The practice group structure has become an accepted organizational model in many firms. Such groups can also be called departments, teams or some other designation, but the concept behind them is fundamental.
Practice groups organize and focus the firm’s resources in a given area of legal discipline to improve client-service quality, marketing performance, lawyer training and development, and competitive effectiveness. Practice groups reinforce to the client that service is provided by the entire firm and not just one lawyer.
Ultimately, clients “belong” to the firm and not to the lawyer, and that benefits firm, lawyer and client alike. When clients rely on the firm, as represented by its practice groups, each lawyer benefits.
Problems start, however, with the fact that practice groups need leaders. Being asked to take such a position recalls Lincoln’s anecdote about the man who was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail; if it weren’t such an “honor,” the fellow said, he’d rather walk.
Similarly the “honor” of being a practice group leader has multiple pitfalls for the person so designated:
• Practice group leaders are still expected to maintain their own books of client business, while devoting considerable time (which would otherwise be billable) to managing their practice group’s business plans and overseeing group performance.
• Group leaders often are not compensated for management duties, other than the normal process followed for setting all other partners’ compensation in the firm.
• The firm likely has a Chief Operating Officer or Firm Administrator (usually a non-lawyer), a CEO-Managing Partner (and Chair of the Management Committee), and a Chairman of the Board (usually a former CEO-Managing Partner), none of whom may have goals that support what the practice group leader wants to accomplish.
This is the blueprint for a thankless job. That is why practice group leaders should have their own version of an engagement agreement before assuming their duties.
The agreement should consist of a statement of responsibilities, equivalent to a job description. These responsibilities should list what the practice group leader must do to reach the necessary measurements for success in his or her position.
Such an explicit description will foster the communication and accountability necessary for the group leader to be successful.
There also should be a precise definition of the leader’s base level of compensation, and a precise definition of the extent to which the practice group leader is expected to maintain a personal book of business and client responsibilities.
Finally, there should be definite parameters for how often and with whom in senior management the group leader can meet to assess progress and discuss concerns.
This kind of agreement is just a starting point. There should be continuing dialogue and evaluation of practice group leaders to allow for reinforcement, modification or expansion of responsibilities as the firm’s circumstances, performance and expectations evolve.
Law firm leadership and practice group leadership are subject to the same need to keep the communication process open, candid and frequent. Firm and group management all must be in concert, and all members of the group must buy in, for the practice group to truly be effective.
Poll is the principal of LawBiz Management, a national law firm practice-management consultancy based in Venice, Calif. For more information, visit www.lawbiz.com