My Blog - Connecting the Dots

The plight of the practice group leader

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Feb 17, 2014 | 2 Comments

The paradox of practice group leadership

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Jeff is the head of the Banking and Finance Group at an AmLaw 200 firm. It's the start of the year and he's filling out his partner objectives form. Unlike some, he takes it seriously, not so much for the firm but for himself. He uses the forms as an opportunity for personal career planning. It's his rare moment to think in the longer term.


Right now Jeff's reflecting about the irony of his position:

  • As head, he's expected to lead his practice group to success – develop existing clients, attract new clients, improve the quality and efficiency of the group's work, and steer a strategic direction, such as pursuing new kinds of work and bringing in laterals to expand subject matter or geographic coverage.
  • For compensation purposes, though, he's measured by the same metrics as other partners in his group – his realization rate on fees billed and his billable hours. The subjective component of the firm's compensation system is supposed to take his performance as leader of the group into account. But Jeff wonders how much weight his leadership work is actually given. He knows he isn't given billable hours credit for any of it.
  • As far as authority over his group members, he has none. He has no say in compensation of the partners in the group. He can't force a partner to take on a particular matter or seek out a targeted prospective client. Jeff's leadership tools are limited to the force of his personality, the trust and respect he has of colleagues and his persuasive skills.

“And people wonder why law firms are slow to change!” he muses to himself.

Still, Jeff likes running the group. He has a knack for it. He also recognizes that successfully running a practice group is one way to be invited to join the management committee.

Moving forward

Moving on with his thoughts, Jeff ponders the kinds of things he can do to lead the group's success. He thinks about these in three categories: seeking new business, sharing knowledge and improving process.

Seek new business

  • Coordinate internal intelligence about what's going on within key clients, so the group can be first to propose solutions to client problems or position itself as best able to address these clients' needs.
  • Facilitate partner networking in the group about trends and future developments in their practice area that could represent opportunities for new work.
  • Assist his partners in organizing their thinking about possible new clients to go after, and strategies for pursuing those clients.

Share knowledge

  • Ensure that the group has solid continuing education programs, both for junior associates and for senior associates and partners.
  • Find ways to get lawyers in the group, who are spread across several offices, to share what they know, work on matters together and generally practice as a collective, rather than as separate silos.
  • Assist the group in staying on top of current developments.

Improve process

  • Get the group to think about and adopt process changes and tools, such as checklists, that will improve the consistency and quality of the group's work and help the group practice more efficiently.
  • Start the group experimenting with legal project management techniques.

How to accomplish these things

Jeff is tired merely from thinking about all these tasks. Then he focuses on the power of delegation and motivation.

Group meetings

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Jeff notes that he already holds bi-monthly meetings of the entire practice group, at which he and others discuss current developments and an associate makes a more in-depth presentation on a particular topic. Occasionally Jeff arranges for a client to speak on a particular business topic relevant to the group, or for a vendor to make a presentation. These activities further his knowledge sharing goal.

To further his new business goal, Jeff decides he should add a short monthly meeting of partners in the group to focus on getting new work. His plan is to emphasize existing clients but also discuss opportunities that could lead to new clients.

Continuing education

Jeff did not have time to update his group's internal educational programs last year, and only a few sessions were held. A new partner recently volunteered to revitalize that program and Jeff jumped at the opportunity. That partner plans to speak with counterparts in other transactional practice groups in the firm to share ideas about formats that may work better than the firm's traditional lecture style, such as case studies and break-out groups.

Given the pace of developments in his group's practice, Jeff believes there is room for an adult education program as well. He has arranged for a thoughtful mid-level partner to establish the curriculum, with the assistance of a promising senior associate.

Knowledge sharing

With the help of the firm's senior management, Jeff has engineered a more centralized way of staffing assignments in the group, which will force lawyers in different offices to work together on a matter. This will at least help with knowledge transfer from partners to associates. To break down pan-office barriers at the partner level, Jeff is hoping the monthly partner new business calls will help by at least allowing the partners in the various offices, many of whom are laterals, to become better acquainted.

Jeff also gets permission from management to engage a consultant to help his group improve the way they share knowledge. The consultant proposes to run a brainstorming session, which is intended not only to generate ideas but also to gain the buy-in from the group that is essential to implementing changes and identify lawyers who may be willing to work on projects.

