Practice Group Dynamics: Creating Group Cohesion and Success with “Real” Goals and Effective Business Plans

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Collaboration, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Legal Managed Services, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Practice Engineering, Practice Group Dynamics, Practice Groups, Process Management, Talent Development


We continue our new column, “Practice Group Dynamics” by Susan Lambreth, who has 25 years experience as a consultant to the legal profession, especially in the area of practice management. Her column will examine the components that make practice groups thrive. 

This time of year, many practice groups are in the process of preparing their plans for next year — many of which have to be submitted to firm management for approval for marketing, recruiting, and other resources.

Here are some of the best practices for developing these practice group plans:

Include as many of the lawyers (or at least partners) as possible in a live planning meeting — Having shared goals is the foundation of building a high-performance group and having true lawyer engagement in the group and in the plan. This will not happen if just the practice group leader, the practice group director or the business development director develop the plan. Even if you get partner input ahead of time or circulate it to them after you develop a draft and allow for their input, it will may not be enough to achieve true lawyer buy-in to implementing the plan.

There is a different psychological impact that creates buy-in when they are in a room together talking about issues affecting the practice group. While it is not nearly as effective for true buy-in as live meetings, you can accomplish some of this with group members on video conference as long as you are “zoomed” in so you really see them, make eye contact, and engage them in the discussions like those people in the live meeting room.

Be sure to do a market assessment before undertaking the goal-setting and developing the plan — In Willie Pieterson’s book, Reinventing Strategy, his research showed that if you combined strategy and planning together, you got 90% planning and 10% strategy. Indeed, one of the most effective ways to both engage your group members and to “create a sense of urgency” about developing and, more importantly, implementing the plan is to walk your group members through analyzing the market as you develop your strategy. It is this strategic thinking process that helps you identify the best (or at least better) opportunities to drive your group’s success and creates buy-in from your members to the plan. The key areas to have them discuss during the market assessment part of your planning meetings are:

  • What key trends are affecting your group or its clients? You should identify both macro-trends that impact the overall market, as well as micro-trends that impact just your group, your firm, or a few specific clients.
  • Who are your major competitors? Who are your aspirational competitors? This cannot be answered by saying “all major firms” or something similar. While there can be different competitors by geographic market or industry your group serves, the group has to be focused on certain competitors against which it wants or needs to win work.
  • Which services do you have the best opportunity to focus upon? A tool for doing this is called a Positioning Grid where you look at which services have the greatest market opportunity vs. which have the best market position. It is a subjective evaluation that helps you determine more objectively where to prioritize.

Develop no more than 3 SMART goals — First, solid research outlined in the book, The Four Disciplines of Execution, proves that if you have more than three “SMART” goals, (goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based), you significantly diminish your chance of achieving any of them. Unfortunately, most law firm plans do not include real or SMART goals. These are examples of what are supposed to be goals from actual practice group plans:

  • Provide exceptional, client-focused service through a diverse team of attorneys;
  • Recruit high-quality laterals;
  • Engage in focused… cross selling initiatives to increase visibility of… practice within the firm;
  • Broaden extent and depth of… practice;
  • Grow the practice group’s external profile; and
  • Strengthen internal firm awareness of the group’s capabilities.

While there is nothing wrong with these activities being part of your group plan, not one of these is actually an effective goal. Why does that matter? Because the research shows that if you don’t have SMART goals, you won’t achieve much, if any, success with your plans.

Second, as mentioned above, you have to have shared goals to create group cohesion and authentic buy-in to more effectively implement the practice group’s plan. These shared goals need to not only be SMART ones, they need to be “stretch” or hard goals that require collective effort to achieve them — not just individuals in the group each working a little harder by themselves. According to Locke and Latham, long considered the “fathers” of modern goal-setting, hard goals will:

  • Direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities;
  • Lead to greater effort; and
  • Increase persistence and prolonged effort.

Collective goals are critical to get members of the group working together instead of doing their own autonomous activities. Decades of research on high-performing groups shows that the groups that perform best are those that have shared goals in which the members believe and are willing to work toward implementing together.

A few examples of SMART goals from actual practice group plans include:

  • Be known as one of the top three firms in the technology industry nationally;
  • Attract three new life sciences clients with a spend of more than $250,000 each; and
  • Increase the market share of business in telecommunications industry by 50%.

These goals are not only SMART but as long as they are “hard” compared to where the group is starting from and require many in the group to contribute, then they are powerful goals for creating greater engagement, resulting in more group cohesion.

I will be discussing more about practice group business planning and how to hold effective meetings to enhance group cohesion and engagement in upcoming blog posts in this series.