Practice Management

Simply labeling a collection of professionals a practice group does not make it one. It is challenging to manage a group of people with different skills, diverse experiences, a variety of work styles, and sometimes, conflicting priorities. In professional firms, managing (as opposed to administering) is a relatively new concept. Here, professionals are asked to lead highly educated, autonomous, energetic people (most often their peers) who may respond to being influenced or coached, but resist being "managed."

That said, probably the single biggest source of failure in making professional groups work is not giving the group leader any specific guidance, authority, encouragement, training, support, or indication of the time expectations required to do the job. Many firms subscribe to the "spray and pray" method of training group leaders. The firm sprays (a little) training on their group managers, then sends them back into an unchanged environment and prays that something good will happen. The real challenge is to provide a supporting structure that transcends prayer.

There are many versions of group leadership. However, if the group and the leader are to succeed, it is necessary to agree upon (and write down) the leader's role, responsibilities, accountabilities, and performance measures. It is remarkable how infrequently this is done. Group leadership is frequently nonexistent, with group leaders (where they exist) focusing almost exclusively on administrative matters and doing no managing. Indeed, the way some firms are run ensures that effective group management is close to impossible.

Management (when done properly) clearly adds value and raises profits. Think of it this way: you hold a large block of stock in a publicly traded company. Imagine that this company has just made a public announcement that they are disbanding the management team and devoting all of the management team's time to helping with production. Is that a buy signal for you as an investor, or a sell signal?

The potential power of having well-coordinated groups is too great to abandon the task. You must be ever vigilant in communicating to your people how having strong groups can impact your collective fortunes in building competitive superiority in two critical areas - competition for clients and for talent. The stronger (and more focused) the group, the more likely it is going to be active in the marketplace and the more widespread will be its ultimate reputation and profile. What develops is a virtuous circle. A firm develops a strong group and, as a direct result, that group gains a market profile; that profile attracts the better client work, and the better client work then attracts the more talented players in the market. Thus managing professionals requires more attention to management, not less.

As one CEO expressed it: "The problem is, for many professionals, words are action. Professionals make their living uttering or writing words; that's their stock in trade. But in management, action is action, and you have to overcome the tendency, reinforced by years of education and training, of most professionals to substitute words for action. The challenge, therefore, is to get the groups to do something."

Isn't it about time you examined how you might help your groups build their competitive superiority in competing for clients and for talent?



[Here are some of the more common issues that Patrick helps Managing Partners sort through in order to have their groups function effectively. The term 'practice group' here is used in a generic context only, as these issues usually also apply to industry groups, client teams, office management, or whatever label you choose to prefer.]

- Are practice groups the best means of managing a professional service firm or is managing by virtue of geography the better way to go?

- How do you select the right people to serve as practice leaders?

- How do you determine whether the current incumbent is adequately performing the role?

- What is the proper role of a practice leader?

- How can a practice leader add real value?

- What must firm management do to adequately support the practice leaders efforts?

- How much non-billable time should a practice leader actually devote to managing their group?

- Where, specifically, should they be encouraged to spend their time in order to get the best return on that investment?

- How many different groups should any partner be allowed to join?

- How large should any group be allowed to grow?

- How do you manage virtual groups, where members are spread across a number of geographic locations?

- How do you get practice groups to actually take action on and implement anything?

- How do you get the reluctant or recalcitrant partner to actively participate in some group?

- What kind of training might practice leaders need?

- How does a practice leader build an environment where group members feel a shared obligation to contribute?

- How does a practice leader help members of their group hold one another accountable for the group's progress?

- How do you determine whether the practice groups are actually achieving any measurable results?

- Should practice groups be treated as profit centers?

- Should you reward or compensate the practice group leader (for the management responsibilities)?

- Should practice leaders play any part in determining the compensation of individual members of their groups?

- How do you "fire" a practice group leader (without destroying their self-esteem or having them resign from the firm)?


When Needing To Replace A Practice Leader (article)

Making Practice Groups Work (article)

Energizing Your Practice Group Meetings (article)

Practice Groups As Profit Centers (Survey)

Being A Practice Group Leader (Workshop Discussion Notes)

Shocks For New Leaders (guest article)



 “I really appreciate all your help through the years.”

• Mary B. Cranston, Firm Chair - Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman

"Thank you for taking the extra time with us.  It was very interesting and informative, and your teaching continues to reverberate positively around the firm.  In so many ways, large and small, we became better and more focused through those sessions.  I took your advice and read the material on your website.  It is extraordinarily helpful --- straightforward, real-world and hard-won experience --- made more helpful by your analysis.  Thank you for assembling it and providing it.  For my part, I would recommend you and your insights to anyone who asks or needs wise counsel on business development and management."
• Richard A. Agnew, Executive Committee and Office Managing Partner – Van Ness Feldman

"I've worked with several legal consultants over the years.  One of the very best is Patrick J. McKenna.  Patrick has consulted with Briggs from time to time and was invaluable in educating us on some key law firm management issues and guiding us through some significant matters."

• Alan H. Maclin, President – Briggs and Morgan

"Just wanted to let you know that I thought the Saturday presentation was fantastic.  I really like your practical approach.  I'm going to go back and use our next Practice Group meeting as a kick-off event and use many of the ideas you outlined.  I'll let you know how things work out.  While the large group poses some logistical challenges, the resources enable us to really make some progress.  Thanks again!!  I now have renewed enthusiasm to get the group moving forward."

• Robert S. Beall, Business Department Practice Leader - Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton

"The feedback has been unanimous that the sessions were extremely valuable and there is a commitment to undertake the suggested development. We will want to keep you involved."

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"Many thanks for your support in the past. You run an excellent organization and really think about the opprtunities and challenges that face law firms."

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