Inside counsel regularly interact with practice groups and their management at law firms but may not always stop to consider why they are important. If the practice is doing its job, they should not see what goes on behind the curtain. However, how practice groups are run makes an important difference in the service clients receive. Practice group management should be providing the vision for their group, developing the talent to carry out the vision and making sure the group works well together to exceed your expectations and “make sure the trains run on time.” While sometimes a challenging position, it is always rewarding.
Having the Vision
Law firms that are divided into practice groups focus their business usually by practice area, often by subgroups within that area and even further by industry group. The groups that are most successful at any given time have leaders at the helm who can recognize “the next big thing” and get out in front of it for our clients’ protection. If practice group leaders are looking up from their day to day demands to spot business, industry and litigation developments before they are trends and help protect against the threats and capitalize on the opportunities, they are doing their jobs. It’s one thing to spot these developments, it’s another to be proactive. Clients routinely say law firms distinguish themselves when they do both.
Part of a practice group manager’s job is making sure offices and matters are staffed in a way to give clients the best possible service. Whether recruiting laterally or right out of law school, practice group leaders are always looking to build on and maximize their capabilities while maintaining efficient and cost-effective handling for their clients. But it’s not just a matter of numbers or hiring the best candidates.
Those running practice groups also have to train associates and nurture their career development. For a number of years now, all of our incoming associates spend their first four months in an intensive training program. Their time is divided between a core curriculum, practice-specific training and an apprenticeship. After they emerge from this training, they enter into our “Levels” program. Each practice group develops a curriculum and training to assist associates as they make the transition from Level One to Level Four. Ascendancy is not tied to length of service, but rather development of skills. This ensures that clients are getting (and paying for) the proper level and that associates continue to get the training they need.
Make no mistake, while these programs are often developed by hiring, professional development and client services committees, it falls on each practice group to make sure that, ultimately, each individual within their group is exceeding the firm’s expectations.
There is no ignoring that some of managing a practice group is numbers driven. What are our business development goals? What are the group’s hours? Billings? Collections?
While able professionals can assist lawyers with meeting these metrics, it is the role of the practice group management to alternately cheerlead and hold members to a firm’s expectations. Some years are easier than others, but it is in the more challenging years that management matters. This is where managing people becomes key.
But our leaders are only as good as our groups. Lawyers must capitalize on the opportunity to work together to best solve our clients’ problems, think through ideas and support each other. By communicating within groups, we can learn how to better assist not only each other, but more specifically, our clients. And that’s what it’s all about.