My Blog - Connecting the Dots

Using psychology to improve practice efficiency (Pt. 3 of 3)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on May 05, 2013 | 0 Comments

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. In Part 1, the chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm learns about special lawyer personality traits that get in the way of internal law firm management initiatives, and applies his new understanding to a legal project management pilot. In Part 2, he applies his new understanding to a program to collect better data about matter experience. In this part, he applies that understanding to two other projects:  an effort to revitalize management of an important practice group and a project to revamp internal “adult education” CLE programs for senior associates and partners.

How do these strategies apply to practice efficiency projects? (cont'd)

In Part 1, Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm, learned that lawyers have personality traits different than the average population, based on studies by former trial lawyer-turned-management consultant Dr. Larry Richard. Those personality traits get in the way of most internal law firm management initiatives that require partner participation. In recent blog posts discussed in Parts 1 and 2, Dr. Richard describes how to overcome those personality traits:  seek buy-in (while avoiding sticks and carrots) and apply strategies at the outset, including:  putting the request in terms of what motivates the partner, envisioning next steps, making the commitment public to the partner's peers, creating small partner groups to discuss how to proceed, explaining why the project has meaning, removing obstacles and pointing to role models, as well as recognizing success at milestones within the overall task, creating a spirit of friendly competition, showing success by others to leverage the “bandwagon effect,” circulating success stories and getting visible support from thought leaders.

In Part 1, Keith applied those strategies to get his firm's legal project management pilot back on track. In Part 2, he applies his new understanding to a program to collect better data about matter experience. In this part, Keith turns his attention two other projects:   an effort to revitalize management of an important practice group and a project to revamp internal “adult education” CLE programs for senior associates and partners.

Revitalize practice group management

On the advice of a consultant, Keith has been pushing for more proactive practice group management: asking each group to establish a strategy and external identity, specific revenue and realization rate goals (with profitability goals to be imposed in a couple years) and plans for client relationship management, business development, talent management (for partners and associates) and internal practice efficiency improvement. The primary burden falls on the practice group chairs. While many have shown good management skills in moving their plans forward, others have made little or no progress. Generally this latter group are in their positions because of their superior lawyering and new business skills, not their management skills. Replacing them as chairs is not an option, however.

Keith decides to apply the personality strategies to the chair of an important practice group. That group, while doing well, has been essentially unmanaged but has the potential to be great. The chair of the group invokes the excuse of pressing client work whenever asked why progress on a particular practice management commitment has not been made. Keith pursues the following:

  • Request reports at the monthly meetings of all practice group chairs and management about progress on specific aspects of Keith's practice group management improvement program;
  • Meet with the chair to
    • suggest that the chair's protégé, a star junior partner who frequently works with the chair and is trusted by him, be invited to assist with many of the chair's duties as group chair;
    • ask the chair what aspects of his duties the protégé could best help with, and the ways in which he could help, contributing Keith's own suggestions for the chair's consideration, which include all aspects of all the practice group management improvement program;
    • confirm that the arrangement will succeed only if the chair projects to the rest of the group his confidence in the protégé;
    • break the project into several smaller pieces, completion of which can be recognized as a success; and
    • ask the chair for the names of a few partners in the group who could assist with some parts of the practice group improvement program;
  • Meet privately with the protégé partner to explain
    • the goals of asking him to assist the chair,
    • the importance to the firm in better managing the practice group,
    • Keith's availability to discuss confidentially any issues the protégé may encounter in working with the chair, and
    • the reputational and career benefits to the protégé of success in this endeavor;
  • Arrange a meeting of the chair, the protégé, the partners selected by the chair and Keith to brainstorm about elements of the practice group improvement program, to discuss successful steps other practice groups have taken, and to identify some specific next steps, with a view to convening the group periodically as progress is made; and
  • Attend a meeting of the practice group's partners at which the group's embarking on the improvement program and proposed first steps will be described and discussed, with a view to holding these meetings quarterly.

