Law Firm Primer For Articling Students and New Associates – Part One: The Managing Partner

Photo by RDNE Stock project at Pexels

By Murray Gottheil | October 24, 2023

When articling students or young lawyers join a law firm of any size, what they see at first is the carefully cultivated image that the law firm promotes and are often thrilled to be part of a fantasy world where every lawyer is dynamic, brilliant, experienced, strategic, and practical. 

Over time, they get to know the lawyers and other key players, and eventually figure out what is real and what is not.

But until they figure that out, they can easily be led astray. There are oh so many interesting characters in a law firm, and typically their attitudes and talents do not align perfectly (or at all) with the culture that the firm advertises.

Law school does not teach young lawyers much about how to practice law, but it is supposed to instruct them in critical thinking. And they should employ that thinking to size up the people at their firm and use that information to determine how to thrive there or whether to run, not walk, out the door.

Let’s start at the top, and address what young folks should be trying to figure out about the managing partner (MP).  Here is a partial list to get you started:

  1. How did the MP get the job? Was it because they started the firm and intend to hold onto control forever? Were they voted in by a small majority of the equity partners, and are they hated by nearly half the firm? Or are they truly seen as “first among equals” leading a unified group to success?;
  2. How long has the MP been in the job? If they have been doing the job forever, why is that? Is it because they are a great leader or because they have a huge client base and have repeatedly let their partners know that if they are not allowed to continue to run the place, they will take their client ball and go home? Is it because they are the least incapable of the partners for the job?;
  3. Does the MP have any formal training in leadership, human resource or financial management; strategic planning; or any other business discipline?;
  4. Does the MP command the respect of the lawyers in the firm, or do they just have the job until a coup can be organized?;
  5. Are there cliques of lawyers in the firm who do not subscribe to the published firm values and just ignore them? If so, will the MP do anything about it, or will they allow the bad behaviour to continue because the bad behavers have a large client base and bring in a great deal of cash?; and
  6. Does the MP have a plan to adapt the firm to technology and changing social values and demographics, or are they just going along with how it has always been done?

If the MP does not impress you much, the firm may not be for you.

If they do, the firm may still not be for you. There are lots of other characters to get to know before you can really tell whether you will enjoy working there. Next time: The Practice Group Leader.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at


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