I am one of three founding partners in a 17 lawyer insurance defense firm in Houston. We have a total of 18 lawyers in the firm – 3 founding equity partners, 4 other equity partners, 5 non-equity partners, and 6 associates. The three of us founding partners are in our 60s and approaching requirement and are concerned about succession planning and transition. We feel that we are in good shape concerning transition of clients but not so concerning management roles and responsibilities. The firm is managed by the three of us and we have kept tight reigns on the administrative/management side of the house. We would appreciate your thoughts.
A successful transition strategy involves three components.
While it sounds like you are in good shape concerning legal skills of your other partners and client and referral source relationships, work needs to be done in the areas of firm management and leadership.
Law schools do not train or develop managing partners or lawyer managers, nor does doing excellent and complicated work for demanding clients. Highly competent attorneys do not necessarily make good managing partners or lawyer managers. Some of the best lawyers are the worst managers. The better lawyer managers have a second sense for people and management, in addition to being good lawyers and possibly outstanding rainmakers. Many firms develop successors to management by delegating to selected mid-level and junior partners short term management assignments and by rotating these partners through various management areas to develop their general management skills rather than developing particular lawyers as specialists in specific management areas. These firms begin to train mid-level and junior partners by assigning short term, low risk management activities before entrusting them with key management jobs.
The following are recommended areas in which the management skills of mid-level and junior partners can and should be developed:
Techniques for Developing Skills
On-the-job-training is the most effective technique for developing and refining the management skills of mid-level and junior partners. Three of the most frequently used approaches for teaching management skills include being assigned to a committee, being elected or appointed to a management or leadership position and serving as a member of a special team.
The mid-level or junior partner selected for training should receive administrative assignments and his or her performance should be evaluated accordingly. Each lawyer manager should be requested to develop a plan for the year, including goals and proposed action plans for accomplishing their objectives. They should be required to review these plans with the head of the committee or the partner to whom they are accountable. Partners who are appointed or elected to specific positions should be accountable to a partner or committee responsible for their actions and be evaluated on their performance. Many law firms consider the success or failure of partners in planning and implementing administrative assignments when recommending or setting their compensation levels. This is done to encourage the firm’s “best and brightest” partners to accept administrative assignments and not feel uncomfortable because they may record fewer billable hours. Also, it would be wise for the managing partner or executive committee to identify and provide other non-monetary forms of recognition to successful lawyer managers.
Planning for the transition of law firm leadership and management calls for the ability of the current managing partner or members of the management committee to spot leadership and management potential among the partner complement. Once this potential has been identified the current management must nurture and develop this potential so as to provide the future leaders of the firm.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm is a 17 attorney insurance defense firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. We are in first generation and we have 9 equity partners, 3 non-equity partners, and 5 associates. We are managed by a three member executive committee and a firm administrator. We have been discussing the need to create a few practice groups and appointing practice group leaders for these groups. We are wondering what the roles of these leaders should be and what should be expected of them. Your advise is appreciated.
The overall purpose and role of practice groups as well as their leaders should be to create structure and accountability within their respective practice groups to maximize the economic potential of the firm while institutionalizing the principles of leadership and teamwork. The practice group leaders should have 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 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.
Here is a list of typical practice group leader responsibilities:
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. 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.
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. Practice group leaders should review monthly accounts receivable reports for the practice partners and to work with each partner to take prompt and appropriate actions to cure delinquencies.
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.
4. Associate Mentoring, Compensation Adjustments and Growth
Practice group 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.
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.
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 I 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.
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 Executive Committee.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC