October 23, 2012

Struggling to Lead: Recharting a Course for a Floundering Practice Group

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October/November 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 7| Page 41


Struggling to Lead: Recharting a Course for a Floundering Practice Group

In the Law Practice Case Study series, we posit a scenario and ask selected experts to discuss solutions. The goal: To provide our readers with practical how-to approaches they can apply in the types of real-world situations that arise in lawyers’ lives.

THE SCENARIO: Just a year ago, Syd was happily moving in his world as a top-performing labor law partner in his firm—a good firm that sat nicely in the pack of 200 law firms tracked regularly by legal publications. Now, here he was, at age 55, floundering as his practice group’s chair and struggling to figure out how to turn it around. He was scheduled to discuss his dilemma with the managing partner this afternoon.

It began when the labor group’s former chair left suddenly, taking along three promising junior associates. Syd was flattered when asked to jump in and head the group. Sure, he had a few qualms about doing it, but his loyalty to the firm overruled his fears. They needed him.

Unfortunately, in the months since he’d accepted, his doubts had increasingly become realities. His clients were beginning to complain about how little time he was spending with them. And that hurt, because his high-touch philosophy had helped define his reputation. He had also grown displeased with the progress of the younger partners, from their work ethic to their inability to bring in meaningful matters. He had built his practice through good old-fashioned hard work, putting time into developing his expertise, his reputation and his network. He thought of himself as a good mentor, although he had noticed that his associates through the years had seemed to plateau. They never really developed the kind of relationships with Syd’s clients that he had; either they built their own practices or left the firm. And since there was no one else who could deal effectively with Syd’s clients, he continued handling a full client load while trying to manage the group.

He knew he needed to take better charge and make some changes. Clearly, his hard-driving, do-as-I-say approach wasn’t working—but what style should he be using instead? He was feeling very frustrated at his shortcomings. Perhaps he wasn’t meant to be a leader … but he had made a commitment when he accepted the job and he wanted to succeed. What next steps, he wondered, should he and the managing partner discuss in the afternoon meeting?



Define the Agenda and Set Group Goals

Scott S. Barker is a partner in Holland & Hart, specializing in complex civil litigation. He has practiced with the firm for 26 years and is a Past Chair of its Management Committee.

Syd’s situation is, of course, not unusual. Many successful practitioners stub their toes the first time out in a management position. The main thing is figuring out how to bounce back from the initial false steps.

So, the first thing Syd should do is not be so hard on himself. Instead, he should change his mind-set. He needs to recognize that the challenges he faces as a group leader cannot be overcome simply by following the same program that has made him a successful lawyer.

Second, Syd needs to sit down with the managing partner and be honest about the fact that he needs guidance—especially in these areas:

  • What exactly the MP expects from Syd’s group in the short- and mid-term
  • What might be done to motivate the members of his group
  • What practice management materials and training the firm can give Syd to help build his leadership skills

Third, Syd needs to convene a planning retreat for the group to set some goals and begin to build a sense of unity as a team. Given his own lack of experience in this area, he might do well to seek the support of a skilled facilitator to guide the group through its planning process. This goal setting, obviously, should take into account the guidance given by the firm’s MP—but it should also be something that the entire group is involved in creating, since that will promote a sense of ownership among the group’s members and increase their commitment to achieving the goals that are set.

Fourth, Syd should meet with each group member to discuss individual aspirations and development needs. Then he and each member can figure out the goals that flow from the group targets and how each individual can contribute to achieving the group goals while working toward their own.

Once group and individual goals have been defined, Syd—in consultation with firm management—will need to implement a system to monitor progress going forward. But before this group can go forward, Syd needs to step up to the plate and set the course.


Deal with Performance Problems

Roger Warin is a partner in and Past Chair of the Washington, DC, office of Steptoe & Johnson. For more than 25 years, he has successfully handled a wide range of complex commercial litigation.

Syd clearly needs to have a candid heart-to-heart with his managing partner and share his concerns and misgivings. Syd is dealing with a number of problems that (to be fair) may or may not be related to his yearlong tenure as practice group chair.

A big issue is Syd’s disappointment with his younger partners—that to a certain extent seems like a “firm issue” and not a Syd-only issue. If the younger partners don’t have the work ethic and ambition that the firm typically deems appropriate in its partners, then at a minimum there have to be compensation consequences. Or, in the case of serious underperformers, the partnership as a group needs to determine that particular partners should find another law firm that is more compatible with their work ethic.

As to the “plateauing” of associates who work under Syd, this is something that he should devote more attention to by way of mentoring and coaching. Not all associates will work out, but the odds improve if care was taken in the hiring process. Despite the Gen X and Gen Y literature, there are a substantial number of highly qualified and motivated young lawyers entering the profession each year. Syd’s job is to identify the good ones and take an interest in their professional development. If he succeeds in that, it should over time allow him to turn over more client responsibility to them as they mature.

