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Abrams: Do You Really Want To Manage The Firm?

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jeff abrams ibaIt was 1998 when David Kleiman and Phil Pecar, two senior partners and mentors posed the question, “Will you take over management of the firm?” I had been practicing 17 years, had developed a nice book of business and felt like my career was starting to progress nicely. I had developed many friends who were clients, and I enjoyed practicing law with all of my clients. The firm had been incredibly successful through the 80’s and the 90’s with little management oversight as a result of the significant work that was being generated by the lawyers. Profits continued to increase and everybody was relatively happy. I told them that I was truly honored that they had chosen me for this position and to succeed Phil Pecar who had managed the firm for many, many years. I also told them I really needed to talk with my wife (always a smart move any time a major decision is being considered) and I would let them know in the next couple of days.

I went home and spoke to my wife who was very excited about me taking on this responsibility. She felt it was an honor to have been selected by the senior partners and that I should absolutely take on the challenge. I told her that it could require more time at the office and she was perfectly willing to accept that (and I think may have even been happy with it).

A couple of days later I told them that I appreciated the opportunity and welcomed the responsibility. I then started reading articles about managing a firm since I had never been trained to do it nor did I really have any idea how to do it. One thing I did know was how to treat people. Be kind and respectful at all times. I learned that with kindness, you would receive a strong work ethic. I tried to occasionally meet with lawyers and staff to understand how things were going and if there was anything I could do to help. I encouraged young associates to get out in the community, meet people and try to enjoy the practice of law as I had been able to do.

During the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the firm continued to prosper and managing it had very few setbacks. One challenge I vividly recall was that one of the senior partners who was a brilliant attorney and an outstanding writer would never let go of administrative work. He never delegated any administrative responsibilities, always wanting to finalize whatever writings we were providing or discussions we were to have, but rarely finding the time. Unfortunately, after they asked me to be president of the firm, he continued his ways making my life much more difficult since he always wanted to review whatever I was doing. Out of deference and admiration, I would always provide him work product I was working on, whether it included press releases, ideas to improve operations or other similar ideas. However, things continued to sit unaddressed and I was reluctant to move forward without his blessings. Lawyers and staff were asking me why wasn’t something done or where are we with certain plans. It was very frustrating.

At that point in time, I went back to the two senior partners and told them that I really appreciated the confidence they had in me but since one of them was unwilling to let me do the job, I did not feel that I should continue as President. I reminded them that I never applied for the job, never asked for the job or even volunteered for it. They had asked me to do it, and I said I would, but they needed to let me do it.

Twenty-four hours later, they called me back into the office. One admitted that he still tried to do too many things the way he had done them, but I would not have that problem anymore. He was true to his word, and I was able to move things along in an orderly fashion and, most importantly, timely for the benefit of the Firm.

One of the biggest challenges that I encountered was in the fall of 2007. I was incoming President of the Indianapolis Bar Foundation for 2008, and began meeting with managing partners of other firms to solicit more financial support for the IBF. I was very fortunate to have a significant number of friends in management roles and they were always willing to assist me in response to my requests for stronger financial support. However, as one learns if you ask somebody for money and they acquiesce in your request, just be ready for their return request somewhere in the future—and in one person’s situation, continuing and continuing requests. I believe my law school professor called it Quid Pro Quo.

During a couple of those discussions, two local firms asked me if we would consider a merger. I had never really thought about it, the firm had continued to grow at a manageable rate, profits continued to increase and we were doing well overall. Nonetheless, I felt a responsibility to our partners and our young lawyers to pose the question among our executive committee and ultimately to the partners. There were some benefits of considering being larger, so we asked a consultant to evaluate both firms. Unfortunately, when you try to merge with a local firm and you have strong litigation departments, conflicts of interests in common cases are routine. These firms were no different, so we had to pass. On the heels of understanding those problems, we had a couple of out-of-state firms reach out to us but neither of which really made any sense. It was about that time that we learned of Benesch and the potential for an integration. We spent approximately six months evaluating the numbers and the clients to determine if two and two could make five and we concluded that it could. We spent another six months getting to know the people at each firm to be sure that our philosophies on client service, staff appreciation and life in general were consistent. We concluded they were and after almost one year of discussions and negotiations, we held a vote among our partners and while the vote was not unanimous, it was substantial to integrate with Benesch, and rest is history.

So for all of you reading this article, if at some point in time you are asked to take over the helm of your firm, please consider it carefully, understanding the increased responsibilities but cherishing the opportunity if it is right for you. I am glad that I was given the opportunity to take over the Presidency of our firm and welcomed the opportunity to partner with a great firm when we integrated with Benesch. If you should ever be placed in either positions, please do not hesitate to call me as I will be happy to answer any questions or mentor you in any way I can.•

Being on vacation, these words may not be the best.
I have skied each day needing lots more rest.
Does not provide much time to ponder great thoughts.
The good thing is that I am not sleeping on cots.
Cherish the opportunity to lead your firm.
Do your best and don’t let them see you squirm.
All your attorneys will give you respect and great praise.
But if it does not work, give everyone at the firm a big raise.
 

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