You're A Practice Group Leader — Now What?

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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: to organize and focus the firm's resources in a given area of legal discipline in order 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, which benefits firm, lawyer and client alike. When clients rely on the firm as represented by its practice groups, each lawyer benefits as the groups maintain client relationships and generate new ones.

Problems start, however, with the fact that practice groups need leaders. Being asked to take such a position recalls Abraham Lincoln's anecdote about the man who was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail; if it wasn't such an "honor," the fellow said, he'd rather walk.

Similarly, the "honor" of being named practice group leader comes with multiple pitfalls:

  • 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.

That is the blueprint for a thankless job and 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. The responsibilities should list what the practice group leader must do in order to reach the necessary measurements for success. Only an explicit description will foster the necessary communication and accountability.

The leader's base level of compensation and extent to which he is expected to maintain a personal book of business should be precisely defined.

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.

Such an agreement is just a starting point. Continuing dialogue and evaluation of practice group leaders is essential for reinforcement, modification or expansion of responsibilities as the firm's circumstances evolve.

Firm and practice group leadership are subject to the same need to keep the communication process open, candid and frequent. Firm and group management must be in concert, and all members must buy in for the practice group to be truly effective.

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