Having Your Groups Firing On All Cylinders

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Addressing The Structural Issues That Impede Practice Groups From Achieving Higher Performance

If you are like many, for several years now you’ve been attempting to get your practice and industry groups to achieve high performance . . . with limited success!

You appointed professionals to positions as practice group leader whom you thought would do the job (and who promised you that they would try); you provided them with some basic training; and you endeavored to periodically meet with them all as a group to provide a bit of a pep talk. Despite all your efforts, only a FEW of your groups are functioning as you had hoped. So what to do?

Well, if you are like some firm leaders I’ve spoken with, you might have now decided to embark upon what one termed: “Practice Group 2.0” and start fresh . . . largely by changing most of your leaders and hoping that some new recruits might do a better job. But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it is that your challenge is not so much a people issue, as it is a structural issue.

About twice a year I have enjoyed the privilege of conducting a public, one-day masterclass for practice group leaders, usually held at the University of Chicago and hosted by the Ark Group. Over the years I have conducted twenty-seven of these sessions and in all cases the participants come from firms of over 100 attorneys in size or much larger, including the likes of Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis, Morgan Lewis, Sidley Austin, Weil Gotshal, Winston & Strawn, and many others.

I usually begin the day by posing a few diagnostic questions to the assembled participants. First, I ask, by way of a show of hands, how many of them have a formal written job description. At my last masterclass, out of a group of 26 participants, only four hands went up – which is pretty typical of the responses I usually elicit.

My second query is to determine how many have a formal, clear understanding of precisely how many non-billable hours they are expected to spend managing or leading their particular group. With this question, I rarely get even one hand going up.

Then I usually ask: “How many of you work in a firm where the partners have been required to choose one ‘core or primary’ group in which they will invest 100 percent of their non-billable time to working on projects that will progress the ambitions and best interests of that group?” The response, again, is that only a couple of participants acknowledge that that is indeed how it works in their firms.

Before we go any further, please note what we have now determined (by the answers to these three questions) what is the norm in today’s Practice Group Leadership. Most practice leaders concur that they have accepted the ‘Job’ without knowing what the job is; how much time they are expected to invest in doing the job; and, even, who specifically is in their group. Now there is a recipe guaranteed to ensure success! In other words, before you concern yourself with who occupies the role, you need to verify whether there is any integrity to your structure. Otherwise, most of your new practice leaders are likely to fail.

My work with literally dozens of firms and hundreds of practice leaders over the past two decades confirms for me that there are at least ten structural impediments, in no particular order of importance, all of which should be addressed if you hope to have effective groups. And certainly need to be addressed before you embark upon any practice/industry group leadership training. In other words, contrary to what some consultants might counsel – training is a great second step, but a pathetic first step to sparking high performance of your key business units.

So here are ten structural impediments for your remedial attention:

1. A Formal Written Job Description

Reflecting on those who answered this question in the affirmative, what I’ve now learned to ask as a follow-up question is: “tell us specifically what your job description covers.”

While working with one firm, in my preparatory briefing with the managing partner, I asked the usual one about formal job descriptions. I was informed that a written job description had indeed just been developed in draft form. I learned that this job description was formulated during an exercise conducted to determine what tasks and activities these practice leaders should be held responsible for executing.

I received a copy of the draft, all eight pages and 116 paragraphs of it, entitled, ‘Practice Group Leader Position Responsibilities.’ This document covered everything – from developing an annual budget to approving marketing expenditures and signing off on quarterly WIP reports; from coordinating file distribution to workload management; and from circulating draft agendas in advance of meetings to coordinating the performance reviews of students and associates.

It was the most exacting (and exhausting) laundry list of administrative minutiae I had ever read through. It included everything . . . except anything to do with those activities involved in actually leading a team . . . or working with . . . people!

My response to the managing partner was: I will be surprised (almost alarmed) if you don't hear from some of your practice leaders, after having reviewed this job description, that it is a touch ‘overwhelming.’ I personally think that the practice leader's job description should be evolutionary such that you begin by identifying a few 'mission- critical' tasks that you will absolutely hold people accountable for achieving and then slowly progress to adding more responsibilities.

