Practice Management Takes Hold in Mid-Size Firms

by Joel A. Rose
 

Managing partners in many firms have relegated the practice of law to individual partners and have been reluctant to impose their judgments on how individual client matters were being performed.  This results from the belief that lawyer management should not have to follow-up on partners responsible for performing client work or for managing substantive practice areas.

It has been the author's experience that practice management and firm management interact most closely when firm revenue and the net profit available to partners declines.  When partners begin to feel the economic pinch in their pockets, there is a greater tendency to view practice areas and individual attorneys as profit centers.  As such, lawyer management needs to review all of the factors contributing to profitability and to address the following questions:

  1. How profitable are our practice areas?
  2. Should the firm continue to practice in these areas or redirect its efforts to other areas?
  3. Can certain partners and associates be re-assigned to other more profitable practice areas?  If so, what training will be required to bring these attorneys up to speed in these areas?  If not, what should be done with these attorneys?
  4. Should certain partners be assigned accountability for managing particular practice areas?
  5. What should be the role, responsibility and level of accountability of the heads of practice areas? 

Even though lawyer management in most mid-size firms recognize the importance of developing and implementing principles of practice management as a means to insure the high quality service to clients and to improve profitability, the extent to which practice management may be implemented varies greatly from firm to firm. This is because of lawyers' personalities and ability, partners' attitudes towards "being managed,” and the extent to which they are willing to relinquish a degree of their personal and professional autonomy.

An increasing number of mid-size law offices have introduced and implemented practice management activities to insure partner coordination, control and accountability over fields of law, areas of practice and client matters. 

Generally, under plans and policies established by the managing partner, each coordinating partner is charged with planning, organizing, and overseeing the proper and profitable handling of work in the practice area falling within his or her jurisdiction. A major function of the partner coordinating a practice area is to insure the timely completion of client work in a cost effective and quality manner.  Central to this activity is the assignment of work to associates or other partners. The partner may delegate assignments directly to attorneys within their field of law or who may be available or possess the expertise to perform the required work.

Each coordinating partner should be responsible for quality control and cost effectiveness of work performed in their area.  This partner should be available to discuss fees and oversee billings and collection of bills in his or her jurisdiction, as requested, and within the framework established by the managing partner.  This individual may be expected to coordinate the planning for business development and/or the systematic sharing of client relations within the practice area.

Within the system of the office, the coordinating partner should insure implementation of agreed upon policies on billings, collections, retention, and indexing of legal forms, memoranda, opinion letters, and important legal efforts for the practice area.

The partner should be consulted on, and should direct as may be required, the continuing legal education efforts for the work under his or her jurisdiction.  Each coordinating partner should communicate with the executive committee about the quality, client service, the economics of professional services rendered by the attorneys within the designated work area, as well as for the improvement of such services.  Each coordinator should advise, when requested or when considered appropriate, on the acceptance of new business, considering such aspects as conflict of interest, ethics, merit and strength of case, time required, ability of lawyers to handle the work, economics of the case, and value to the office.  If the coordinator is uncertain whether to accept a case, they should consult the managing partner.

The generic functions performed by each coordinating partner should be determined by the managing partner for the major areas of the office's work in terms of managing problems in work assignment, coordinating staffing, setting objectives and reviewing data to appraise results, insuring ethics and quality control, and cooperating with the executive committee. 

Each coordinator should be encouraged to develop their own style in accomplishing these objectives within the general guidelines of the office.

Weekly, coordinating partners should receive a written notice from the office administrator describing every new matter within the practice area that has been accepted during that week.  These reports will advise the coordinator of the existence of new matters within their jurisdiction, along with the identity of the originating partner.

As required, each coordinating partner should meet with the partners and associates working on matters within the practice area to briefly discuss individual workloads, problems in producing work in a timely manner, schedule conflicts, etc.  To facilitate this review, each coordinator should access the calendars and dockets for statute of limitations dates, other key filing dates, status reports or supplemental miscellaneous information and a record of every matter by the "handling attorneys." 

To the extent that the coordinator has doubts about the ability of the originating attorney to perform the work (within the coordinator’s practice area), whether due to lack of expertise or work overload, the coordinator should discuss the matter with the originating attorney.  All client assignments with related questions between the practice coordinator and the originating attorney that cannot be resolved by the coordinator should be referred to the managing partner.

