Legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the longest-serving coach in the NBA. Under his leadership, the Spurs have won five national titles, and hold the record for the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons in NBA history. Coach Pop’s leadership, and his team-oriented approach to basketball, is the secret to the Spurs’ success.
Thanks to having the right leader, the Spurs organization has consistently demonstrated strong management, a clear vision, and a winning record. Good players know that the Spurs are able to foster both team and individual success. Success breeds success, water seeks its own level, birds of a feather flock together. Are law firms subject to the same phenomena? Do lawyers seek the best team?
With global firms getting larger and opening more regional offices around the country, an ever increasing number of niche boutiques with successful lawyers who want a different lifestyle, as well as all the traditional mid-sized firms, top talent is in demand. But top legal talent (associates and partners) are free agents. They get to choose where they want to practice. Like athletes, they want to join a team with successful players, good management and strong leadership. Importantly, this includes within practice groups. Strong leadership at the practice group level is a key differentiator for a law firm’s continued success. Because law firms compete primarily at the practice group level and outstanding law firm performance is driven by outstanding practice group performance, it is a business imperative for firms to improve the performance of their group leaders if they want to attract top talent.
Three Steps to More Effective Practice Group Leadership
- Get the Right People in the Leadership Seats
Gregg Popovich does not start the game with second-string players. Logically, this is obviously not a winning strategy. Yet, historically, too many firms select or appoint practice group leaders for the wrong reasons, namely:
- Seniority or end of career
- Book of business/rainmaker
- Not enough to do/underperforming
- Ego need
Wrong leadership won’t generate the right results. Practice group leaders should be selected based on ability to do the job. Put your best leaders in the practice group leader role.
Examples of Right Criteria for Practice Group Leader Selection
- Enthusiasm and vision
- “Gets things done” – makes decisions
- Leadership/management skills
- Gets along with people – likable
- Excellent lawyer – technically skilled
- Delegation skills – makes use of, and advances, all players’ skills
- Communication skills – calls the plays
The critical role of the practice group leader is to provide active and rigorous leadership of the group, helping it to achieve a higher level of competitiveness and market position or presence.
- Provide Continued Coaching
Both All Star athletes and All Star lawyers need ongoing coaching. Once you identify your practice group leaders, support them. Give them the training and the tools necessary to continually improve their game and the team’s game. Most practice group leaders have never received formal management training, have never operated a business, and have not read a leadership book. Law school trained them to be lawyers, not practice group leaders. There is no reasonable expectation that they should walk into the job knowing how to do it. You must equip them to be successful. Examples include:
- Regular group training on planning and implementation, business development, pricing and profitability strategies, evaluating associates, and motivating underproductive partners
- Individual coaching to assess and improve strengths, weaknesses, and leadership styles
- Regular meetings of firm practice group leaders to share experiences, best practices and seek advice
If you want practice groups to improve, you must take time away from billable hours to invest in developing the leadership capability of your leaders. Firms with the most effective practice group leadership invest the time and money necessary for continuous leadership improvement.
- Expect Real Accountability
In a basketball game, statistics are kept both on the team and the individual. In this way, the players, the coaches, the fans all know who is performing well, and who is not. This information can be used to improve individual and team performance. Similarly, to get optimal performance from your practice leaders, firm management must communicate clear performance expectations and put accountability mechanisms in place. Practice leaders must understand that their performance, and their team’s performance, will be evaluated, and how it will be evaluated. Firms must provide a clear job description with priorities indicated and regular performance reviews. Reviews can be periodic check-ins with the Managing Partner, Executive Committee, or Board to discuss progress against plan, resource needs, business development targets, recruiting needs, etc. The goals of these meetings should be:
- To make sure progress is being made
- To discuss resources needed to support the group’s efforts
- To encourage (not punish) the group leader
The approach should always be, “How can we help you be more successful?” By fostering a spirit of collaboration and excellence – not by reprimanding – firms can empower their practice group leaders to raise the bar for their team’s performance.
In free agency, the best players seek successful teams. Successful teams then put their best players in key positions and give them the tools and coaching necessary for further success. The same holds true in the legal field – the best are attracted to the best. Practice group leadership can help attract the best legal talent. If your firm follows these three steps (pick good people, provide continuous coaching, and ongoing accountability) the result will be more competitive, higher producing practice groups that attract more top legal talent to your firm.