Managing partners and members of executive committees in the more successful law firms that are organized into substantive departments and/or practice groups strongly support the concept of having Practice Group Leaders (PGLs) assume a major role in their firms’ efforts to: 1) insure partner coordination, control and accountability over fields of law, areas of practice and client matters to provide high quality legal services to clients in a timely manner at fees that are fair to the clients and their firms; 2) increase the productivity levels of all timekeepers within their practice groups; 3) increase the economic contribution of their practice groups to the firm to enhance revenue and profitability; and 4) assume primary responsibility for communications to and from members of their practices about firm economics, priorities and business issues, as well as practice growth and client development initiatives.
Even though managing partners in these firms recognize the importance of developing and implementing sound principles of practice management, the extent to which the concept may be successfully implemented varies greatly from firm-to-firm. This is because of lawyers’ personalities and abilities, partners’ attitudes toward “being managed,” and the extent to which they are willing to relinquish a degree of their personal and professional autonomy for the good of the firm and the practice group.
Ideally, the objective of defining the role and responsibilities of the PGLs should be to establish just enough structure and accountability within their respective practice group to maximize the economic potential of the firm, while institutionalizing the principles of leadership and teamwork.
Generally, under plans and policies established by the managing partner, each PGL will be charged with planning, organizing, and overseeing the proper and profitable performance of work and the delivery of legal services in the practice group within his or her jurisdiction.
PGLs are usually appointed by, and report to, the managing partner. Depending upon the size of the practice group and the number of offices and/or practice teams, the PGL may be expected to spend 400–600 or more hours annually performing practice group management functions. For performing their managerial functions, PGLs are usually given credit for purposes of compensation, depending upon their satisfactory performance of the duties and responsibilities assigned.
Recognizing that PGLs have many priorities, they usually have considerable discretion as to how to implement their duties and responsibilities within their respective practice groups. Therefore, they may delegate certain functions to one or more partners within their practice group, such as training associates, reviewing and following-up on marketing initiatives established by the firm, the practice group and individual members, etc. They may appoint teams and team leaders whenever a practice group is of a size, or its members are dispersed among other offices, that the PGL cannot interact effectively with all practice group members on their individual productivity, billing, collection, professional training and development and marketing efforts. Further, it should also be anticipated that the PGLs may call upon the managing partner or members of the executive committee to assist in the implementation of these initiatives.
Duties and Responsibilities
The PGLs must have and retain authority and responsibility for working with timekeepers within their practice group — partners, associates and paraprofessionals. Following is a list of recommended PGLs duties and responsibilities:
- Practice group strategic planning consistent with the firm’s strategic plan;
- Practice group member practice management, including work assignment and distribution;
- Profitability of individuals and the practice group as a whole;
- Professional staffing and development of practice group members;
- The delivery of high quality legal services by the practice group;
- Practice group marketing and practice development; and
- Compliance by the practice group members with firm administrative requirements.
PGLs should be responsible for preparation of an annual practice group strategic plan, in consultation with the partners working in their practice area, for presentation to the firm’s managing partner, executive committee or designated subcommittee.
This planning process should address internal and external trends affecting the business of the practice group and the firm’s business; how well the members of the practice group serve the firm’s clients; broadening (or narrowing the focus of the practice group) and offer recommendations for improvement and staffing at the attorney and paraprofessional levels and administrative support services.
The planning process will enable the PGL of each group to present to the managing partner how their group intends to invest its resources in the areas of marketing and business development, technology, training and development of the professional and paraprofessional staffs in order to address the below challenges to their respective practice groups:
- How to increase the revenue and profitability of their practice group;
- How to deal with client pressures to reduce fees;
- How to attract more desirable clients to their practice group;
- How to attract and retain profitable attorneys within their practice group;
- How to market their practice group’s expertise more effectively to existing and potential clients; and
- How to develop and manage the expectations of the new generation of tech-savvy lawyers and paraprofessionals.
Typically, the PGL will be responsible for two types of planning: 1) practice group planning; and 2) individual planning.