Keith's strategies are premised on his understanding that the chair of the practice group truly wants to move forward on the improvement program, and in fact has a vision about ways in which the practice group can perform better, but lacks the managerial and social skills to envision the required steps, gain buy-in from his colleagues and create accountability so his colleagues actually achieve progress. Rather than try to get the chair to perform beyond his personality limitations, Keith's strategies are intended to work around those limitations by allowing others to perform the chair's tasks, while being careful not to undermine the chair's position.

Bringing in the protégé removes obstacles without creating a threat to the chair. Involving a small group of additional partners helps envision the required steps. Keith's personal involvement aids in getting buy-in from all of them by demonstrating the project's importance. Discussing other practice groups' successes models what can be done. The quarterly practice group partner meeting is intended to make the chair's and protégé's commitments public, as well as gain buy-in from the group's partners. Status reports at the monthly meetings of practice group chairs are intended not only to make the chairs' commitments public but also to apply peer pressure and instill a spirit of friendly competition.

Revamp internal CLE for senior associates and partners

As the firm has grown, Keith recognizes that organic learning by partners and senior associates needs to be supplemented by formal continuing education programs. These would be similar to the junior associate training programs, but, as “adult education” programs, they would go into greater depth on narrower topics, be geared for a more sophisticated audience and involve more group discussion. Some topics would be specific to a practice group; others would be applicable to entire departments or the entire firm.

The partner who agreed to be in charge of this initiative, who already oversees the junior associate training program, has made little progress. While she has done a good job managing the existing program, she appears to be having trouble envisioning the steps needed to create a new program. When Keith approaches her about assisting in getting the program off the ground, she welcomes his help.

Keith decides on the following approach:

  • To develop course ideas, both broad-interest (firm- and department-wide) and practice group-specific, Keith suggests to the partner-in-charge that she conduct an internal on-line survey, supplemented by soliciting suggestions at practice group meetings. Both partners and senior associates will be solicited.
  • To sort out the ideas for broad-interest courses, Keith suggests organizing an editorial review board, consisting of a half dozen or so partners and senior associates decided by the partner-in-charge and him, drawn from each of the firm's five main departments, with input on the partner selections by the department chairs. The editorial board would also suggest a partner-associate team as the faculty for each course.
  • In addition, the editorial board would ask each practice group chair (or the chair's nominee) to suggest courses specific to the group and propose faculty, would coordinate to ensure those courses were conducted, and would consider whether any courses should be converted into broad-interest courses.
  • To gain buy-in for the overall project, Keith and the partner-in-charge will describe the project at partners' meetings of each of the five main departments, also soliciting further suggestions for topics.
  • The chairman and the partner-in-charge will also obtain commitments from a few thought leaders to prepare and conduct the first few courses.
  • To assist the faculty in creating course outlines and related material, Keith creates the new staff position of editorial manager, filled by a former practicing lawyer, whose job is to micromanage the faculty in producing outlines for their courses, to apply editorial oversight, to convert outlines into standardized classroom presentation materials and to keep the editorial board informed. The firm has grown large enough to justify this position, Keith believes. After the “adult education” project is up and running, the course editor can also manage the course curricula for the junior associate training programs in the firm's departments, which have become somewhat stale.

Keith regards this project as mainly needing strategies to envision steps and to remove obstacles. Getting the faculty to prepare outlines will be the biggest challenge. Arranging for thought leaders to teach first both shows attendees how good the programs can be and inspires the other faculty. Having an associate on the faculty to prepare the first draft of the outline removes one obstacle for the partner. The existence of the editorial manager can remove some obstacles for the associate. Having the opportunity to co-present the course, while potentially nerve-wracking, could also provide some individual motivation for the associate.


The lawyer personality traits described in Part 1 undoubtedly ring true to all law firm leaders. Each law firm initiative requires its own mix of strategies to address those traits. The trick is to devise the right ones. Greater personal involvement by firm leaders will almost always be among the needed strategies. When the right mix is present, however, serious progress can be achieved.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / digitalgenetics & AndreyPopov]

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.


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KM/JD Consulting LLC renders impartial practice management advice to law firms on improving efficiency, increasing profits and reducing risk, emphasizing knowledge strategy.

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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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