The perceived pluses are numerous and easy to spot. In contrast, the risks are more subtle and potentially fatal.

Interestingly, there is a pronounced trend toward firms adopting a shared leadership model, with perhaps the most recent example being the elite litigation firm of Quinn Emanuel.  See Karen Sloan, “Litigation giant Quinn Emanuel beefs up leadership, elevating DC, NY partners,” Reuters, May 13, 2022 (noting that 900+ lawyer firm “has shaken up its leadership model, installing two prominent litigators as co-managing partners and shifting namesake Los Angeles-based founder John Quinn from sole managing partner to the newly created role of chairman”).

If your firm has potential office, group (e.g. “our Global Litigation Practice”), or firm leadership candidates who would be great in the role but are reluctant to give up any of their client responsibilities, the notion of having co-leaders may be an attractive alternative.

Some will advance a number of highly rational arguments for having two co-leaders:

  • The pace is too fast-moving and the demands on any leader have become too innumerable for a single partner to set a strategic direction and oversee a multitude of internal decisions. We can much more effectively manage growth with co-leaders, adding stability to the somewhat inevitable chaos of adding new laterals, new offices, and new revenue streams.
  • In any growth-oriented environment, with two leaders in place partners will have more points of contact they can turn to for guidance and direction, which prevents bottlenecks.
  • Tough situations often call for some duality from leadership: good cop / bad cop; theoretician / pragmatist; optimist / skeptic; reactive / proactive and so forth. A leadership duo allows these dualities to manifest in ways that aren’t fundamentally conflictual.
  • Combining different styles can result in the work being divided, which can, in turn, mitigate each partner’s level of stress and isolation. The leaders involved should ideally take a split-task approach to the responsibilities, creating the advantage that each leader can focus on both their strengths and interests.
  • Utilizing co-leaders can help balance claims on leadership and the representation of stakeholders — like having one leader exemplifying the domestic partners and one leader representing the international partners — which can then serve to balance needs from different geographic areas and allow the co-leaders to reconcile any conflicting demands.
  • Co-leaders can explore multiple options and viewpoints to find the best way forward, which leads to stronger decisions. In doing so, a leadership duo offers more sets of eyes that can identify potential problems, evaluate situations, or offer ideas.
  • A shared leadership model can provide for an increase in innovation and experimentation. Co-leaders can build for each other a genuinely safe sounding board and a necessary purification process to arrive at the very best option. As one co-managing partner commented to me, “Co-leadership allows you to think bigger and dream knowing you have a thought partner to dream with.  What we’re able to accomplish together is way more than I believe any one individual might accomplish alone.”
  • Finally, it allows each of the co-leaders involved to look after some of their clients, bill some hours, and maintain a bit of professional practice.

Sounds great!  But, the reality of what can occur, is a lot more complicated.

Complication #1: no parachute

Here is a provocative scenario: You are in your early 50s, a successful practitioner, and in the midst of your best revenue-generating years, when your partners ask you to take on being the firm’s next managing partner.  Your initial term is four years, with an option to renew for additional terms. But you are going to have to give up a substantial portion of your practice to manage and lead your firm.  What do you do?

My observations and research show that firm leaders who relinquish their practices to assume management responsibility may be in a tough spot when their leadership role comes to its conclusion.  In my work over the years with training (First 100 Days Masterclass) new firm leaders, I have found that only about 23 percent of firms have any formal ‘parachute provision’ or other compensation formulas to help them ease out of the leadership roles and back into full-time practice.  Thus, following your retirement from leadership, you may find yourself having to work under a new compensation arrangement, contingent on your performance as a full-time practitioner.  Meanwhile, having passed your client load off to other partners in the firm, you now lack the traditional hefty book of business that makes you attractive to your, or any other firm.

What this seems to be stimulating is a growing trend toward a model of shared leadership in its many forms — either by having co-Chairs (firm or department); adding an Associate Managing Partner role or a partner as Chief Operating Officer, who continues to practice law, even while having significant leadership responsibilities.  This allows each individual to keep his or her hand in and maintain client relationships against that day when they may return to practice full time.  Perhaps of equal importance in some firms, it provides a measure of credibility that may be needed in dealing with certain partners.

Now we face some different challenges!

Additional challenges

Over the years I have been a first-hand witness to numerous incidents where the leadership duo has imploded. The job of leading a law firm may certainly be demanding enough for two professionals, but the acid test is getting two people to really share the role.  I have often told these individuals:

“Co-leaders do not get to choose their partners (like one would do in a romantic relationship) and this is the cause of much conflict and is often at the heart of any failures in sharing leadership initiatives.”

