Role and Responsibilities of Practice Leaders

by Joel A. Rose

            Managing partners and members of executive committees in the more financially and professionally successful law firms that are organized into substantive departments and/or practice groups for the delivery of legal services strongly support the concept of having practice leaders assume a major role in their firm’s efforts to: (1) increase the productivity levels of all timekeepers within their practices, (2) increase the economic contribution of their practices to the firm and (3) assume primary responsibility for communications to and from members of their practices about firm economics, priorities and business issues, as well as practice growth and client development initiatives.

            Ideally, the objective of defining the responsibilities of practice leaders should be to establish just enough structure and accountability within their respective departments/groups to maximize the economic potential of the firm while institutionalizing the principles of leadership and teamwork.

            The practice leaders must have considerable discretion as to how to implement these responsibilities within their groups. Recognizing that practice leaders have many priorities, it is expected that they may delegate certain functions to one or more partners within their group, i.e., training associates, reviewing and following-up on marketing initiatives established by the group and individual members, etc. It is also anticipated that the practice leaders may call upon the managing partner or members of the executive committee to assist in the implementation of these initiatives.  However, practice leaders must retain responsibility for working with timekeepers within their practice group - partners, associates and paralegals - on their individual productivity, billing, collection and marketing efforts.

Practice Leader Responsibilities

            The following is a list of practice leader responsibilities:

1.         Productivity

            Traditionally, many firms have focused upon productivity at the end of the year and many have been disappointed with the billable hour statistics of partners, counsel, associates and paralegals. This situation has significantly improved in many of the more progressively managed firms through frequent consultation that is consistent across practice groups. With the assistance of the managing partner and members of executive committees, many firms have developed a simplified tracking system that is designed to provide to each practice leader a report for the practice area shortly after the end of each month.

            On a regular basis, monthly at the outset and at least as the end of each quarter after target levels have been achieved, practice leaders should review the billable hours of each timekeeper in their practice groups. Areas to scrutinize include partner and associate billable effort, e.g., are partners pushing work down and is there sufficient billable work to keep all timekeepers fully occupied to meet target performance levels, and distribution of work among practice group associates, are there imbalances that are inadvertent or intentional.

            Each practice leader should be responsible for (1) reviewing the practice productivity with the practice partners, associates and paralegals and making the necessary adjustments and corrections; and (2) meeting at least quarterly with the managing partner to review the practice productivity.

2.         Economic Performance

            Equally important to the success of a law firm is the need to improve the effectiveness of its attorneys’ billing and collection practices. In many of the more financially successful firms, the  practice leaders have assumed a major role in the initiative to increase their firm’s economic performance.

            Thus, the practice leaders should consult with the practice partners concerning their efforts to bill and collect for services provided to firm clients. This will require the practice leaders to review monthly accounts receivable reports for the practice partners and to work with each partner to take prompt and appropriate actions to cure delinquencies. To accomplish this, the managing partner should insure that a simplified report is prepared which will provide necessary information to the practice leaders. Also, the practice leaders should anticipate providing periodic briefings to the managing partner.

3.         New Client/ New Matter Intake Procedure

Except for the conflicts checks, partners in a great many law firms make individual decisions committing their firm to a particular client representation.

            Since practice leaders are expected to be responsible for setting the course, and profitability, of their respective practices, i.e., implementing the practice area strategic plan, it follows that they should play a significant role in the decision on what work the practice should pursue through client development initiatives and what work it should accept. 

Practice leaders in many of the more profitable firms take an active role in the intake procedures for new clients and matters to ensure that: (1) the engagement does not present a client or business conflict (and where one is identified, work within the firm to resolve such conflicts; (2) the work is appropriate for the practice to perform; (3) credit is fairly allocated among those responsible for the opportunity, including consultation with other practice leaders where cross-practice efforts were involved to obtain the representation; and (4) work assignments are distributed appropriately among those partners and associates competent to perform this work  within the practice group.

4.         Associate Mentoring, Compensation Adjustments and Growth

To further the objective of growing the firm profitability, it is essential that there be in place a solid program for the growth and upward mobility and retention of high quality associates that have been trained and have progressed through the firm’s “career development” program. To accomplish this goal, practice leaders should take the lead to implement the firm’s mentoring program for each practice group associate and periodically evaluate the each associate’s growth, ensure preparation of annual written reviews of all associates by partners supervising their assignments and assume responsibility for prompt implementation of performance improvement directives or outplacement. This assessment process should be performed more frequently than mandatory year-end written reviews.

The practice leaders, also in consultation with the Chair of the Associates’ Committee, assuming that an Associates’ Committee has been established to oversee the recruiting, retention and the development of systems for the associates’ professional and personal career development at the firm, should review the annual written evaluation of all practice group associates and approve their annual salary adjustments and bonuses.

In addition, the practice leaders periodically should initiate with the practice partners, evaluations of the “partner potential” of each associate in their practice groups.

Annually, each practice leader should provide to the managing partner and Associates’ Committee, the practice group’s evaluation of its current need, if any, and three year projection of need for additional partners, supported by economic justification, and identity of those associates in the practice that are recommended for current and future partnership consideration.

            Finally, when an associate is deemed worthy for consideration for partnership, no later than their sixth year, the practice leader should establish a special mentoring program to ensure that each candidate is provided every  opportunity  to achieve partnership status. This is particularly important in those instances where individuals have been considered but not selected for partnership and are considered to be viable candidates in the future.

5.         Partner Compensation Recommendations

Practice leaders should assume an important role in the compensation evaluation of partners in their practice group.

            Practice leaders should prepare annual qualitative evaluations of each partner in the practice, and, where applicable, coordinate evaluations for partners associated with more than one practice group. In addition, they should review annual performance statistics for each partner and make recommendations to the Compensation Committee. It should be anticipated that practice leaders will be interviewed by members of the Compensation Committee concerning their compensation recommendations.

6.         Strategic Planning and Practice Development

            Partners in a great many law firms focus their attention on the development of their individual practices and to commit their firm’s resources to support these efforts. While we endorse these  individual efforts, many of the more financially and professionally successful law firms have determined that it makes sense to create some structure to ensure that the individual efforts fit within the overall strategic plan for their practice area and their firm.

            The author believes that those partners responsible for managing/coordinating the firm’s practice areas should be responsible for preparation of an annual practice area strategic plan, in consultation with the partners working in their practice area, for presentation to the firm’s  Managing Partner, Management Committee or designated sub-committee. In addition, practice leaders should be responsible for preparation of an annual practice group marketing plan and budget after consulting with the practice partners for review and approval by the Marketing Committee.

Routinely, the practice leaders should review the progress and problems of the members of his or her practice group in implementing the marketing plan to insure that appropriate support to achieve each marketing initiative is being provided.

            To ensure that plans are implemented and periodically re-evaluated, the practice leaders should be responsible for periodic contact with the Marketing committee, the Managing Partner and the Management Committee concerning (1) practice group client development expenditures and returns on those investments, and (2) success and/or shortcomings and the need for modifying the practice group strategic plan.

7.         Lateral Candidate Opportunities

            Whether as a result of strategic planning or unanticipated circumstances, it is anticipated that all of the firm’s practice areas will be opportunistic to the possibility of considering lateral acquisitions with profitable books of desirable business to enhance the firm’s practices. Because this process may be time consuming for the firm’s lawyer management, it will be important for the practice leaders to identify resource needs, conduct initial screening of lateral candidates, and when a viable candidate is found that satisfies the firm’s screening criteria and the practice group’s strategic plan, make recommendations to the Managing Partner and the Management Committee.

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