Malignant Leadership

A lack of effective oversight can allow even a well-intentioned managing partner to go bad.

, The American Lawyer


A lack of effective oversight can allow even a well-intentioned managing partner to go bad.

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What's being said

  • Patrick J. McKenna

    This was sent by a Partner who would prefer to remain anonymous:

    Mr. McKenna’s article is excellent. However, the article appears to be premised upon at least two “aspirational” assumptions: (a) the managing partner and his/her governing board are open to such procedures; and, (b) the partners at large have the courage not only to advocate for those procedures, but to insist that they be followed.

    Unfortunately, my own experience, as well as that of many others I know in large law firms, suggests that rarely do either of these assumptions prove to be true. More often, it is the large rain-makers, rather than those most qualified (and most likely to be receptive to instituting such procedures), who are placed in positions of firm leadership. Those individuals then typically seek to consolidate their power by surrounding themselves with like-minded persons (i.e., individuals who are willing to place their own interests above those of their partners and the firm as a whole), and/or persons they can control. Partnership agreements may be modified to accomplish this, or such agreements may be ignored altogether. More importantly, those who could do something about the situation – the partners themselves – sit idly by out of fear for their own positions, having watched those brave enough to take a stand being sliced to bits and then unceremoniously hurled out the saloon’s plate glass window onto the dirt street. Indeed, the partners (myself included at my former firm) who sit by and do nothing are probably the most to blame for this situation – they get what they deserve (or some other applicable cliché).

    However, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Indeed, the bankruptcy courts and those charged with the responsibility of cleaning up the messes left after these malignant leaders drive their firms into the ground, fall just slightly below the rank and file partnership in terms of blame (in my opinion). Until the bankruptcy courts and the persons charged with administering the bankruptcy process are willing to actually hold these malignant leaders accountable for their acts – in ways that leave no doubt that the legal profession and society will no longer tolerate such conduct – rather than do that which is expedient, there is absolutely no incentive for the malignant leaders to do otherwise. It is ironic that if creditors in these law firm failures could see beyond the end of their respective noses (i.e., the long-term), they would realize that their future interests would be better served by taking a stand to deter this conduct now, thereby reducing the risk that they and others will find themselves in this situation again (and again, and again). It seems to me that financial institutions who regularly loan money to law firms and individual partners would be particularly incentivized to do this. Silly me.

    Please excuse my broken record regarding this issue of holding malignant leaders accountable in bankruptcy proceedings; however, as I believe this point is key. In fact, it is one of the few areas where behavioral change can actually be effected (as opposed to waiting for the rank and file partners to stand up and say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”) in the relatively near term.

    The unchecked malignant partner problem would seem to fall squarely within first part of Lord Acton’s oft quote adage, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m less sure of the applicability of the second half of the adage – i.e., “Great men are almost always bad men.” That is to say, I find it difficult to characterize most of these malignant leaders, both those whose firms have failed and others still in power, as “great men.” “Bad men,” yes; “great men”, no.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

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