However, with that said, I am not optimistic that at age 55 Syd will become a leader if he has never been one in the past. If I were this firm’s MP, I would suggest that Syd concentrate on what he does best—client service—and get someone else to handle the responsibilities of practice group leader.


Look at the Leadership Chain

David Malach is a partner of Aird & Berlis, practicing tax litigation, estate planning and corporate reorganizations. He was formerly Managing Partner and continues to be a member of the firm’s five-member Executive Committee.

I have to agree—it sounds like Syd was the wrong choice for practice group leader. His dilemma, though, is a common one in larger law firms. Here we have a hardworking partner who has performed well in his practice and is dedicated to being responsive to his clients. However, throughout his years in practice, it seems he has shown that he falls down on developing associates and transitioning his clients to more junior lawyers, actually causing some to leave the firm. Is it any wonder that he hasn’t been able to build a real group out of the lawyers he’s now charged with leading? This generally is not the type of partner I would suggest one pick to be a practice group leader.

Selecting Syd as group leader hasn’t worked out. It has resulted in him spending a substantial amount of time on the leader job and damaging his reputation with his clients, which will likely negatively affect his book of business on a going-forward basis. Also, his increasing displeasure with the younger lawyers in his group is probably damaging his reputation with them. None of this is good for Syd or for the firm.

Why was Syd selected to take over this role in the first place? Was he the only choice at the time? Or were there other choices? Remembering that the previous group leader left the firm suddenly, the MP had to pick someone to take over as head of the labor law group. And in those circumstances, managing partners frequently look to the most senior and well-respected lawyer in the department, thinking that by doing so they also will have the best practice group leader. The complete opposite, however, is often the case. Firms need to closely consider management and leadership skills, and not just seniority, when selecting partners for these roles.

Alternately, the managing partner may have had a different motive for choosing Syd. The MP may have been catering to Syd’s ego in an effort to keep him, and his book of business, in the firm. While that reasoning may be understandable from a profitability perspective, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it serves the best interests of this practice group or the lawyers in it.

But whatever the rationale for choosing Syd, the honeymoon period is coming to an end.

I think it’s time for the MP to step back in and appoint another partner to lead this practice group. In so doing, of course, the MP must be very careful in dealing with Syd. That discussion should probably center on Syd’s importance in generating client work and in keeping his clients happy.

This practice group may also be ready for a division of the group leader’s role. One partner could deal with the strategic vision and another could deal with the day-to-day management of the group, including things like hiring and firing of associates, billing and collecting, running group meetings and the like. Perhaps if the MP splits the role into two, it might make the choices among potential successors to Syd more obvious.

If there is no obvious leader (or leaders) for the group, it is time to start looking for one outside the firm or grooming one of the junior partners in the group to take on the role. Admittedly, that can take a while. However, the firm cannot persist in putting the wrong person in a leadership position. It is damaging. It often results in lawyers within the group—including the dissatisfied group leader—considering their other options and leaving the firm, taking their clients with them.


Identify Actions to Get Moving Posthaste

Gerry Riskin is a cofounder of the global consultancy Edge International. Formerly the Managing Partner of an international law firm, he is a best-selling author and a visiting professor at two postsecondary institutions. He blogs at www.gerryriskin.com.

Like so many other leaders, Syd -naively believes that if he gives a little direction his people will march forth in a productive way. Wrong. The initiative his people take
in their substantive practices will not carry over into their nonbillable activities for the group without his help. He is a prisoner in a common paradox—simultaneously engaging in undeserved, and unproductive, self-doubt while failing to effectively manage his group.

Syd (to his credit) says he wants to succeed. Then he desperately needs to get some practice group leader training, whether he obtains it in-house or externally. This training will assist him in learning how to effectively execute constructive steps—which he needs to take immediately—in the following critical areas.


Coaching individual group members. Syd needs to meet individually with every group member to ascertain where they want to go in their practices, which includes discussing the work and clients they prefer. This discussion must culminate in identifying at least one action step (although two or three are good) that the individual can take to move in the right direction (toward the preferred practice). These action steps must then be broken down into tasks that are small enough to allow incremental progress, on a weekly if not a daily basis.


Leading the group in setting direction. To get everyone on the same page about the practice group’s direction and goals, Syd needs to convene a group brainstorming meeting, which should last no more than two hours. The question to be addressed in this meeting is: “What can we accomplish together that we cannot accomplish alone?” Each participant can write a sentence or two to answer that question then and there. Next, Syd can collect the responses, shuffle them (so no one reads their own answer) and distribute them to the group to have individuals read them aloud. The group then identifies and, with Syd’s help, prioritizes the responses into an action list. While Syd can supplement the responses with his own thoughts, he needs to trust the group—the more he can develop the sentiments expressed by the participants, the less resistance he will get from them as he moves forward. (He will need to ensure that the group moves in harmony with firm strategy—candidly, however, he should worry far less about strategy right now in favor of getting the group moving.)