It is extremely important to create clarity around your rationale for co-leadership.  Having two points of contact can be a very powerful thing, but only if all the partners are crystal clear on why it is being done and who is doing what.

In a co-leadership arrangement, the firm will usually compensate each leader in a similar manner.  The combined costs of compensation and benefits will obviously be higher than if one person was at the reins.  When a firm is first launching this kind of arrangement, partners can be vocal about a perceived impact on profitability and how that may adversely impact their own respective shares.

Setting firm strategy is where co-leaders often run into a big accountability challenge.  As co-leaders, you have so much to do and yet, you often have to do it in areas where boundaries of responsibility aren’t totally clear.  Roles, titles, and agreed-upon purview only go so far.  The rub: If more than one person is equally in charge of something, it is incredibly difficult to avoid subtly relinquishing responsibility and accountability.  Hard decisions can become harder to make.  And your firm becomes at risk of embracing mediocrity.

Now, you need to understand that your colleagues view co-leaders as a team, so what one partner does, reflects on both.  Even if one leader isn’t involved with some specific shortcoming, a co-leadership team shares the blame — all the time.  If one of the co-leaders decides to pursue something that is somewhat risky, or they make a mistake on a project, any negative consequences will be assigned to the other co-leader as well. That is because partners see co-leaders as a single CEO for their firm.  That can make one leader feel rather helpless as some problem unfolds.

Meanwhile, there are certain leadership responsibilities that naturally confer more power than others.  Duties that involve the setting of the strategic direction, investment choices, or selecting key professionals could place one leader in a superior position over another leader.  Unless the power structures are equitable in these power roles, a firm may find that one of its co-leaders is a Co-Chair in name only.  That can create high levels of resentment if pay levels are equal, which creates even more stress in the working relationship.  Disagreements will be inevitable.  If power struggles come to the fore, chaos can ensue.

Co-leadership relationships can also become strained over time if one leader has a greater skillset than the other.  If the compensation for both is fairly equal but the skill levels are unequal, then resentment tends to build into the relationship over time.  When this relationship is strained, the morale of all others tends to dip lower as well.  Where co-leaders have different skill levels, one might try to lead the other.  This can lead to coalitions with other Executive Committee members or even to the marginalization of the more inexperienced leader.

Attempts to split any leadership job can lead to clashing egos and crippling power struggles, especially if one of the two partners conceals an ambition for holding the position alone.

7 guidelines for working with a co-leader

Despite some problems with sharing responsibilities, numerous firms have made it work.  Here are the key components I counsel co-leaders to sit down and have a frank discussion about:

1. What are we each good at?

Cultivate Self-Awareness: facilitation skills / work style / emotional disposition

DISCUSS: “Are there any areas that you feel some discomfort with handling?”

As I mentioned, one of the initial hurdles to sharing leadership responsibilities is that you do not usually get to choose your partner and this can obviously cause some frustration.

In the ideal situation, co-leaders would have complementary capabilities and different sets of experiences.  Perhaps one of you is from the corporate side of the firm while the other is a litigator.  Or one is perceived as the more senior statesman while the other is recognized for their youthful entrepreneurial spirit.  In other words, the best situation is where the two partners bring different skill sets and different talents to the table such that either of you would freely admit that you could not do the things that the other does.  This allows different leadership styles and different competencies to be available to the benefit of your firm.

In beginning to understand each other, each of you must be brutally honest— in understanding your respective strengths and weaknesses.  It is highly advisable, early in your working relationship, to engage in some form of relatively formal self-assessment to obtain a measure of your leadership strengths, personal work style, and emotional disposition, in order to have some hard data to examine and compare.  It is valuable when two professionals who are set to co-lead and work closely together can examine their respective backgrounds, personalities, and management styles and begin to appreciate where they are similar and where they are quite different.

One self-assessment tool is the IPIP-NEO, which is psychometrically valid, relatively short (15-minutes), and available at no charge. The IPIP-NEO measures the Big Five domains of personality (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability), thus providing an instantaneous written report of 9-10 pages presenting a detailed description of your personality according to the six sub-facets that comprise each of the Big Five domains.

You might also consider asking for formal (or informal) 360-degree feedback to get an accurate sense of how others in your firm, who know you, are viewing each of your respective attributes and shortcomings.

2. Who is the better choice to provide leadership in which areas?

Clearly define your respective roles/division of labor, setting up meetings, geographical responsibility, following up with which specific members, etc.

DISCUSS: “Who is going to be taking primary responsibility for what?

Agreeing to work together as a leadership duo always involves some upfront discussion about roles — and those roles must be carefully designed.  One of the more common distinctions when dividing the workload is to have one individual dedicated to the external environment (strategic direction, client service, and new business development) while the other takes responsibility for the internal environment (budgets, personnel, and operations).