The practice coordinators should review, on a lawyer-by-lawyer basis, client work that is not being performed in a timely or quality manner or work that can afford more lawyer time.  The practice coordinator should review lawyer production reports monthly, or more frequently as required, to determine the extent to which lawyers are producing the work.  Following this review, the coordinator may assign or suggest reassignment of work to other attorneys who are not being utilized effectively.  It is especially helpful for the coordinator to review all write-downs and write-offs of time and accounts receivable beyond certain dollar limits by billing attorney to determine the reasons and justifications for such action.  If partners are writing off too much time, it should be questioned.

It has been the author's experience that the individual needs of attorneys have to be balanced with individual partner independence to be responsive to the firm's organizational patterns and policies.  Applying management techniques to practice areas may introduce to the firm a new aspect on methods for enhancing profitability. An increasing number of law offices have begun to introduce practice management activities to insure partner control and accountability over fields of law and client matters.  Many offices have typically assigned partners the responsibility for managing/coordinating one or more of their designated practice areas.  Generally, under plans and policies established by the executive committee, each coordinating partner is charged with planning, organizing, and overseeing the proper and profitable handling of work in the practice area falling within his or her jurisdiction.

The major function of the partner coordinating a practice area is to insure the timely completion of client work in a cost effective and quality manner.  Central to this activity is the assignment of work to associates or other partners as office needs dictate.  The partner may delegate assignments directly to attorneys within their field of law or who may be available or possess the expertise to perform the required work.

Each coordinating partner should be responsible for quality control and cost effectiveness of work performed in their area.  This partner should be available to discuss fees and oversee billings and collection of bills in his or her jurisdiction, as requested, and within the framework established by the executive committee.  This individual may be expected to coordinate the planning for business development and/or the systematic sharing of client relations within the practice area.

Within the system of the office, the coordinating partner should insure implementation of agreed upon policies on billings, collections, retention, and indexing of legal forms, memoranda, opinion letters, and important legal efforts for the practice area.

The partner should be consulted on, and should direct as may be required, the continuing legal education efforts for the work under his or her jurisdiction.  Each coordinating partner should communicate with the executive committee about the quality, client service, the economics of professional services rendered by the attorneys within the designated work area, as well as for the improvement of such services.  Each coordinator should advise, when requested or when considered appropriate, on the acceptance of new business, considering such aspects as conflict of interest, ethics, merit and strength of case, time required, ability of lawyers to handle the work, economics of the case, and value to the office.  If the coordinator is uncertain whether to accept a case, they should consult the managing partner or an appropriate member of the executive committee.

The generic functions performed by each coordinating partner should be determined by the executive committee in the major areas of the office's work in terms of managing problems in work assignment, coordinating staffing, setting objectives and reviewing data to appraise results, insuring ethics and quality control, and cooperating with the executive committee.  Each coordinator should be encouraged to develop their own style in accomplishing these objectives within the general guidelines of the office.

On a weekly basis, the coordinating partner should receive a written notice from the office administrator describing every new matter within the practice area that has been accepted during that week.  These reports will advise the coordinator of the existence of new matters within their jurisdiction, along with the identity of the originating partner.

As required, each coordinating partner should meet with the partners and associates working on matters within the practice area to briefly discuss individual workloads, problems in producing work in a timely manner, schedule conflicts, etc.  To facilitate this review, each coordinator should maintain a record of every matter by "handling attorney."  The coordinator may record statute of limitations dates, other key filing dates, status reports or supplemental miscellaneous information.

To the extent that the coordinator has doubts about the ability of the originating attorney to perform the work, whether due to lack of expertise or work overload, the coordinator should discuss the matter with the originating attorney.  All client assignments with related questions between the practice coordinator and the originating attorney should be resolved by the managing partner or the executive committee.

The practice coordinators should review, on a lawyer-by-lawyer basis, client work that is not being performed in a timely or quality manner or work that can afford more lawyer time.  The practice coordinator should review lawyer production reports monthly, or more frequently as required, to determine the extent to which lawyers are producing the work.  Following this review, the coordinator may assign or suggest reassignment of work to other attorneys who are not being utilized effectively.  It is especially helpful for the coordinator to review all write-downs and write-offs by billing attorney to determine the reasons and justifications for such action.  If partners are writing off too much time, it should be questioned.

It has been the author's experience that the individual needs of attorneys have to be balanced with individual partner independence to be responsive to the firm's organizational patterns and policies.  Applying management techniques to practice areas may introduce to the firm a new aspect on methods for enhancing profitability.

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