Also in this meeting, participants should be invited to choose any action from the brainstormed list that depicts what they have a passion for doing that they believe would be highly useful to the group. These actions must then be broken down into bite-size steps (as discussed in the context of individual coaching) so that individuals know what they will do to get started literally within the next few days.


Training in client relations and business development skills. Members of the group must develop greater comfort and competence in dealing with clients, prospective clients and referral sources. This can be handled in a low-impact way—let’s say in two-hour sessions once a month, with each session focused on the development of a different skill. The training should begin as soon as possible and last for a year and a half or so. The emphasis here is on building up comfort levels—the group members will not do what they are not comfortable doing.


Monitoring and ongoing -coaching. Because Syd’s success ultimately depends on the actions of the group members, it is critical that these be monitored. I recommend a Web-based tool (such as a specialized spreadsheet) in which individuals input weekly updates on the specific action steps they’ve taken, along with related information for Syd and their fellow group members. This firstly keeps Syd apprised of each lawyer’s progress, but it also spreads information around the group. Most importantly, this process prevents someone from defaulting to inactivity without it being noticed. Keeping activity visible for all to see is critical.

Note that I have not elaborated here on the peculiarities of the group’s market in uncertain economic times; the portions of the market this group should be striving to serve; and personnel issues, such as generational differences. All of these can and should be part and parcel of ongoing discussions among Syd, the managing partner and other firm practice group leaders. These issues may be more important a little later—but right now this group’s ship is damaged (defections) and sitting at the dock. Syd’s job is not to worry too much about steering right now, but rather about how to release the ropes and get underway. A ship moving at two knots will win every race against another that has not left the pier.


Consider the Highest and Best Use

Stephen B. Huttler is Executive Vice Chair of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and a partner in the firm’s Business Department. He was Shaw Pittman’s Managing Partner prior to its merger with Pillsbury.

Every lawyer has a particular set of skills, expertise, personality and experience. The combination of those attributes generally determines the strengths and weaknesses of that lawyer. Ideally, every lawyer would be placed in a role in their firm that plays to their strengths and avoids their weaknesses. When deployed to one’s “highest and best use,” each lawyer—and therefore the firm—will enjoy the most success.

Syd’s highest and best use appears to be as a practicing attorney. Before donning the group leader’s mantle, he was a top-performing partner whose clients loved his particular combination of skills and personality. He has worked very hard and developed strong personal relationships with his clients, and those relationships have great value to his firm.

Syd does not, though, appear to have valuable leadership skills. He has not been able to delegate work, even before taking on his leadership position. He has not been a good mentor or developer of talent—indeed, to the contrary, a number of younger people who have worked under him have bailed out. Fundamentally, he has not been able to balance his leadership role with his practicing lawyer role, and it’s probably only a matter of time until he will burn out completely. Given all those factors, Syd should ask his managing partner to allow him to return to his position as a senior partner in the labor law group.

Syd is on a course to damage his client relationships, perhaps irretrievably, and to damage his practice group as well, owing to his lack of leadership skills. Both he and his managing partner should recognize this and return Syd to his prior role—and the sooner the better.


Steward or Leader?

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is a management consultant, Past-President of the College of Law Practice Management and one of the first inducted into the Legal Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame. She blogs on innovation at www.astintarlton.typepad.com.

What are we really trying to accomplish? If, as it seems is the case, this practice group is a troubled one, leaking lawyers and bereft of strong leadership, then Syd just isn’t our guy. If firm management viewed the prior leader’s departure as a welcome opportunity to grow a healthier labor practice in the spirit of Syd’s “good old-fashioned hard work” ethic, then, unfortunately, Syd’s still not the guy. But his ethic should still serve as a wonderful model for the younger lawyers.

The only circumstances under which it would have made good sense to pull Syd from a mature and productive labor practice and ask him to improve on past performance issues would be if crisis loomed and the firm needed to hang onto the younger lawyers until it could put a better structure in place—and if there were no one more capable of taking this stewardship role than Syd. Even then, Syd might not have been the right choice.

The mitigating circumstance would be if, indeed, Syd was truly interested in making a transition at this stage of his career to a new level of leadership. If the desire and commitment are there, nearly anything is possible.

So, there are only two questions, or “next steps,” for this afternoon’s meeting with the managing partner.

■ First, is Syd willing to spend the extra hours required to become the long-term leader of this group? Will he open himself to new ways of doing things? Take the personal risks necessary to put others before himself? If so, the conversation should focus on a professional and personal development plan for Syd, as well as the necessary support from firm management.

■ If Syd is not willing, the second question is: How can he best fulfill a stewardship role for the group while working with firm management to identify a more powerful solution? In this case, Syd should participate with others in the search for new leadership from a position of knowledge about what is entailed for the future leader of this group.

Whatever the choice, there should be honor for Syd and a better outcome for the firm.