Lead or Manage: What Should a Practice Leader Actually Do?

Topics: Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development

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The title of this blog post could be seen as a pretty strange question for one to ask… if it weren’t for the sad fact that so few law firms seem to have effectively answered this question for their practice leaders.

I have the privilege of annually conducting a one-day master class for new practice group leaders and in all cases the participants hail from firms of more than 100 attorneys — including the likes of Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis, Morgan Lewis, Sidley Austin, Weil Gotshal, Winston & Strawn and so forth. Among a number of opening questions I pose to the entire group is, “How many of you have a formal written job description?”

At my latest session held in August, only three hands went up out of a group of 18 participants — which is pretty typical of the responses I usually elicit. While the subject of a written job description seems trivial, I believe it is at the heart of why I see so many firms and their firm leaders struggle with getting their practice groups to perform as well as initially expected.

By way of just one example, I was engaged to help a firm launch and develop a strategic plan for a brand new practice group. I asked (among a number of other questions) the usual one about formal job descriptions. I was informed that indeed, job descriptions had just been developed, arising out of a session with all of the practice leaders the month before. I learned that job descriptions were formulated during an exercise conducted to determine what tasks and activities these practice leaders should be held responsible for executing. I was assured that I would be sent a copy.

The subsequent document I received was eight pages in length, 116 paragraphs long and was comprised of more than 2,000 words. It was entitled, “Practice Group Leader Position Responsibilities”; and was the most exacting laundry list of administrative minutiae I had ever read through. This document covered everything — from developing an annual budget to approving marketing expenditures and signing-off on quarterly Work In-Process (WIP) reports. It ran the gamut from coordinating file distribution to workload management; and from circulating draft agendas in advance of meetings to coordinating the performance reviews of associates. Indeed, it included everything… except anything to do with leading people or managing a team!

My response to the managing partner: I will be surprised (almost alarmed!) if you don’t hear from some of the practice group leaders, after having reviewed this job description, that it is a bit “overwhelming.”


A job description that focuses on a practice leader’s contribution to the firm’s success becomes an important and powerful strategic tool because it directs behaviors and decisions to outcomes rather than to tasks.


My contention is that most job descriptions focus on tasks and responsibilities rather than on the impact of the individual’s performance on the firm. If I were drafting the ideal job description I would start with what I believe should be your two (and only two) mission critical objectives. These are the highest value use of the leader’s time, and curiously were not addressed, in any sense, anywhere in this draft job description that I reviewed:

  • Mission Critical Objective #1 — To invest time in getting to really know the individual members of your team; getting conversant with their strengths and career aspirations; and coaching and helping (one-on-one) each individual member become even more successful.
  • Mission Critical Objective #2 — To work with your practice group, as a team, to identify and implement specific joint action projects intended to increase the group’s overall morale; enhance the visibility of the group in their competitive arena; improve the service and value delivered to clients; secure “better” business; and work towards developing a dominant position is some niche areas of your market.

A job description that focuses on a practice leader’s contribution to the firm’s success becomes an important and powerful strategic tool because it directs behaviors and decisions to outcomes rather than to tasks. It sets expectations and puts everyone on notice that performing tasks is not enough. To be successful, those tasks must result in a positive impact on the firm. In fact, a job that has no impact on the firm is one that you probably don’t need. Read your practice leader’s job descriptions (if you have them) and see whether the document focuses on tasks or outcomes.

Further, I personally think that the practice leader’s job description should be evolutionary in nature such that you identify a few “mission critical” tasks that you will absolutely hold people accountable for achieving and then slowly progress to adding more responsibilities. Also, I would respectfully delete any reference to “Financial Management” for two reasons: i) these activities lead practice group leaders into unconsciously behaving like a policeman rather than a coach; and ii) much of this should be in the job description of the office managing partner.

So, what do the job descriptions (if they exist) of practice leaders in your law firm say?