Practice Group Planning. Within approximately two to three months before the end of the firm’s accounting/fiscal year, each PGL should begin to develop for presentation to the managing partner for discussion and approval, a practice group business plan that is consistent with the objectives, strategies and tactics of the firm’s strategic plan.
The PGL will be expected to report to the managing partner at least quarterly on the progress made in achievement of the objectives of the practice group’s business plan. He or she will work with the managing partner to achieve the objectives of the firm’s strategic plan that is applicable to the practice group and to individual members assigned to the group. Further, the PGL will plan and coordinate their roles and the synergies between his or her practice group and other practice groups, as appropriate.
Individual Planning. The PGL will develop with the practice group members and recommend to the managing partner plans and role definitions of individual members that are consistent with the firm’s strategic plan, including those related to practice mix, profitability, improvement in quality and quantity of legal services, professional development, retaining and/or redeploying underutilized attorneys, as necessary, and community and professional pro bono involvement.
The PGL, or his or her designed, will continually monitor the performance of each member of the practice group and report regularly to the managing partner about the progress and success of the roles of each group member. He or she will identify those attorneys who need to divest unprofitable work and be redeployed to another practice group, and report on their efforts to divest the firm of less than profitable work and to redeploy attorneys to more profitable practice groups.
On a regular basis, monthly at the outset and at least at the end of each quarter (or more frequently, as required), after target levels have been achieved, the PGLs will review the billable hours of each timekeeper in their practice group.
Areas of particular interest to scrutinize include partner and associate billable effort, e.g., are partners pushing work down and are there sufficient billable work to keep all timekeepers fully occupied to meet target performance levels, and distribution of work among practice group associates? Are there imbalances that are inadvertent or intentional.
Each PGL should be responsible for: 1) reviewing the practice productivity with the practice partners, associates and paraprofessionals and making the necessary adjustments and corrections; and 2) meeting at least quarterly with the managing partner to review the practice productivity.
Equally important to the success of a law firm is the need to improve the effectiveness of its attorneys’ billing and collection practices. In many of the more financially successful firms, the GPLs have either been assigned or they have assumed a major role in the initiative to increase their firm’s economic performance. Thus, the PGLs should consult with the members of their Practice Group concerning their efforts to bill and collect for services provided to firm clients. This will require the PGLs to review monthly accounts receivable reports for the billing partners of their practice group and to work with each partner to take prompt and appropriate actions to cure delinquencies. To accomplish this, the managing partner should insure that a simplified report is prepared which will provide necessary information to the practice leaders. Also, the GPLs should provide periodic briefings to the managing partner.
New Client/ New Matter Intake and File Assignment Procedures
Except for the conflicts checks, partners in a great many law firms make individual decisions committing their firm to a particular client representation.
Since PGLs are expected to be responsible for setting the course, and profitability, of their respective practice groups, i.e., implementing the practice area strategic plan, it follows that they should play a significant role in the decision on what work the practice should pursue through client development initiatives and what work it should accept.
PGLs in many of the more profitable firms take an active role in the intake procedures for new clients and matters to ensure that: 1) the engagement does not present a client or business conflict (and where one is identified, work within the firm to resolve such conflicts; 2) the work is appropriate for the practice to perform; 3) credit is fairly allocated among those responsible for the opportunity, including consultation with other practice leaders where cross-practice efforts were involved to obtain the representation; and 4) work assignments are distributed appropriately among those partners and associates competent to perform this work within the practice group.
The PGL will monitor file assignments and workloads of all attorneys and paraprofessionals within his or her practice group to ensure that referrals of work occur as appropriate to provide accurate and timely high quality legal services at the lowest competent level. Also, the PGL will see that the attorney who originated the client and/or matter is kept informed of the work and maintains client contact as appropriate to the situation. Further, the PGL will enlist the assistance and support of other practice groups to staff and perform work on files where additional expertise or staffing is required or desirable.
The PGL will ensure that the members of his or her practice group comply with the firm’s quality control policies and procedures in performing legal services, including without limitation mandatory review requirements and periodic peer review of work product. Also, the PGL will obtain client feedback to ensure satisfaction with quality, timely performance and value of services.