Jeff's group is large enough to justify hiring a lawyer to assist full-time with knowledge-sharing projects. Management is supportive. Jeff plans to hire a former associate from his group who knows the subject matter but is looking for more regular hours. Projects may include:

  • overhauling the practice group's intranet to include more relevant and dynamic content,
  • promoting greater use of outside content providers, such as Practical Law Company,
  • establishing an organized collection of relevant precedents,
  • improving collection of basic data about matter experience to aid in finding similar matters for purposes of locating precedents, fee benchmarking, staffing and preparing pitch materials, and
  • coordinating an effort by the group's lawyers to create checklists on both the content of various types of documents (instead of standard forms) and on the process for accomplishing various steps in a matter.

The specific projects to be pursued will depend on the outcome of the brainstorming session.

Process improvement

Jeff isn't sure exactly what to do to improve efficiency within the group, but he knows something needs to be done. The consultant being engaged for the brainstorming session notes that some of the ideas already discussed will help with efficiency. For example, being able to identify similar matters will assist in staffing new matters with associates and partners who have experience with those types of matters. Developing checklists for common activities and types of agreements will prevent junior lawyers, and even some of the more senior ones, from wasting time figuring out what to do, doing unnecessary things or doing wrong things that need to be re-done.

The consultant adds that clients are also interested in a more predictable and transparent process, not merely greater efficiency. This is where the techniques of legal project management can assist.

In speaking with the consultant, Jeff decides to start a pilot on legal project management with a few partners who are under pressure from their clients. The consultant reinforces this decision, noting that the best incentive to get lawyers to change is pressure from clients. The consultant will also assist in those pilot initiatives. The initial focus will be to develop a simple 10-code system for tracking time spent on phases of the group's matters. Budgets and periodic status reports can be based on these 10 phases. Another early goal is to become more disciplined at defining scope at the outset and formally agreeing on scope changes with the client.

Conclusion

Although practice group leaders are typically not financially rewarded for effective group leadership, many pursue their roles seriously for other reasons, such as loyalty to the firm, ambitions to advance within the firm management structure or a sense of personal satisfaction.

Even though practice group leaders have little to no direct authority over the partners in their group, there is much they can accomplish through coordination, demonstrating initiative and applying good organizational skills, as long as they maintain the respect of their colleagues. These activities include coordinating and providing leadership in the group's efforts to get new business, assisting with knowledge-sharing efforts and introducing process improvements.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / ruivalesousa & edharcanstock]

About the Author

Jack Bostelman

Jack Bostelman is the president and principal consultant of KM/JD Consulting LLC. Before founding KM/JD Consulting, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

Comments

Patrick McKenna Reply

Posted Feb 19, 2014 at 09:12:36

Jack, a good insightful article.

Unfortunately, you are correct that many practice leaders get neither compensation for their efforts or input into the compensation of those in their groups (not to suggest that comp is the ultimate solution to all law firm challenges). Fortunately, I do see this slowly changing. There are numerous firms attempting to get their groups running more effectively.

In fact, one firm of over 300 attorneys measures the “profitability” of each practice group (and it is not divisive) and then determines compensation “by group” with the money all going to the practice leader – who then determines how much each professional will receive. And it works!

Meanwhile, there are still many practice leaders who never meet with their groups, don’t do anything beyond sharing a bit of information internally, with a practice leader who thinks that he or she was given the job/role as an “reward” for their rainmaking or technical abilities. The entire group suffers while the firm leader tries to find a way to get this attorney out of the role without adversely affecting his stature within the firm. Very sad!

Jack Bostelman Reply

Posted Feb 19, 2014 at 10:34:58

Patrick, thanks very much for the contrasting real-life examples. I’ve not yet personally seen the firm that measures profitability by group, although I’m glad it’s starting to happen. It’s what David Maister recommended in his “Managing the Professional Service Firm” over 20 years ago. He also recommended that the practice group chair’s compensation be determined by the profitability of the practice group.

Sadly, I’ve personally seen the do-nothing practice group leader many times. I totally agree with you about the problems it creates.

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Before founding KM/JD Consulting LLC, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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