This particular managing partner had no idea what I meant by “a few mission-critical tasks” and so I set out for him the following:

I would, if I were drafting this job description, start with what I believe should be your two mission-critical objectives, which are the highest value use of the leader's time (and not addressed anywhere in the draft job description):

• Mission Critical Objective Number One

You job as the practice leader is to invest time in getting to really know the individual members of your team; getting conversant with their strengths and career aspirations; and coaching and helping (one on one) each individual member (primarily your fellow partners) grow their skills and become even more successful then they would have been, had you not been the practice group leader.

• Mission Critical Objective Number Two

Your job as the practice leader is to work with your group as a team, to identify and implement specific joint action projects intended to increase the group’s overall morale; enhance the visibility of the group in their competitive arena; improve the service and value delivered to clients; secure better (not just more) business; and work towards developing a dominant position in some niche area(s) in your marketplace(s).

Now please do notice that this is an extremely succinct job description (only two paragraphs); based on outcomes expected not activities to be performed (therefore very measurable at the end of the year); and doesn't dictate any particular style or approach – you do it your way!

Further, I would respectfully delete any reference to 'Financial Management' in any job description for two reasons. I believe that these activities lead practice leaders into unconsciously behaving like policeman rather than coaches; and I think that much of this material should be in the job description of the office managing partner or executive director. (In the case of your office managing partners, consider: what actually are that individual's responsibilities? And how do they interface with your practice leaders?)

2. Clearly Defined Non-Billable Hour Commitments

In an environment where we normally measure the billable hour to the nanosecond, we completely ignore the non-billable (or, as one firm leader calls it, “investment”) time when it comes to how many hours we expect people to spend managing their groups.

Once you’ve chosen the individual expected to lead a particular group, you owe it to that person to have a frank one-on-one discussion to determine how much time this job is going to require. The time required is likely to depend on the size of the group and any travel requirements (related to the geographic coverage of multiple offices). It is not uncommon to see group leaders investing anywhere from 200 to 500 non-billable hours.

The very best example I ever heard was from one firm leader who described it like this: “We have a minimum and maximum expectation of you. The minimum amount of time we would like you to spend is 300 hours and we would like you to track your time in our system. If you spend less than 300 hours, we will need to talk about how you’re managing your time. The maximum amount of time we would like you to spend is also 300 hours. In other words, if you invest more in working with your group, we will be delighted, but please do not use any excess investment as an excuse for your own billable performance.”

Where practice groups are fairly large and dispersed over numerous offices, it is not uncommon to see some model of shared leadership emerge. At Skadden Arps, Jack Butler, the former practice leader of their global restructuring group, told me how he had a couple of deputy leaders, each responsible for certain activities. So for example, when Skadden wanted to make a solid commitment to further their knowledge management effort, rather than burden the practice leaders, the firm developed a model where partners were selected from within each group, given responsibility for KM, and then collaborated across groups and offices. Skadden’s system of “distributed leadership” proved to be far more effective then loading more responsibilities onto existing, time-constrained group leaders.

3. An Internal System of ONE Core (or Primary) Group

Many practice or industry groups are formed for the primary purpose of harnessing a group of professionals to engage in activities that will bring in business. Much of what is required to build the practice is not capital-intensive. In other words, simply throwing money at advertising or branding the group will not necessarily deliver increased revenues.

The most important asset the group possesses is the cumulative non-billable time of its members working together on projects and activities deemed to be beneficial. This measure becomes very difficult to achieve if your structure allows partners to be members of as many groups as they wish, without any acknowledgement of where they will invest their business development time.

In other words, you cannot expect a partner to divide their finite, precious non-billable time among several different groups. It just does not work! It only serves to frustrate the group leader and provides the partners with a handy excuse as to why they weren’t able to follow through on their specific promise to accomplish something.

What does work is requiring each partner to select, voluntarily, the “one core or primary group” that they choose to invest in. They should be advised that they:

– may also choose, as a “resource or secondary” member, to join as many other groups as they wish (thus able to attend meetings, participate and receive minutes of meetings), but are not obligated to invest any specific time in doing anything for the group;

– may (depending on the culture of the firm) still perform client work in practice areas that are not their core group; and

– may change their mind, at a later stage, should they feel that their core group is not performing.

