Who Makes the Best Practice Group Leaders?

Posted on February 2, 2021 by Susan Lambreth

In medium to large firms, it is typical to have 10 or more practice group leaders. Yet, in many firms, leadership may feel that there are not enough capable partners who are willing to perform the role effectively. Does your firm have the people you need?

To fill your firm’s leadership positions and to enhance your leadership pool for the future, it’s important to first determine the skills and characteristics needed to be effective as a practice group leader.


The Changing Role of Practice Group Leader

Historically, the practice group leadership role was largely administration. PGLs typically lacked authority and were primarily concerned with marketing along with a bit of associate management. This was before most law firms fully embraced empowered practice groups and began to understand the need for true leaders and managers. 


During this time, the function of practice group leader tended to be more reactive than proactive. These leaders were selected because they fell into one or more of the following categories:  

(1) Major business generators within the practice;  

(2) Senior partners, whose title was primarily honorary;  

(3) Under-producing partners who have time and interest in management (but not necessarily the skills or credibility to manage); or  

(4) Partners with a genuine interest in marketing and business development (but, again, lacking the skills to fulfill the broader leadership role in a meaningful way).

That was before the competitive environment became as challenging as it is right now. Today, the vast majority of law firms have empowered their practice group leaders to handle many of the firm’s toughest leadership and management tasks.


What Should Practice Group Leadership Entail?

Practice group leaders should provide overall leadership and direction for the group. The common list of responsibilities in most firms includes:

  • Strategic business planning
  • Business development
  • Thought leadership and specialization
  • Client and matter intake  
  • Talent development and management
    • Work acceptance, workload management and lawyer utilization
    • Training and professional development of all levels of professionals
    • Motivation and morale  
  • Risk management and quality control  
  • Financial management  
  • Knowledge management; and  
  • Innovation
    • Legal project management, process improvement, business design and practice technologies.    

This is an impressive list of what should happen.  When it does not, there are several reasons, but a primary one is lawyers may be untrained, or undertrained, in the necessary business disciplines.  Fortunately, though, these skills can be developed with sufficient support from firm management and appropriate training programs.  We have proof from the 25+ years of leadership programs we have facilitated.  And, when the skills are better developed, practice leaders are more efficient and effective in doing their job – a benefit we’ll address in future articles.

 Baseline Practice Group Leader Competencies 

Even prior to rolling out a management training program, you can begin to identify the type of practice group leaders you need by targeting lawyers who possess certain characteristics. These attributes include:

  • Credibility;
  • Integrity, trustworthiness and a “firm-first” mentality;
  • Organizational skills

We will address each in turn.  


Where a firm has implemented empowered practice management more recently, credibility is even more important than it would be in a firm with established management practices and policies. When partners are asked to give up some individual autonomy and work toward group goals, resistance may surface. This resistance underscores the importance of selecting practice group leaders who are both successful and well-respected. They must demonstrate practice expertise and experience, a respected reputation in their niche, as well as a solid record of keeping commitments. This is why selecting a low-performing-partner as a practice group leader will ultimately fail.


Integrity, Trustworthiness and “Firm-first” Mentality

The practice group leader must be willing to put aside individual interests and take action to promote the overall good of the practice. This is no easy feat, but one that engenders trust. Further, leaders must champion new ideas and support their people even in failure. Practice group leaders who demonstrate a willingness to place the practice’s interest above their own will engender trust and inspire cooperation.

Organizational and Communication Skills

Most firms are not ready to allow one of their busiest, most valuable partners to devote all of their time to leading and managing the practice group.  As a result, the practice group leader needs strong time management, personal organizational and communication skills, to be capable of juggling the demands of a busy practice as well as managing the group. While there are many strategic roles they play in leading the practice group, there are also basic “blocking and tackling” responsibilities they must handle, particularly if they do not have business professionals to assist them (often called Practice Group Directors or Managers). 

Of course, even with these competencies, the best Practice Group Leaders must also demonstrate passion toward helping others succeed. This is a servant leadership mind-set. These and other important areas, will be covered in future articles.  But start with the areas above to establish a firm foundation upon which to develop high-performing practice group leaders.


About the Author: Susan Lambreth has over 25 years of experience as a consultant to the legal profession. Susan has helped implement effective practice group management at almost 100 firms, including nearly half of the largest firms in the U.S. She regularly teaches leadership and management skills to Practice Group Leaders and other professionals. Susan also assists firms in implementing effective legal project management initiatives. Along with a colleague, Ms. Lambreth co-created the first legal project management (LPM) certification program in 2010 and launched the first online eLearning courses in legal project management (LPM LaunchPadTM course). Ms. Lambreth is the author of three books on practice group management as well as three on LPM.




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