That said, you can divide the leadership duties in any number of ways.  I know of one situation where one is responsible for the international offices, while the other focuses on the domestic.  One might be in charge of technology and finance, while the other oversees marketing and partnership issues.  One can have a task orientation while the other is better at handling the intricacies of working with the people, either partners or staff.  Responsibilities can be divided by interests (strategy vs. operations), skills (innovation vs. implementation), or personality bent (task-oriented vs. people-oriented).

If a natural division of labor is not apparent, you may wish to start by conducting an inventory of the tasks, activities, and responsibilities of the firm leader’s role.  (I did this a few years back and came up with a list of 50 bullet-point activity items).  Now choose which of these activities would best be performed by which partner, and which activities should be done together.  At the conclusion of this exercise, you need to be absolutely clear amongst the two of you, as to what activity should be performed by who (that individual who has the better knowledge, experience, or contacts) and you need to be absolutely transparent with your other partners on who has responsibility for what.  Having distinct responsibilities helps mitigate one of the potential pitfalls of any co-leadership arrangement: confusion among partners and staff as to who is responsible for what aspect of the firm’s business and thereby helps to resolve communications and reporting problems.

You also need to be very clear concerning the degree of freedom each of you has around taking individual action.  For example, will it become an eventual cause for conflict if one of you is constantly the source of media commentary and has their name in the papers representing the views of the firm?  Or, while it may be unrealistic for both co-leaders to be present in all meetings and interactions with other partners, on which subjects do you have complete discretion to represent the other?

Finally, there needs to be a purposeful effort to ensure that no administrative professional (CFO, CMO, HR, etc.) ever reports to both co-leaders.  It is conceivable to have the marketing and IT professionals reporting to Mr. External and the financial and personnel professionals reporting to Ms. Internal.  It is important to avoid any potential for confusion.  Nobody should be seen “shopping” their pet projects around, and subordinates should not be allowed to play you off against one another by asking you for something after your co-leader has already said no.

3. How do we keep our communications seamless?

Identify expectations and preferred communications protocols

DISCUSS: How you define “urgent?” / What response time do you expect from emails or voicemails? / What are preferred communication modes: in person, in writing, by email?

Most co-leaders report that they make it a habit to communicate regularly, at least a couple of times a week with their counterpart, and far more frequently at the onset of the relationship.  Your communications should include formal and informal venues, be open, respectful, and accommodating of your partner’s communication preferences — be they by e-mail, video or telephone conversations, texts, or in-person.

Many note that they make an intentional effort to stay in touch by setting aside dedicated time to work with their counterpart.  Make face time (even virtually) a priority.  For one co-leader I know, that meant flying to the opposite coast and working there for a few days of each month.  For another, it meant scheduling a regular monthly luncheon with a pre-agreed upon agenda to share thoughts, debate issues, develop common positions and plan their work.  The important lesson is to specifically make time to meet and communicate — don’t leave it to chance.

The “staying in touch” process creates the context — it allows each of you to keep your fingers on the pulse of the firm, and to be sensitive to opinions and issues that need attention. Ultimately, each of you as the firm’s co-leaders must be able to speak for his or her partner so that the communication comes across with “a single voice.”

One important element of your communications protocol is that you should never be “surprised” by news — particularly bad news.  It must be the desire of both to keep the other fully informed of issues and potential problems that relate to your firm’s performance and leadership.

4. How should we define our decision-making process?

DISCUSS: “What are our specific ground rules for making various kinds of decisions?

There is a fundamental dilemma involved in having two people sharing leadership responsibility: If you strongly disagree with your co-leader on some course of action, now what do you do?

Co-leaders report that having some pre-agreed formal process, protocol, or ground rules (you choose the term you favor) in place that allows for open debate and true decision-making is important.  The process is required to help determine how, specifically, they will deal with any disagreements that may arise between them.

In effect, you and your partner should create a decision-making model wherein you attempt to identify the decisions (or types of decisions) that will need to be made.  You can then collaborate on determining which decisions can be made by either of you alone (with one simply informing the other), and which decisions require the agreement of both co-leaders.

For Example:

LEVEL A: Decisions reserved for only one specific leader to make;

LEVEL B: Decisions requiring discussion, dialogue, and debate that eventually results in a consensus of both co-leaders, or

LEVEL C: Decisions involving others such that the co-leaders may want to solicit and listen to input and ideas, but still make the final decision.

