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Practice groups have become the driving element for strategy development and implementation. However, experience shows that many firms are frustrated with the effectiveness of practice group operations, with the implementation of practice group planning and with the management/leadership of practice groups. Managing partners regularly lament that they cannot find sufficient numbers of good practice group leaders. In our experience, practice groups are the most effective means by which a firm can organize its practice and enhance competitiveness while engaging all of its lawyers in the important task of planning and executing to become more valuable on behalf of clients. Law Firm Practice Groups There can be a great deal of misunderstanding or confusion regarding practice groups. The following sets forth some basic thoughts regarding their organization and the need for them. These may be helpful to the reader in assessing his/her firm's use of practice groups. Multi-faceted law firms are akin to large businesses with multiple business lines. Each business line (practice area) has its own unique:
Practice groups, like strategic business units in a corporation, should operate autonomously based upon their market, product, and profit objectives while maintaining focus on the firm's overall objectives and needs. Practice groups primarily have an external focus on meeting the needs of markets, clients, and prospective clients. Groups should be extremely focused in these efforts. Groups can include subspecialties from a single department, i.e., health care, or focused cross-disciplinary teams, i.e., emerging businesses. It is clear that things happen in law firms (i.e., marketing, market penetrations, profit improvements, etc.) because of individual initiative and efforts. In large firms, in particular, this individual effort may be focused solely on billable hours or other narrowly focused issues because the partners (and perhaps associates) believe that the institution will be responsible for other functions. This is a problem that confronts larger organizations in cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit at the practice group level. In a stable, non-competitive environment, status quo is acceptable. However, that is not the case with the current law practice environment and likely will not be for a long while. Therefore, there is an absolute requirement that firms recognize the need for planning and other business function activities at the practice group level. For this to occur, there must be committed, focused strategic management at this level. This management level must be accountable to the firm's top management team. Group size is important. Typically, 15 or fewer active members should be in a group. However, one or two people should not comprise a group. Thought and consultation with partners will be needed to identify or reorganize groups. A group should always have a clear and precise, externally oriented business purpose regarding its clients, the legal services that it will offer, and its geographic marketplace. A lack of clarity in any of these areas significantly degrades the group's ability to plan and focus its efforts. Groups are managed by a designated individual who is responsible for group plan development, coaching, communications, and enforcing membership accountability. Increasingly, important management functions will be performed within practice groups. Practice groups will be the source of:
 Practice Group Managers/Leaders[a] Practice Group Leader Job Description Summary The Practice Group Leader shall possess an LLB or JD from an ABA accredited law school and be admitted to practice in a given jurisdiction. He or she shall be appointed by the Managing Partner or the Management Committee. Generally responsible for practice group strategic planning, practice management, delivery of services, marketing, and group profitability. Status Exempt Reporting Relationship Reports and is responsible to the Managing Partner and/or the Management Committee. Specific Responsibilities
[b] Attributes of a Good Practice Group Leader Following are some attributes of a good practice group leader:
 Why Practice Groups Fail[a] Top Management Fails the Group Experience shows that practice groups are most often not effective when top management has failed the groups. This means that, within practice groups, it is critical that top management commit itself to attend to these groups, hold them accountable, and provide them with the requisite resources and focus. One of the phrases heard most from practice group leaders is that they work hard to develop strategic plans which are not reviewed by management, that there is no feedback or, if there is any, it is often not timely. This leads to significant frustration at the group level and a growing sense that the groups' plans are unimportant. Following are some problems that have been observed in the marketplace. One of the critical tasks of top management is to ensure that it performs a rigorous review of group plans on a yearly basis. This review and feedback is crucial for the groups, as well as the firm itself. Rationalization of all of the groups' plans is one of the most important strategic needs of any law firm. It leads to improved linkage, interdependency, and collaboration among groups. Additionally, there must be ongoing linkage and dialogue with the groups through the leaders. Management must have formal, timely means by which it communicates with the group. This would include ensuring that the groups continue with implementation efforts, pursue additional opportunities, and have the resources they need to execute their strategies.[b] Marketing Focus Only Practice groups are not marketing teams per se. All of the functions outlined herein should be accomplished by each practice group. Solely focusing on marketing efforts will not improve the group's external competitiveness profile.[c] Lack of Management and Leadership Training Practice group leaders need practical training in how to develop a plan, how to manage people, how to coach people, etc. You will need to spend time determining what training is required to assist group leaders in their jobs, and developing the materials necessary to complete the training. The existence of a workbook, coupled with a short training exercise, is invaluable to practice group leaders, especially if they have not developed plans before, or do not know what plans should look like.[d] Pure Profit Centers Practice groups that are pure profit centers, meaning the practice group will be compensated based upon its profitability, will not and do not work in a collaborative environment. Although we believe profit data should be developed and shared for managerial purposes, you must guard against an evolution toward pure profit centers.[e] Forgotten Interdependencies Firm practice groups are interdependent with other practice groups in terms of doing work, staffing, and cross-marketing efforts. Too often, however, practice groups do not specifically focus on identifying and pursuing those interdependencies. This should be a part of any practice group's planning efforts. In addition, top management's role in the identification of interdependencies is key. To fail to nourish this function is a mistake.
The source of this article is "How to Manage Your Law Office." Lexis.com subscribers can access this publication online.