Fostering a Winning Practice Group: What New Leaders Need to Know
By Amy Jo Ehman, June 2009
There’s something about a hardhat. Hand them out, put them on and suddenly, a group of individuals becomes a team with a common goal. It’s as true for an on-site crew as for the lawyers who pay them a visit.
“We encourage our lawyers to get out and see the clients, or in our case, visit a facility or a plant or an operation,” says Ronald Kruhlak, partner and leader of the Energy, Environmental & Regulatory practice group at McLennan Ross in Edmonton. “It helps them think in terms of a team.”
Commitment to the group is essential to a successful practice team, but sometimes easier said than done in the legal world, where individuality is respected and management skills are usually not part of the curriculum.
“The wild card is the people skills. Being an effective practice group leader means you can manage other lawyers, whether they are more senior, the same vintage or junior to you. Those management skills are often tough to come by in the legal industry,” says Adam Lepofsky of the RainMaker Group, a legal recruitment and placement service based in Toronto.
In the broad, informal working groups such as business and litigation that once were the norm in medium and large firms, leadership usually went to the most senior practitioner in the group. Those law firms are now drilling down the expertise into smaller, more focused practice groups with autonomous goal setting, budgeting and management under the direction of a hands-on practice group leader.
AND HERE'S WHAT FIRMS CAN DO TO STRENGTHEN PRACTICE GROUPS:
1. Financially reward practice group leaders who sacrifice personal billable hours to the overall success of their group.
2. Offer leadership and human resource training in the form of outside courses, conferences and consultants.
3. Establish a clear vision and strategy for the firm, giving practice group leaders a solid framework in which to develop their group goals; hold practice group leaders accountable to the goals they set out.
“There’s a different set of skills required in leading an historically established group and starting a specialty group from scratch,” says David Garner, managing partner at Alexander Holburn in Vancouver. “Obviously you need somebody with legal skills, but you need somebody with even stronger organizational skills.”
It’s one thing to manage and grow a personal practice, but quite another to sacrifice a piece of that for the good of the group. Under the right leadership, however, a practice group will achieve more than the sum of its individual parts.
What are the attributes of an effective practice group leader and how are those skills practiced from day to day?
Organize the group — Narrowing the practice niche requires a strong sense of purpose and the drive to keep everyone moving in the same direction.“You need someone who can get the cats herded together,” says Garner. “Someone with strong organizational skills who can set boundaries and create incentives for the people who are stepping into the group.”
Anticipate trends — It’s not enough to be current on the law. An effective practice group leader anticipates emerging issues and trends, and manages the group in order to meet future expectations. Staying ahead of the game is of huge value to clients.
Set achievable goals —Without goals, it’s difficult to move together in a common direction or measure the success of achievement. However, strike a balance between high expectations and limited time. Failure to meet unreasonable goals is demoralizing.
Talk the talk — Effective communicators, well, they talk. They articulate their goals, share personal stories, ask questions, congratulate good work and address problems straight on. But they also know when to stop and listen.
Observe diplomatic niceties — Conflict is unavoidable, but if handled successfully, it can be a catalyst for change. “Constructive criticism is in the manner of delivery,” says Laurie Robson, partner and leader of the Labour & Employment practice group at the Calgary office of Borden Ladner Gervais. “Not everyone handles criticism well, so you have to deliver a negative message in a way that helps the professional improve the next time around.”
Think like a coach — A good coach will assess the skills of every team member and help them find a niche in which they excel. No one is expected to know everything (not even the practice group leader!) but collectively, they’re a winning team.
Up the ante — Demonstrate that the practice group is more effective, more marketable and more profitable as a team than as individuals working alone. “Our clients recognize we have greater depth than just one person alone, and that has certainly helped on the marketing side,” says Kruhlak. “Some members of the group have increased their practice by a significant percentage, from 10- to 25 percent and maybe even more.”
Amy Jo Ehman is a freelance writer.