Associate Mentoring, Compensation Adjustments and Growth
To further the objective of growing the firm profitability, it is essential that there be in place a solid program for the growth and upward mobility and retention of high quality associates that have been trained and have progressed through the firm’s “career development” program. To accomplish this goal, the GPLs should take the lead to implement the firm’s mentoring program for each practice group associate and periodically evaluate the each associate’s growth, ensure preparation of annual written reviews of all associates by partners supervising their assignments and assume responsibility for prompt implementation of performance improvement directives or outplacement. This assessment process should be performed more frequently than mandatory year-end written reviews.
The PGLs, also in consultation with the Chair of the Associates’ Committee, assuming that an Associates’ Committee has been established to oversee the recruiting, retention and the development of systems for the associates’ professional and personal career development at the firm, should review the annual written evaluation of all practice group associates and approve their annual salary adjustments and bonuses. In addition, the PGLs periodically should initiate with the practice partners, evaluations of the “partner potential” of each associate in their practice groups.
Annually, each PGL should provide to the managing partner and Associates’ Committee, the practice group’s evaluation of its current need, if any, and three year projection of need for additional partners, supported by economic justification, and identity of those associates in the practice that are recommended for current and future partnership consideration.
Finally, when an associate is deemed worthy for consideration for partnership, the GPL leader should establish a special mentoring program to ensure that each candidate is provided every opportunity to achieve partnership status. This is particularly important in those instances where individuals have been considered but not selected for partnership and are considered to be viable candidates in the future.
Partner Compensation Recommendations
PGLs should assume an important role in the compensation evaluation of partners in their practice group. They should prepare annual qualitative evaluations of each partner in the practice, and, where applicable, coordinate evaluations for partners associated with more than one practice group. In addition, they should review annual performance statistics for each partner and make recommendations to the managing partner and Compensation Committee.
It should be anticipated that PGLs will be interviewed by members of the Compensation Committee concerning their compensation recommendations.
The PGLs should be responsible for the preparation of an annual practice group marketing plan and budget after consulting with the practice partners for review and approval by the Marketing Committee.
Routinely, the PGLs should review the progress and problems of the members of his or her practice group in developing and implementing the marketing plan to insure that appropriate support to achieve each marketing initiative is being provided.
To ensure that plans are implemented and periodically re-evaluated, the GPLs should be responsible for periodic contact with the Marketing committee, the managing partner and the Executive Committee concerning: 1) practice group client development expenditures and returns on those investments; and 2) success and/or shortcomings and the need for modifying the practice group strategic plan.
The PGL will develop and, with the approval of the managing partner, recommend, implement and monitor the firm’s plan to transition clients, matters and networking contacts from senior partners who are retiring, intending to reduce their active involvement or otherwise leaving the firm to other members of the firm.
Lateral Candidate Opportunities
Whether as a result of strategic planning or unanticipated circumstances, it is anticipated that all of the firm’s practice groups will be opportunistic to the possibility of considering lateral acquisitions with profitable books of desirable business to enhance the firm’s practices. Because this process may be time consuming for the firm’s lawyer management, it will be important for the practice leaders to identify resource needs, conduct initial screening of lateral candidates, and when a viable candidate is found that satisfies the firm’s screening criteria and the practice group’s strategic plan, make recommendations to the Managing Partner and the Executive Committee.
When planning to develop and implement the concept of PGLs, it has been my experience that the individual needs of the attorneys working in the practice groups have to be balanced with individual partner independence to be responsive to the firm’s organizational structure and policies.
Applying practice management techniques to practice groups in an appropriate manner will introduce to the firm a new aspect on methods for enhancing quality and timely client service and profitability.
Joel A. Rose is President of Joel A. Rose & Associates, Inc., a firm of management consultants based in Cherry Hill, NJ. A member of the Board of Editors of Accounting and Financial Planning for Law Firms, he may be contacted at 856-427-0050 or email@example.com.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.