other professionals in the firm, asking each the same questions to ensure coverage and consistency. Get their insights, solicit their advice, and carefully evaluate the emerging themes. Clarify what they want to see you shake up and what they want to see you preserve.  After all, how can the partnership know that you have their interests in mind if you don’t actually know their interests?

Cino sums it up: “At the core, it’s about how people feel, how people react, and an overall comfort level [about this being a] thoughtful process—it’s not helter skelter; it’s not ‘shoot from the hip.’ Everybody has input. Everybody can discuss it. And then we vote. I really think that’s the only way to do it.”