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David Kirwan

Former senior partner, Kirwans

Steering the ship

Steering the ship


David Kirwan imparts key advice for new managing partners gleaned from 39 years at the helm of his own firm

This year I’ve been celebrating my 50th anniversary in law and after writing about it in last month’s column, I’ve been overwhelmed by the many congratulatory messages I received.

Some were from seasoned managing partners who, like me, have spent much of their lives practising law and have experienced some of the changes I have seen.

Other messages were from more recently appointed managing partners, themselves anticipating a long legal career. Their words made me cast my mind back 39 years to the proud moment when I became managing partner of my father’s firm, and caused me to consider what advice I would impart to new managing partners, and to a younger version of myself, if I had the chance.

New managing partners have usually waited some time to achieve the honour. They’ve often spent many an hour mulling over their vision for the firm and the changes it would need to undergo to achieve it.

However, the switch from partner to managing partner provides a new perspective that takes months if not years to develop. Overnight adjustments bringing disruption and uncertainty to staff already unsettled by the change in management structure may, on reflection, be the wrong ones.

So my first piece of advice would be: spend at least six months information gathering before making any major changes. Listen; ask questions; think about the responses; and learn about the business from a different point of view before making big changes.

The first task of any new managing partner is to get your team on board. You will need their cooperation and willingness if the tweaks you want to implement further down the line are to be successful.

Ask employees what they love about the firm and what needs changing. Find out what improvements they would make and how they would go about making them.

Remember: they are at the coalface of any decision you make and are best placed to give feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

Make time to have one-to-ones with employees. Learn about your team, particularly the partners. Understand what drives them and let them know you’re behind them every step of the way.

The old cliché is true: if you believe in them, they’ll believe in you. Another piece of advice is to step back from the business. Aim for a firm that on a day-to-day level works without you.

That will involve implementing processes and procedures that are easy to follow, while also encouraging staff to take the initiative, to think for themselves and to make mistakes – in a supportive environment that allows them to learn and grow.

Once you’ve had the chance to consider what you want to achieve during your time in office, focus on this and try not to get distracted by daily tasks that don’t help you achieve your goals. You may still be practising and doing your day job combined with your new role, so incorporate your fee-paying work into your ‘must do’ list.

Be strict about what else you take on – and if it doesn’t help you meet your goals, don’t do it. Customer service is one area where I regularly see firms let themselves down.

Overworked and stressed out solicitors can lose their focus and forget that it all starts and ends with the client.

Without those clients (yes, even the irritating and demanding ones) there is no business. By creating a workplace culture where clients are valued, respected and listened to, you’ll gain invaluable business through word of mouth that no advertising campaign could ever achieve.

Finally – and this is probably the most important piece of advice I could give to any managing partner – make the most of this wonderful opportunity. I still believe we are part of one of the greatest professions in the world.

We are invited into people’s lives, trusted to find solutions to their problems, and paid for the privilege. Enjoy every minute of steering this most hallowed of ships.

David Kirwan is managing partner at Kirwans