Managerial Success and Failure in the Law Firm Context

Managerial Success and Failure in the Law Firm Context

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Introduction & Rationale

by Mary Gardner Burelle, MSLOC Student

The purpose of this study is to explore the success and failure of mid-level attorney managers in becoming senior attorney managers in law firms (i.e., the success and failure of senior associates and junior or “non-equity” partners in becoming law firm “owners,” also known as senior or “equity” partners). The specific question I am examining is: What are the key managerial success and derailment themes of mid-level attorney managers in the law firm context? I have three basic hypotheses related to this question:

  • first, there will be a difference between the perceived quality of the managerial skills of successful mid-level attorney managers who get promoted (“successors”) and those who fail (“derailers”);
  • second, the perceived quality of the managerial skills of successors will exceed those of the derailers; and
  • third, managerial skills in the law firm context are related to one another. 

Lawyer Word Cloud

Lawyers and law firms are of particular interest in the management context because of the natural tension between the practicing law firm lawyer and the manager. Lawyers in law firms charge by the hour and are expected to obtain measurable results – whether it is the upper hand in business negotiations or a “win” in the courtroom – in a short period of time. Due to high billing rates (e.g., as high as $1,000 per hour for senior Partners), clients pay close attention to attorney time and demand efficient and cost-effective legal work. In addition, most attorneys are subject to constant deadlines. For example, trial attorneys are subject to specific filing deadlines mandated by procedural rules in every case, while corporate attorneys must work within tight turnaround timelines set by law and custom in the transactions upon which they work. Thus, law firm attorneys are naturally focused on responding to the short-term pressures of the specific work they do, current client demands and developing new client relationships. 

In contrast, a typical manager role involves a long-term strategic focus on financial outcomes, return on investments or maximizing profits. The skills needed to achieve managerial success are distinct from those needed to achieve other types of professional success in that they are not technical or operational in nature, such as those needed for success in engineering, manufacturing or even the practice of law. Managerial skills are instead inherently connected to the unpredictable world of human interaction. Typically, an individual who achieves a managerial role is someone who was once (and often still is) a stellar operational performer who is has been promoted to a managerial position because of his or her technical expertise and performance. In a managerial role, success no longer depends on operational expertise but is instead dependent upon the manager’s ability to master managerial skills that may be completely unrelated to those technical skills which lead to success. Some argue that the very skills that make lawyers excel are those that limit their ability to effectively manage (Maister, 2006). 

Managerial Skills

The rationale for examining this particular research problem is that the majority of research in this area is focused on management in the general business context rather than in the law firm environment, or even in other professional services firms. As individuals ascend in an organizational hierarchy, responsibilities increase and change, situations become more complex and demanding, and those who were once perceived as high-performers often fail to live up to the challenges of their managerial positions. Managerial failure, most commonly referred to in the literature as “derailment,” is generally defined as the behaviors of individuals who have reached managerial levels within an organization and plateau, get fired, or get demoted (Lombardo & McCauley, 1988; Van Velsor & Leslie, 1995). This definition of derailment is directly applicable to the population which I seek to study in the law firm context. That is, attorneys who have successfully reached the mid-level status of senior associate or junior, non-equity partner, are considered high-potential and often either plateau, get fired or demoted.   

My proposed question will advance knowledge related to a specific high-value population (middle-managers in the law firm environment) and situations of import to that population (advancement and promotion) that are common to all law firms. The results of the study will ultimately prove to be a small step in the direction of improved managerial learning and development in the law firm context. 


This study was conducted using two on-line survey questionnaires based upon items from an Executive Inventory which was designed to measure a manager’s strengths and weaknesses (Lombardo, Ruderman, and McCauley, 1988). The framework was developed from qualitative studies involving over 400 executives across a number of companies which generated data on the skills, attitudes, and values successful executives develop over their careers, as well as data related to derailment (Lindsey, Homes and McCall, 1987; McCall, Lombardo and Morrison, 1988). This methodology was selected because it encompasses managerial success and failure, the topics of focus in my question, and because of its demonstrated reliability and validity.

The participants in the study include current senior partners and members of senior management at law firms, as these individuals typically make the promotion decisions for middle-managers in law firms. These individuals are in the best position to observe those high-performing mid-level attorneys that are the focus of the study, they have access to current promotion criteria and they have personal knowledge of their own individual promotion processes (and derailment) to draw upon. The survey instruments solicited perceptions regarding the competencies of attorney managers to better understand their success and failure.

Each survey had 39 identical questions total. Responses to 37 of the questions were made on the following scale: 5 = among the best I have seen; 4 = better than most I have seen; 3 = like most others I have seen; 2 = worse than most I have seen; and 1 = among the worse I have seen. At the end of each survey, there were two open-ended questions related to managerial success and failure. Each survey was disseminated to two separate sets of 100 potential subjects. The first survey asked the subjects to consider one junior partner or senior associate in each subject’s law firm who derailed and did not become a senior partner, and respond to questions rating competency. The second survey asked subjects to consider one junior partner or senior associate in each subject’s law firm who succeeded and was promoted to senior partner, and respond to questions rating competency. The responses to the initial distribution of the surveys were insufficient, so personal contacts were asked to forward the surveys to qualified potential participants. Of the 42 responses, data from 17 who completed the derailment survey and 14 who completed the success survey qualified for analysis. The remainder of the survey responses (11) did not qualify for analysis because the potential subjects responded to 50% or less of the survey questions. 

