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You’ve never seen someone who’s a practice group leader in a firm who’s been anything but a perfect fit, right? Right. After all, any competent lawyer can do it, right? R-i-i-ght. As a leadership and organization development consultant, I’m often called in because a group is floundering in some way. Usually that means the group is falling short of its financial goals or seeing client and attorney defections. In the past, a firm might have called in a marketing specialist, or a sales trainer, or kept changing the leader until one stuck. But increasingly, firms are beginning to understand that financial well-being and attorney and client retention all come from having a well-managed group. My job, then, is to help people to organize, to lead and manage others, and to plan systematically. What follows are some general lessons I’ve learned, or taught, over the years in these sorts of engagements. Here’s the biggest lesson: Managing isn’t lawyering. If you’re the person responsible for finding practice group leaders, don’t pick someone because he or she is a good lawyer, or a rainmaker. Legal success doesn’t necessarily mean success at managing, just as being a successful doctor or teacher doesn’t obviously translate into being able to run a hospital or school. In my experience, more practice group leaders fail for this reason than for any other. Both the firm and the group leader need to commit to management excellence, or it simply won’t work. Failure here costs you money, time, people, and clients. Therefore, a firm should do at least five things to make a new group leader’s success likely.
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Teach. Management is a skill; treat it as such. As with any skill, it requires a learning curve. Provide the selected leader with courses, plus a mentor inside the firm or a coach outside it. The subject matter of courses, or other kinds of training, should include: the role of “emotional intelligence” in management, strategic planning, how to run a meeting, and how to receive and give feedback. Put your money where your mouth is. Compensate a leader for his or her time. Running a group well takes, roughly, one-fifth of a person’s time. Because this activity is an investment in the future and a strategic contribution to the firm — not a drain on the firm’s resources — a leader should get a 20 percent credit at the end of the year. Of course, the particular way such a commitment is demonstrated will vary from firm to firm, but it must be clear to the leader, to the members of the group, and to the firm as a whole that effective management is both valued and valuable. Plan. Give the group a destination, and a map, but let the group choose the route. The map I mean here is the firm’s strategic plan, which is a vision of a coherent stream of decisions made across time to accomplish the firm’s aspirations. The route is the manner in which the group decides to achieve its part of the plan, how it defines itself within the boundaries of the firm’s overall direction. Thus, the firm should have a clear, well-thought-out set of expectations and goals for both the group and the leader, for how the performance of the group and the leader will be measured and evaluated (and rewarded or not), and for how this fits with the firm’s overall strategic direction. Do this early in the leader’s tenure. Communicate. Put in place a feedback system, some way of letting the group know how it’s doing — and letting the firm know how the group thinks the firm is doing. The practice group’s mentor can be a conduit of such information from, say, the management committee. Another solution could be that the managing partner meets periodically with the group leader. Many ways can be found to do this, but make sure it gets done. The rumor mill is not an effective or efficient way to accomplish this. Prove you mean business. Make sure the leader has the resources to get the job done. Having responsibility without authority is bad; having both without the resources to get the job done is impossible. “Resources” include the nuts and bolts, like a budget for training and meetings, and staff to support the administrative part of the job, of course, but also include access to information. Access to information about what’s going on at higher levels of the firm, for example, adds to a person’s knowledge and authority. WITHIN THE GROUP Group leaders should operate under a very specific set of rules, as well. As a group leader, your commitment to management excellence means you should pay attention both to what the individuals in the group need and what processes should be in place. Clarify, clarify, clarify. As a leader, you must make clear your own definition of your role and the firm’s articulated commitment to that role. Make clear your expectations of everyone in the group. Make clear your commitment to success, and your criteria for knowing that you’ve been successful. Make clear the data you’ll need to measure yourselves and how to get them. Open your ears, then your mouth. Listen, first. Listen, second. Listen, third. Ask questions. This is valuable advice all around, but it is especially important for a group leader. After you’ve said your piece, check to make sure you were heard. Encourage feedback — receive it and give it. Incorporate “feedback moments” at every meeting, and ask for it at both regular and random times, from your group members, from your colleagues, and from your clients. Tell the group what feedback you’re getting from others. Find out how people like to be recognized (not everyone wants a plaque), and regularly recognize those who deserve it. Tell the truth — there’s no substitute for everything being out in the open, on the table; you can’t fix what you don’t know about. Look to the future. The firm should have a strategic plan, and so should the group. Just as the firm should be sure a plan is in place when a new group leader starts, so must that leader ensure that the group sets its direction early on. In fact, this is so important that I always encourage group leaders to at least begin the process right away. Think of this as clarifying the group’s goals while making them the group’s own. Everyone in the group should be able to say what the group is about, what their responsibilities are, and how they demonstrate their commitment to the group’s goals. Members have to do more than sign their names to the strategic plan. It is your job as the leader to make sure this happens. Learn how to run a meeting effectively. Make sure each meeting has an agenda, clear time boundaries, behavioral expectations (like, for example, attending on time and attending to the meeting), and anticipated outcomes. Guide and support the others on your team. As a leader, you have to both attend to others’ development and model that attentiveness for others to follow. Commit yourself to everyone’s professional development, including your own. Meet with them individually more than once a year. Make sure the most junior people are particularly well attended to, monitored, and nurtured. Seek balance. At least once a year, arrange an event for everyone that has nothing to do with business. It gives everyone a chance to have a fuller view of their colleagues, and conveys your understanding that there is more to life than work. I see this as a complement to the advice I always give to practice group leaders to try to be a model in all things, including leading a full and well-rounded life. Put another way, if you never recharge your personal battery, some day your professional engine will stop running. There’s no guarantee that all your firm’s practice groups will be successful if you follow this advice. But it certainly makes it more likely that you won’t be able to blame organizational and management failures for mishaps. It also makes it more likely that when you call in a coach or consultant it will be to build on success, not to rescue a floundering enterprise.


Charles J. Fogelman runs Paladin Coaching Services, an executive coaching, leadership, and professional development company.

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