THE managing partner is, at least for the large law firms, a vital director of operations. He - we have yet to come across a she - is plucked from among the firm's partners to abandon fee- earning work in favour of the august, and often problematical, role of chief executive.
Andrew Walker, a partner with the City practice, Lovell White Durrant, is shortly to step down having completed six years - an unusually long stint - as managing partner. After a three month sabbatical and a holiday, he will return to his former work as a litigator.
'The job of managing partner used to be regarded as a poisoned chalice that no one in his right mind would take up,' says Mr Walker. 'Now it is seen as a highly important job.'
Lovells was formed with the merger in 1988 of Lovell White & King and Durrant Piesse. The problem of who the managing partner of the new practice should be was ingeniously solved by the appointment of two, one from each of the former firms. It was a situation that could easily have bred dissent and ill humour, but hasn't, according to Mr Walker, largely because of the personalities of the two incumbents and a neat, if nominal, division of labour.
Mr Walker became a partner at Lovell White & King in 1975. Seven years later he travelled to Hong Kong to set about opening a new office for the firm. 'Establishing an office would have been interesting, even if there hadn't been a single client,' he says.
But there were several clients and the office was 'reasonably successful from the start', Mr Walker says. By the time he left, it was employing 25 people, a number which has since quadrupled.
Lovells' overseas interests take up a large slice of the managing partners' time. Apart from Hong Kong, there are also offices in Brussels (established pre-EC, in 1972), New York, Tokyo, Paris, Prague and Peking. Mr Walker visits each site at least once a year and regularly spends long hours on the phone.
'It's very important, particularly for the smaller offices, to know they have London back up,' he says. 'They can feel very exposed, very isolated. I know this from my own time in Hong Kong, when I began with one solicitor and two secretaries. And after all, that is how we sell our services, with the back up of our London reputation.'
The international aspect of Lovell White Durrant's practice is very important, Mr Walker says. He singles out Paris as particularly successful. 'We made an impact, in spite of the fact that several competitors were there before us,' he says.
Lovells, he adds, is a broadly based practice, which in addition to conventional City work, includes litigation and property work and various niche areas such as insolvency (it acted in the BCCI case, to name just one) and pensions.
He has spent a lot of time over the past two years conducting research into clients' needs and canvassing views on professional and legal services.
Advocacy, he believes, will become more important to the firm, assuming that solicitors are eventually granted the right to appear as advocates in the higher courts. Problems do lie ahead though, in the shape of the requirements, as currently framed, for solicitors to qualify for increased rights of audience. To achieve what are inevitably called flying hours, solicitors must chalk up time as advocates in the county and magistrates' courts.
This, in Mr Walker's view, is a narrow requirement, fine for the regional and high street firms but unfair to City solicitors. 'Advocacy is not unknown to us,' Mr Walker comments drily, pointing out that Lovells lawyers have a wealth of experience in arbitration and European Court advocacy.
In the end, Mr Walker says, the market will regulate itself as, regardless of qualifications, an advocate will succeed only if he or she is good.
As a managing rather than fee-earning partner, Mr Walker is in pole position to cast an eye over the profession as a whole. He suggests that aspects of its structure could benefit from change. 'There is no career structure, which is important in terms of job satisfaction. It may be that if we have no more to offer, we will lose the best people.'
Mr Walker echoes the view of many colleagues throughout the profession that a partnership is not the easiest vehicle with which to run a business 'that is not unlike a medium-sized public company. We have 140 partners, so the constitutional point from which we start is of having 140 equal voices. On the other hand, we greatly value the ethos of the partnership, which is professional rather than commercial.'
As managing partner, Mr Walker has been largely responsible for the day-to-day running of the firm, backed by a series of managers heading support departments. Both managing partners are ex officio members of the partnership board and are partly responsible for what goes before that board. Mr Walker also chairs an executive committee that deals with more routine management issues, such as pay reviews and appraisals. He has responsibility for the overseas offices, the firm's finances and, he says, last but not least, the clients.
Mr Walker regards his return to fee- earning work as a challenge. 'I have enjoyed being involved in the running of the firm and will probably miss it. But having said that, I am trained as a solicitor, and an integral part of that is looking after clients.'
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