Now in some firms that really do have very active practice and industry groups, this begins to get very messy as some partners are capable of making a valuable contribution to both a traditional group (like Labor and Employment) while also having expert knowledge in an industry practice (like HealthCare). In these instances firms have pivoted their policy of only ONE core group to allow for partners to selectively become members of only one core traditional group AND one core industry practice – provided that they commit to investing a minimum of 60 non-billable hours into doing specific projects to advance the strategies of each of these chosen groups. So, you get to exercise the flexibility of belonging to two (maximum) groups as long as you commit to investing the required time.

4. Selecting The Right Individual

It’s an old story but it still remains true in far too many cases. In Practice Group Leadership 1.0, you selected as the group leader that lawyer who either was the most senior, the gifted luminary, or the best rainmaker to initially become the practice leader. Now you realize that, except for their accepting the title, nothing much has happened.

You’re tempted, in your vision of launching Practice Group Leadership 2.0, to replace this individual, but now you have a different issue. Your problem now is to determine how you get him or her to relinquish the title without being embarrassed and losing face. Even worse, you have a little chat with the individual to subtly explore whether they really do want to continue as practice leader, only to be told that they really don’t want to do the work required, but having the title contributes to their client origination results and . . . “you wouldn’t want to jeopardize that, now would you?”

What a number of the more progressive firms I’ve worked with have done, is create a title for their senior, gifted luminary, or rainmaker, called “Practice Chair.” This title acknowledges the individual as both a subject matter expert and a substantive mentor to others in the group. The Chair is required to invest a minimal amount of time to assist group members on substantive matters, contribute to internal CLE efforts, and provide a bit of help on client development issues to those in the group with need.

That leaves us to now look for some partner in the firm who either has an interest in leading the group (i.e., would actually like to do the job) and a partner who has the aptitude for helping their fellow partners. In other words, the job of being a exceptional group leader isn’t so much about having certain skills, as it is about having the right attitude. We need to select that partner who can actually get personal satisfaction out of helping others succeed.

I’ve joked with many an Executive Committee that we may have make a huge mistake in calling our people practice ‘leaders.” For one thing, everyone wants to be known as a leader and all too often the concept of leadership is taken to simply mean being a “role-model” – which is the response that I usually elicit when I ask what they think the job is really all about. I have even heard some express it in this manner, “I was clearly promoted to this role of leadership because I am such a successful practitioner. So if my group members want to be successful, they should watch me, do what I do, and they too, one day, will be seen to be high performers - just do what you see me do.”

Perhaps we should have more firms adopting the title of Group Coach, which removes the glamour and emphasizes what is really required of the individual occupying the position.

5. Determining Practice Group Leader Term Limits

One of the challenges inherent in any leadership position is that the incumbent gets bored and stale after a number of years. In other articles, I’ve reported on academic research that clearly proved that, at some point (thirteen years on average), job mastery gives way to boredom; exhilaration to fatigue; strategizing to habituation. Inwardly the leader’s spark becomes dim and responsiveness to new ideas diminishes.

The more progressive firms have introduced term limits for practice leaders. From my research, the most common term is usually three years, renewable for two further terms, or a maximum of nine years of service. These term lengths usually foster a sense of leadership succession and the idea of introducing new leadership of the group without unduly embarrassing leaders seen to be stepping down.

6. Obtaining Practice Leader Input Into Partner Compensation

In the best performing firms, there is both a conscious mechanism and a very widespread message to all partners that practice leaders will be required to provide written, formal input into the compensation of the partners in their group. The input is not determinative, but it sends a very clear signal as to how important your groups are to the growth and profitability of the firm.

In those firms that I believe get this right, the firm leader requires a one-page, written report to be submitted, twice a year on each of the core partners in the group. That report is not some simplistic 1 to 7 ranking (where everyone usually get a 7), but contains a set of questions that need to be addressed with specific details addressing the “How?”

For example: Did this partner:

• attend the regular group meetings?

• contribute to the group’s success (how)?

• voluntarily take responsibility for specific projects?