In some situations, the easiest approach is simply to defer to the individual who would appear to have the most experience with the particular issue at hand.  In other instances, I have seen two co-leaders agree that they will be prepared to defer to that individual who expresses the strongest feeling about a particular decision.  So, if the situation were such that my colleague felt strongly about something, I would have agreed to back off and defer to my colleague on that precise topic.

And, in those instances where both of you may have equal expertise or strong feelings about the subject, you need to resolve any disagreement by choosing some independent trusted advisor(s) to serve as arbitrator and help you both reach a satisfactory decision.  Your capacity to reach a compromise in cases of divergent views is the glue that builds your relationship.

Leadership watching is a great spectator sport among many of your fellow partners and even the most inconsequential differences can be perceived as indications of a rift between you.  Like good parents that try never to fight in front of their children, it is important to have a rule whereby you will hash out any issues of discord in private.

5. How are we going to coordinate so we don’t step on each other’s toes?

Establish some working guidelines: Guidelines to operate by (How do we avoid: divide-and-conquer) / Regular communication huddles – how often?

DISCUSS: “What do we need to do to ensure that each of us knows that the other has our back?”

In discussing the nature of their relationships with co-managing partners, the first thoughts offered on what makes for an effective relationship are terms like “good chemistry, trust, mutual respect, and confidence.”  These broad descriptions convey a general feel of the relationship, but what are the specifics that make these relationships work?

Stated a bit more intuitively, what are the elements that make up this “good chemistry” — and can they be replicated?

You need to sincerely want to see your co-leader be successful.  Where that exists, conflict and criticism are easier to deal with professionally.  It starts with having two firm leaders who have the right attitude, in that they are always prepared to give the other the benefit of the doubt and trust that the other person is doing what is right for the benefit of the firm.  You must also have a willingness to accept that someone else may disagree with your approach and actually have a better way of handling some situation.

Find out how your co-leader deals with conflict and stress and share how you tend to deal with difficult and stressful situations.  Agree on how you will best work with one another if one or both of you find yourselves tired, stressed, or finding that things are not going so smoothly.

Finally, there is a need to be honest about those areas where one is weak and agree to help fill any gaps by teaching each other.  You will have strengths and competencies that your partner lacks, but you should compensate without undermining your colleagues’ weaknesses.

6. How do we manage our respective egos?

Develop a working relationship.  Share responsibility — the glory and the agony.

DISCUSS: “What triggers does someone need to know to stay on your good side”

Being a co-leader is demanding in that it runs counter to the natural tendency of lawyers to strive for individual achievement.  A lawyer’s identity and self-worth are often focused around what he or she accomplished as a practitioner and upon developing competencies that serve to distinguish them in meaningful ways.

There may be fewer opportunities for individual achievements when you share leadership.  Indeed, you must agree to share the responsibility — both the glory and the agony — as a team, not as individuals.  Many achievements will be joint achievements.  When some outcome is achieved primarily by one of the two co-leaders, your partners may assume that you worked together or feel that it is appropriate to recognize both leaders equally.  The greatest challenge for you both to overcome will be to subordinate your respective egos.  Are you comfortable with walking on stage and taking your bows together, even though you may feel that you did the lion’s share of the work on the project that your partners thought deserved such kudos?

Co-leadership can only work if each partner is prepared to share credit and . . . share blame, equally.

The co-managing partner of one accounting firm I know reported that their views of “working together seamlessly” are so strong that following his giving a professional journal an interview, he refused to have his picture taken for the article about his firm unless his counterpart was also included in the photo.

7. Can we agree to put the firm first?

Ensure there is a shared commitment to the firm.

DISCUSS: “What specifically would we both like to see our firm accomplish during our leadership tenure?”

In order for two professionals (you and your partner) to successfully lead one group or one firm, you need to develop or come together on a shared ambition for where you would like to see the firm go and what you would like to see the firm achieve during your joint tenure.

Having examined a number of shared leadership arrangements, I believe one factor is paramount — those partners involved have to be prepared to work together as a team for the good of the entire firm.  This element, more than any other, allows you to work through any differences and collaborate effectively.  Each of you must be prepared to learn how to take a step back in the areas where the other is better equipped to take the lead.  There can be no competition between you for power or accolades.  A very specific problem arises when motives are suspect.  If either of you is perceived to be pursuing a personal agenda — it is a clear red flag.

When one thinks of having co-leaders, the favored analogy is riding a tandem bicycle.  Riding a bike with two seats, two sets of pedals, and powered by two individuals who may at any second decide they would like to go in different directions, can be exceedingly difficult.  Attempting to steer any group of traditionally autonomous professionals in tandem requires a delicate balancing act.

The good news is that it can be accomplished, but only with some very deliberate and thoughtful preparation.