October 2003  Volume 29, Issue 7
October 2003 Issue
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Trends Report: Practice Group Management Catches Fire
by Robert W. Denney

The concept of establishing practice groups in law firms started slowly, like a freight train going up a mountain. But in the past few years, it has picked up speed and is now spreading like a prairie fire in Kansas. Firms of all sizes are rethinking the way they’re structured and are moving to organize along the lines of practice groups. At the same time, these firms are naturally paying closer attention to practice group management and leadership. Here’s what’s driving those developments.
n Clients, large and small, now want more than just a general corporate lawyer or litigator. They want lawyers who have substantial expertise in specific practice areas, types of cases or industries. Hence, the trend to assign lawyers to one or more practice groups.

  • The continuous development of new substantive areas of law has dramatically increased the number of practice groups within individual law firms.
  • As firms grow, they come to recognize that they need to be better organized and have more effective management. This need has now been recognized at the practice group level.
  • Client pressure to control or even reduce fees has required firms to become more efficient in their delivery of legal services and, therefore, more profitable. This is better achieved at the practice group level.
  • The increased complexity of practicing law requires continuous training and development of lawyers in their particular areas of practice.
  • The increase in complexity and the growth of specialization are but two factors that have raised the level of professional liability and increased the need for even better quality control. Practice groups facilitate this.
  • Despite the current trend of firmwide branding, much of every firm’s marketing needs to occur at the practice group level.

The leader of the pack. Another result of the practice group movement is to increase the importance of the practice group head. For years, firms gave thought only to who should be the firm’s managing partner, and perhaps who should be elected to the executive committee. Today, they are starting to give due consideration to who should manage the practice groups, because those are the major sources of firm profitability. The position of practice group chair is now considered a major management responsibility in a growing number of firms.

In selecting practice leaders, one of the lessons being learned is that the major rainmaker is generally not the best person to head the group. There are two principal reasons for this. First, it requires considerable time—anywhere from 200 hours a year in a smaller firm to 500 or more in a large firm. Most rainmakers’ time is better spent making rain.
Second, it requires management ability, which many rainmakers just do not have (like the old story of the top salesman who becomes a terrible sales manager).

An additional lesson that has been learned is that, to be effective, the practice group leader should have considerable responsibility and the authority to go with it.

The chair’s model duties and responsibilities. The practice group chair should be responsible for the overall operation and performance of the group. Specific duties include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following major areas:

  • Planning of annual goals and objectives
  • Adherence to conflicts checking procedures
  • Quality control, delegation and supervision
  • Staffing
  • Pricing and profitability
  • Client service and marketing
  • Training and development of lawyers
  • Management and communications

There are many other issues to be considered when firms follow the trend to practice group organization and management. For example, what constitutes a practice group? How do you compensate the practice group leader? What role, if any, should the group leader play in determining the compensation of the group’s members? But I’ll save those questions for a future report.

Real World Examples of Practice Organization
There is no single way to organize and manage practice groups. A 1,200-lawyer firm abolished its departments and sections and established 35 national practice groups that report to one of three managing partners. On the other hand, a 1,500-lawyer firm with four departments and 86 practice groups is reorganizing into five sections with national, regional and local practice groups. The section heads will report to the firm’s managing partner. A 68-lawyer firm, which has never had any practice organization, is forming three departments with approximately 20 practice groups, with the department chairs reporting to the firm’s CEO. And a 17-lawyer firm dissolved its three departments and formed six practice groups, the heads of which report to the firm’s chair.

Practice Group Model Roles
1. To provide the best possible service to clients
2. To contribute to firm profitability
3. To develop the professional skills of the lawyers and staff in the group
4. To accept responsibility and accountability for:

  • Recruitment, training and development of all personnel in the practice group
  • Staffing and proper workload distribution
  • Quality control
  • Client service
  • Marketing of the individual group and cross-marketing of the firm’s other practice groups

Bob Denney ( bob@robertdenney.com) is President of Robert Denney Associates, Inc., providing strategic management and marketing consulting to law firms. He can be reached at (610) 964-1938.