Analysis and Results

Reliability of the Study

For the purposes of this study, the specific factors created from variables in the Executive Inventory include the individual’s ability in: (i) handling legal and business complexity; (ii) directing, motivating and developing subordinates; (iii) integrity; (iv) composure; and (v) interpersonal skills. As a first step, I ran a reliability analysis using Cronbach’s Alpha of each of these five factors. Cronbach's Alpha is a measure of internal consistency, that is, how closely related a set of items are as a group, and provides an estimate of the reliability for a given test. My rationale for running this test was to examine the reliability of the factors I used to examine managerial strengths and weaknesses in my study.

After running Cronbach’s Alpha on all five factors, I discovered that for four of the five factors, the alpha coefficient was above .70 (i.e., handling legal and business complexity (.961); directing, motivating and developing subordinates (.947); integrity (.919); and interpersonal skills (.822)). This suggests that the variables within each of these four factors have relatively high internal consistency (i.e., four of the five factors are reliable). A reliability coefficient of .70 or higher is considered "acceptable" in most social science research situations, and the higher the Alpha is, generally, the more reliable the test is considered to be. For the composure factor, however, the reliability coefficient was below .70, at .673. This may mean that the test of this variable measures several latent attributes/dimensions rather than one, thus the Cronbach Alpha is deflated. There are only two questions that make up this factor, thus I cannot drop an item that is impacting consistency. Given how close the reliability coefficient for this factor is to the standard for acceptable alpha coefficients (.70), there is sufficient reason to continue including this in the analysis.

Significance of the Study

Given that my study seeks to understand the key managerial success and derailment themes of mid-level managers in the law firm context, I wanted to examine the difference in responses between the subjects who considered derailers and the subjects who considered successors in answering questions regarding managerial skills. Thus, my second step was to run t-tests on each of the five factors comparing the data from the two surveys to evaluate the differences in means between two groups. T-tests can be used even if the sample sizes are very small (e.g., as small as 10), which seemed ideal for my relatively small data sets (17 respondents completed the derailment survey and 14 respondents completed the success survey). Though these results do not directly answer my research question (i.e., they do not isolate key managerial themes in derailment or success in the law firm context), they do provide data related to my first and second hypotheses. 

First, in examining the mean scores generated for the perceived managerial skills of successors and derailers, there appears to be a clear difference between the perceived quality of the managerial skills of successors and derailers. That is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the mean scores of the successors were on average higher than the mean scores of the derailers. This also goes to my second hypothesis, that the perceived quality of the managerial skills of successors exceeds those of the derailers. While the mean scores may not directly prove this hypothesis, they do provide some evidence that the quality of managerial skills of successors is perceived to be higher than that of the derailers. Despite the information supporting the hypotheses, statistically significant results were limited. 

Mean ScoresStatistically Significant Results: The t-test for directing, motivating and developing subordinates reflects that subjects perceived that successful mid-level managers handled directing, motivating and developing subordinates better (M=3.70, SE = .26) than derailed mid-level managers (M=3.04, SE=.09). This difference was significant (t(16.23) = -2.319, p= .002, <.05). Insignificant Results: No significant differences were found between the two groups for the following factors (i.e., p scores > .05): 1) handling legal and business complexity (t(29) = -5.447, p=.878); 2) integrity (t(29) = -1.752, p=.793); 3) composure (t(29) = -3.367, p=.566); and 4) interpersonal skills (t(28) = -2.443, p=.249).  

Correlation of the Factors Used in the Study

My third step was to examine whether there were any correlations between the five key factors utilized in my surveys. More specifically, I wanted to examine whether high or low perceived abilities in one area of managerial skills might be related to high or low scores in another area. I ran bivariate correlations to examine the correlation between the factors. As demonstrated to the left, the results of the correlation testing reveal that there are medium to large positive correlation coefficients amongst the 5 managerial skills factors (i.e., r = between .494 and .659), excluding the relationship of interpersonal skills to integrity (i.e., r = .214).

While these results do not isolate key managerial themes in derailment or success in the law firm context, they do appear to provide support for my third hypothesis, that managerial skills in the law firm context are related to one another. 

Digging Deeper

My final step was to analyze the responses received to the two open-ended qualitative questions included in each survey:

  • in your experience, what are the key characteristics of junior partners or senior associates in law firms who "derail" or fail to become senior partners in law firms (i.e., law firm "owners")? and
  • in your experience, what are the key characteristics of junior partners or senior associates in law firms who succeed and become senior partners in law firms (i.e., law firm "owners")?
Thematic analysis was employed to analyze the resulting qualitative data. Several key relevant themes emerged. The emerging themes go directly to answering my research question by isolating key managerial success and derailment themes for mid-level managers in the law firm context.  

The top three characteristics that emerged with successors include: client service, ability to generate business and taking ownership.