• implement the projects they volunteered for (examples)?

• serve as a source of help to others in the group (how)?

It would be naïve to believe that leaders will not occasionally have to deal with severe degrees of non-compliance, such as some partner who never follows through on his or her promises. It helps when that partner knows that each group leader is being invited to provide specific compensation input based on how each member has contributed (or not) to the collective effort.

Your job, as firm leader, then becomes to communicate to partners at year-end about the results of their contributions. Are you able to point to a definitive bonus or penalty that accrues to some partner as a direct consequence of his or her actions? Without this feedback loop, your group leaders lose all credibility and partners are perceived to be free to do whatever they wish.

7. Defined Non-negotiable Expectations of Groups

Whenever I ask firm leaders what they expect of their groups, I tend to get back some vague notion of how the groups should meet periodically and that perhaps they should develop a business plan . . . but I hear no real precise and consistent definition of what is required of ALL practice and/or industry groups.

I can report that the firms that get this definition right set out very specific expectations, most often in writing, for their groups. Those expectations usually include things like:

  • Every practice group must meet at least once monthly, for a minimum of one hour, with an agenda dedicated to exploring and executing joint projects intended to advance the position of the group in the competitive marketplace.

  • Every partner is required to devote a minimum of 60 non-billable hours to:

(1) doing some task/project that will serve the interests and goals of his or her core/primary group (with any activities undertaken to benefit that partner’s personal practice commended but not sufficient); and

(2) promoting the group’s profile and visibility through active membership and participation in some selected industry or trade organization.

  • Each practice group must devote some time and attention to:

(1) exploring and discussing how they can enhance the value they deliver to clients; and

(2) accomplishing client matters at less cost, with written progress report delivered to the management committee quarterly.

8. Ensuring Every Practice Group Has A Formal Written “Strategic” Plan

Now here is one of those questions that, when I do ask it of attendees at one of my master classes, usually elicits a good number of affirmative responses. Except that when I dig deeper, I find structural impediments that have us still coming up short.

Impediment ONE. In too many instances we relegate planning to some four-page template that each practice group is expected to complete. I don’t know where these templates originate but I see similar documents in every firm. It asks things like:

  • list five current clients for whom your group can expand the volume and scope of the work handled

  • list five prospects that your group will target for business

  • develop four ideas for collaborating or cross-selling with other practice groups

  • list the client entertainment activities you have planned for the coming year

I have crassly come to call this “wet dream marketing.” I’ve seen group plans that show them targeting prospective clients in a way that is so out of step with reality that one just knows that no one has bothered to question them on their thinking.

Impediment TWO. I dare the class attendees to tell me about the group’s business plan after the written plan is submitted. I issue that dare because I know that in too many cases the group leader will have simply taken the template home and filled it in, without consulting any of the group’s members. I know that, from hearing them tell me that it’s “just one more bureaucratic exercise to appease the marketing department.”

Impediment THREE. In far too many instances there is absolutely no feedback loop from your firm’s management committee to individual practice or industry leaders to see how the implementation of that business plan is progressing – except maybe, maybe at the end of the year when it’s too late to offer any constructive suggestions or make course corrections.

And then we do it all over again, in the following year, thinking that this time it will work out better!

What each practice and industry group needs to do is get everyone together (think of it as a half-day mini-retreat) to assess their work, the clients they serve, the competitors they face off against, and the trends that are impacting their practices. They need to determine specifically where their greatest opportunities are and what they should specifically do to capitalize on those opportunities.

If I were the firm leader, it would be mandatory for every practice and industry group to have identified three niche areas, that they are working to be the dominant player in, and submit their specific action plans intended to realize that goal. And why should you be expecting anything less? These are the individual business units that comprise your firm and determine whether or not you ate the preferred choice and highly profitable in your market spaces.

9. Minutes of Group Meetings Provided to the Management Committee

Whenever I’ve been called in to work with a firm’s practice groups, one of my first questions of firm leadership is to please send me copies of the groups’ meeting minutes. The response I usually get is . . . “Minutes? What do you mean by minutes?”

Which, unfortunately, tells me everything I need to know.

