Build Better Practice-Group Leadership

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As large law firms have developed into "corporate" organizations to better serve corporate clients, the practice-group structure has become an accepted organizational model.

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 development and competitive effectiveness.

Yet a recent survey by the Altman Weil consulting firm shows that all is not well in the world of practice groups. On average, firm leaders reported that fewer than half of their practice groups are "very good" or "excellent" in overall performance.

Ratings were similarly low on the effectiveness of group planning, plan execution, new business generation and cross-selling. Thus, it's no surprise that approximately 40 percent of firms reported that they have neither written job descriptions for, nor formal evaluations of, their practice-group leaders.

That's often the root of the problem, as the absence of such descriptions promotes inconsistent results and threatens objective performance assessment. Why should it be any different for a department leader than for an administrative assistant or an information technology technician?

To the extent possible, senior management should make sure that lawyers asked to take practice leadership positions are provided with a written statement of their responsibilities before accepting the position to ensure the accountability necessary for success.

The practice leader's engagement document should also spell out the specifics of what the firm and its management structure must provide and what the leader must do in order to reach the desired goal.

Measurements for success must be clearly defined in the agreement so that the leader understands the criteria by which the firm will make its performance evaluation, such as profits per partner, revenue growth or increase in number of clients. It must be clear which ones are considered to be within the leader's control as manager, and which are not.

The leader must be told specifically what he must do and how performance of those responsibilities will be evaluated. There should also be a precise definition of the leader's base level of compensation and whether there are incentives for the manager if the group meets or exceeds collective performance targets.

But creating the written statement of responsibilities for a leader is only half of the job. The other half is to have continuing dialogue and evaluation that allows for reinforcement, modification or expansion of the position's responsibilities as the firm's circumstances, performance and expectations evolve.

Practice-group leaders, after all, are still expected to practice law, maintain client relationships and attend to client matters. Ongoing communication about and assessment of performance as both a leader and a lawyer is essential, so that both spheres of activity are properly evaluated and carried out.

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