The Delicate Relationship between Firm Leader and COO

Topics: Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development


The team of a Firm Leader and a Chief Operating Officer (COO) is two people who have been forced to work together—rather than having chosen the arrangement voluntarily. That is not intended to be pejorative, but the reality is that a COO inevitably finds him or herself with a brand new boss while some new Firm Leader realizes that they now work closely with an individual whom they may not even know. There are factors that can make this “forced marriage” rather challenging, if not conscientiously addressed.


There is always a tension between two strong individuals; so not having respect for one another is deadly. What that means is:

First, both have to be willing to give the other the benefit of the doubt; especially during those “why did he or she do that?” moments. No matter how well you communicate, there are those times when something goes sideways and you didn’t have the chance to forewarn your colleague.

Second, respect is appreciating each other’s contributions. Management/leadership can be a thankless job, and is especially challenging for the attorney who is used to seeing results at the end of the day based on progressing client matters. Now you realize that with day-to-day management work some important initiatives can take months to progress. Helping each other find ways to hear ‘thank you’ becomes appreciated.

Finally, respect is being committed to helping each other’s careers or making each other look good. Others have used the metaphor of having one’s back.

Role Clarity

One source of stress between a Firm Leader and COO is role clarity—ambiguity about who is in charge of what. For example, which of the duo should take the lead with respect to:

– setting performance targets?

– resolving critical shared-resources issues?

– handling interpersonal conflicts between partners and staff?

The greater the overlap, the greater the likelihood of friction. The Firm Leader may feel the COO is sticking his nose into areas where it doesn’t belong; and the COO may feel that the Firm Leader is micro-managing his every move. There needs to be very explicit and reasonable lines of demarcation.

It all sounds like a no-brainer—except my research clearly shows only 27% of Firm Leaders (firms of all sizes) have a written job description. In addition, I repeatedly hear how most partners haven’t the foggiest idea of what the Firm Leader does. So we shouldn’t be surprised if they know even less about the COO’s responsibilities.

Ability to Compromise

The real glue that sustains the team is its willingness to reach a compromise in cases when the Firm Leader and COO have differences of opinion. Conversely, the inability to reach such a compromise is what can tear the team to tatters. The team definitely needs some pre-agreed process, protocols or ground rules that allows for open debate and collaborative decision-making. It is critical that both partners determine how to listen and entertain views contrary to their own, and set a framework for how to resolve any disagreements when they arise.

Candid Feedback

The relationship can be impeded when the COO does not serve in the role of “truth teller”. If the COO does not tell the Firm Leader the “unvarnished” truth about what is working, what isn’t working and what issues are looming, there will undoubtedly be trouble ahead. The COO also must be allowed and encouraged to push back on the Firm Leader by testing assumptions and disagreeing when necessary.

I heard from one Leader who gave his COO two playing cards—one a Joker (which he called the imagination card) and the other the Ace of Hearts (a trump card). He told the COO to play the imagination card if “this is something that I know you are not really going to be fond of, but I want to do.” And to use the trump card to block something that “I (the Firm Leader) am set on doing, but where you (COO) strongly feel that I would be making a mistake.”

That all said, this leadership duo may disagree behind closed doors, but in front of the partnership… you must always present a unified front.


The relationship also can be impeded when you allow yourselves to be divided-and-conquered. You need to ensure that no administrative professional (the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Marketing Officer, the Human Resources Director, and so forth) ever reports to both. It is important to avoid any potential for confusion. And, administrative professionals should not be seen “shopping” their pet projects around, or allowed to play off the Firm Leader or COO against one another by asking the Firm Leader for something after the COO has already said no.

Poor Performance

Finally, poor performance results tends to strain the strongest relationships and easily break the weakest ones as pressure increases. One important element of your communications protocol is that neither partner never be “surprised” by news—particularly bad news. It must be a commitment of both partners to keep the other fully informed.