I find that too many of these group meetings are simply a convenient excuse to have lunch, go around the table, and find out what everyone’s been up to lately. In fact, I will never forget the day a young associate confided to me that “if you join enough of these groups and attend enough of their meetings, you should never have to go grocery shopping again.” I can’t make this stuff up!

The most effective practice groups spend their time action-planning, determining some joint projects that the group would benefit from working on, and having partners volunteer to implement certain tasks. The acid test is: are your groups really doing anything meaningful?

The only way for firm leadership to determine the answer is to get the group’s minutes and see whether there are specific tasks/projects underway, with specific partners committed to implementing those projects. Ideally, those projects should line up with the strategic plan that each group created.

If as the firm leader you are receiving the monthly minutes from each of your practice groups, you can fairly easily determine who’s being effective and who is off track, who’s working on implementing their plan and who is not; and which practice leaders you might need to spend some time coaching and which only need a “good job’ note from you.

You will also find out whether any of your groups are working at cross-purposes with some other group (and I guarantee you there will be at least one) and whether there are some groups who should be collaborating so that they can better take advantage of the synergies present in the projects that they have underway.

Alternatively, without regular minutes you will not likely find out how any of the groups are progressing . . . until the end of the year, if then.

10. Regular Quarterly Meetings of All Practice / Industry Group Leaders

It has become increasingly common for firms to periodically bring all of their group leaders together, usually for a couple of hours over lunch. When I ask practice leaders about what is on the agenda of those meetings, I’m informed “it was simply a management data dump!”

In other words, it was an opportunity to report on the firm’s initiatives, activities, and financial progress, perhaps with reports to each practice leader on those in their group who need some remedial attention. They’re all subjects deserving of time and attention, but also more easily and just as effectively communicated by email without the necessity or time drain involved in calling a meeting.

Again, the more successful firms do meet, at least quarterly with the firm leader and all of the practice leaders. But that meeting is not a data dump. Rather, it usually includes three consistent agenda items:

Agenda Item One: Help With Problems

“In a moment, I’m going to go around the table and I would like to hear from each of you about one problem, frustration, or headache that you are confronting, that perhaps others here may have experienced and can help you with.”

Agenda Item Two: Replicate Successes

“In a moment, I’m going to go around the table and I would like to hear from each of you about some success that you or your group has experienced that can be emulated, duplicated, or leveraged by other groups in the room.”

Agenda Item Three: Explore Cross-selling Opportunities

“In a moment, I’m going to go around the table and I would like to hear from each of you about one timely, hot, and pressing legal issue that you are currently helping your particular clients successfully deal with, and an issue that other clients in this firm may also be facing, and that we should all be somewhat knowledgeable on.”

To make Practice Group Leadership 2.0 work you need to review each of these ten structural impediments and determine whether you need to take decisive action on any of them, to help make your practice and industry groups fire on all cylinders.

About the Author

Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized thought leader, author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms, Patrick has had the honor of working with at least one of the largest firms in over a dozen different countries.

Patrick has lectured on professional service management and strategy for the Canadian, American and International Bar Associations; the Canadian Tax Foundation, the International Union of Lawyers, the Institute For Law Firm Management, The Institute For International Research, the Society for Marketing Professional Services, The Managing Partner’s Forum, Centaur Conferences Europe and the Financial Times Of London. He is a frequently requested speaker, having appeared in London, Geneva, Vienna, Munich, Marrakech, Istanbul, Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Toronto for professional conferences and seminars.

Patrick did his MBA graduate work at the Canadian School of Management and is among the first alumni from Harvard’s Leadership in Professional Service Firms program.

McKenna’s decades of experience led to his being the subject of a Harvard Law School Case Study entitled: Innovations In Legal Consulting (2011). He was the first “expert” in professional service firms admitted to the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches, the #1 US group for senior-level CEO coaches; was the recipient of an Honorary Fellowship from Leaders Excellence of Harvard Square (2015); and voted by the readers of Legal Business World as one of only seven international Thought Leaders (2017).

Most recently McKenna helped launch the first International Legal Think-Tank (LIFT: Legal Institute For Forward Thinking) comprised of academics, researchers and consultants from three countries.

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