Successors ThemesA focus on providing client-service was described as “Excellent client service, to the point where the client looks to the junior partner directly on important issues . . .” and “taking ownership” was described as “those who [view] are personally heavily invested in the firm’s business and its future and show dedication to its advancement in ways that go beyond getting the work done well”. The ability to generate business was described as “ability to develop new business” or “having their own book of business.” 

A lack of the following top three characteristics emerged with derailers, including: thinking strategically, ability to generate business and taking ownership.


Thus, an interesting consistency emerged in the analysis of the characteristics of derailers. Two of the key derailment themes overlapped with successor themes: taking ownership and ability to generate business.

A lack of strategic thinking was described as “someone who may be technically a good lawyer, but does not get the big picture or understand how their role fits in with the clients business” and “they do not think beyond the projects on their plate.” Derailers who fail to take ownership “Do not exhibit ‘fire in the belly’, a real desire to be partner, a willingness to take charge of a client and build a good team behind him or her.” Lack of business or ability to develop business was described as “Failed to develop business or be a key person for a big client” or “having to rely on others for business.” 


The sample size for this study is a limitation (17 subjects responded to the derailment survey; 14 subjects responded to the successor survey). A larger sample size would have produced more fulsome data for analysis. Further, the nature of the data gathered is limiting. Subjects provided their own perceptions after the fact, which are basically second-hand reports of observations of conduct that occurred much earlier than the surveys were taken. In many ways, the surveys may have been biased in that subjects were asked to imagine derailers or successors and were then walked through a series of questions related to their capabilities. Finally, in considering the wording of the open-ended questions at the end of the survey, these questions are not framed to request key managerial traits. Instead they are framed simply to solicit data regarding general “key characteristics” of those who succeed or fail. While the subjects may have been influenced to answer the questions regarding managerial skills, there is no way to know this. 

Interpretrations and Recommendations

Several items of note arose in interpreting the data produced in the study. First, in running the t-tests each comparison of the mean of the factors reflected a distinct difference. More specifically, the overall perceptions of subjects responding to questions regarding successors was more positive regarding managerial skills than the perceptions of subjects responding to questions regarding derailers. This data suggests that successors either have a natural aptitude for managerial skills, they have received better training in managerial skills, or the subjects had biased positive perceptions of the skills of the successors. Only one of these differences was statistically significant – the difference for directing, motivating and developing subordinates. This result may have been the result of the small sample size. Alternatively, this could mean there is something unique to the managerial skill of directing, motivating and developing others with successors. Regardless, one implication of this for other practitioners is that larger sample sizes can lead to better, more substantive results.

The data further suggests that managerial skills are not only relevant in the law firm context, but that they are in some way related to success of mid-level managers in getting to the next level. In the law firm context, the ability to cite to managerial skills as a potential precursor to success adds to the validity of the need for managerial training. The implication for other practitioners in learning and development in law firms is that there is some evidence of the benefit of managerial skill development.

Managerial skills literature, which contains little study focused on the law firm context, indicates that focusing in on derailed individuals “may inform and suggest additional measures of success” (Lombardo, Ruderman, & McCauley, 1988, p. 213). The results of this study reflect that the qualitative data regarding both derailers and successors revealed potential additional measures of success in the law firm context. Specifically, “taking ownership,” developing business, thinking strategically and client-service were revealed as key themes and measures to potentially be mindful of going forward.

Additional study is needed in this area. Potential next steps include creating studies that more thoroughly investigate the relevance of managerial skills in the law firm context, as well as to identify true key managerial skills. A better way to determine predictive factors may be to conduct a longitudinal study of incoming lawyers at law firms in which the incoming lawyers are the study subjects, they answer questions related to the managerial factors and get assessed against the factors, and then over time examine whether they made partner or were asked to leave. In addition, a more qualitative approach utilizing interviews or more open-ended questions regarding managerial skills may have enhanced the results regarding the key managerial themes. Finally, examining the performance evaluations of derailers and successors over a period of time may prove more useful. While this would not be contemporaneous to events, presumably the evaluations themselves would occur close to the time of the performance and would provide more comprehensive information. 

Article Information

Mary Gardner Burelle wrote this article in March 2012 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary assignment is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Mary will graduate from the MSLOC program in June 2012.


Lindsey, E.H., Holmes, V., & McCall, M. (1987). Key Events in Executives Lives. Greensboro, NC: Centre for Creative Leadership.

Lombardo, M.M. & McCauley, C.D. (1988). The Dynamics of Managerial Derailment. (Technical Report No. 34). Greensboro, N.C: Center for Creative Leadership.

Lombardo, M.M., Ruderman, M.N. & McCauley, C.D. (1988). Explanations of success and derailment in upper-level management positions. Journal of Business and Psychology, 2, 199-216.

Maister, D.H. (2006). The Trouble with Lawyers. The American Lawyer. April 2006, 96-100.

McCall, M., Lombardo, M. and Morrison, A. (1988). The Lessons of Experience. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.

Van Velsor, E., & Leslie, J.B., (1995). Why executives derail: perspectives across time and cultures. Academy of Management Executive, 9(4), 62-72. 

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