We begin a 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.
I was talking with the management of a law firm recently about some training for their practice group leaders. Firm leaders were lamenting that the firm didn’t have enough good leaders for all the practice group and department head roles that needed to be filled.
I said, that in my experience — working with almost half the AmLaw 200 on some aspect of their practice management structure — that most firms have enough leaders to fill the roles well, if those firms have the right structure and incentives for success in place.
To that end, I thought about what makes practice groups thrive. Here are some of the most important elements that can set a practice group up for success:
1. Partner buy-in to the practice management approach
If the firm management has done an effective job of presenting the “business case” for empowered practice groups as well as addressing the what’s in it for me attitude of some lawyers, then partners will feel they can operate in a firm with strong practice groups working as real teams. From here, many partners with a decent level of emotional intelligence and good interpersonal skills will emerge as effective practice group leaders (PGLs).
On the other hand, if very many partners have not bought into this approach, it often takes a partner with a large book of business or a force of personality to lead the groups. However, partners cannot be expected to fully buy in to practice management if they do not know what will be expected of them, the practice leaders, and firm management under the new structure.
In most firms, effective practice management is critical to the firm’s strategy, profitability, and overall success; thus, most partners are willing, even excited, to buy in when they fully understand the connection and believe the firm’s strategy is compelling and a more rewarding (financially, and in terms of collaboration) way to practice.
2. Clear roles and responsibilities
A basic tenet for building high-performing teams is establishing clear roles and responsibilities. In law firms, we often feel like job descriptions and documentation is too “corporate-like” and bureaucratic. However, leaders need to have a thorough understanding of what is expected of them and what authority and responsibility they have.
This goes for not only leader roles (i.e., department heads, PGLs, industry or client team leaders) but also for the expectations of the rest of the team members.
3. Alignment of compensation incentives to support group goals and performance, not just individual lawyer activities
For practice groups to be successful, it takes “manpower” — lawyers putting a significant part of their investment (non-billable) time toward group activities and implementing the group’s plans. To incentivize this, the compensation system should reward the activities involved in practice management, such as working toward the group’s goals, sharing work and resources, working on group projects and targets, and developing new services or products, etc.
If all partners see is an emphasis on individual performance (production and business generation for the purpose of increasing “personal numbers”), very few will spend their time on group activities, teamwork, and real collaboration, despite how many times those areas are discussed at firm retreats and partner meetings.
Take a look at the questions used in your annual partner compensation interviews and ensure that you ask questions like, “What have you done to contribute to the practice group’s success?”
4. Effective practice group meetings
This is one of the most important areas for your practice group leaders to focus on. It is almost impossible to have a truly cohesive practice group working toward goals together if it does not have regular (i.e., monthly) meetings.
Many times I hear PGLs say that they felt like there were too many meetings or that people were not attending regularly, so they cut back on the number of meetings. This is a mistake. Monthly meetings are critical to a practice group’s success but those meetings need to be well thought out and executed, and importantly, focused on the right things. If done well, group meetings can create greater engagement of group members, greater cohesion, and set the stage for implementation of the group plan. However, to have an effective meeting requires more prep time than the length of the meeting in order to ensure active participation and numerous individuals speaking up during the meeting.
Even with these four areas in place, naturally, there are some people who are better practice leaders than others. But many more can be effective in these roles when these critical elements are in place. The next few blogs in this series will dive into more detail about the areas we’ve mentioned and other strategies to set up your practice group for success. In the next installment, we will discuss how best to run effective practice group meetings to create high levels oof engagement in the practice group’s activities.
If you want to take your practice groups to the next level, sign up for the upcoming leadership workshop, Leading Practice Groups in a Time of Great Change, offered by Susan Lambreth & Dr. Larry Richard on October 29 & 30 in New York City.