Herding Cats Into Groups: The Attributes That Distinguish Effective Group Performance

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by Patrick J. McKenna

Every few years a new theme emerges in law firm management. Yet the latest theme is more than just a passing fad. It is, in fact, a theme that speaks directly to how law firms are structured, how the profession is practiced, and to how services actually get transacted and delivered to clients. In recent years, there has been a strong new emphasis on practice groups as representing the heart and soul of effective organizational and business development strategy.

Of course, there are perceived perils here: practice leaders all too often experience a high degree of frustration. They report to us that:

  • On average they invest a significant amount of their non-billable time but always with a sense of pushing uphill;
  • The professionals comprising their groups are extremely competent and by-and-large doing good work, yet seldom are all working to their individual potential;
  • When group members do take initiative it is usually regarding things that they are personally interested in, not necessarily what is in the best interests of the practice group; and
  • They find themselves expending excessive time and energy prodding embers to get the projects completed that they have been given.

If you're a battle-scarred veteran living a similar experience, you are probably grimacing with recognition. Our message then may come as a welcome relief to those managing partners who have been struggling over their frustration with trying to forge a collection of professionals into a functional practice group.

Over the past five years we have met with or interviewed managing partners and practice leaders from 327 law and accounting firms throughout Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom to interview them on practice management issues. What we discovered is that every high performance practice group is extraordinary in its own way. What we learned is that there was a surprising consistency to the characteristics of the most effective practice groups.

The following attributes comprise what we have found (thus far) to be among the most important elements to developing high performance practice teams. While all of the following characteristics may not be present in every high performance practice group, most are associated with the most successful groups that we observed.

In The Best Groups The Leader Is More A Coach
Than A Boss, Visionary, Or Role-Model.

Irrespective of whether you call it a section, department, client team, industry group, or strategic business unit; and whether there is a manager, leader, head, chair, practice deputy, team captain or coordinator - - in the best practice groups we inevitably find that someone is formally or informally serving as a "coach".

  • In sessions comprised of managing partners and practice leaders, we have often engaged participants in an exercise to explore what attributes they could identify as common to the best mentor, or leader that they had ever experienced working with over the course of their professional careers. We asked them: "What did that person specifically do that inspired you and caused you to perform better than you might otherwise have performed?"

Repeatedly they told us that the individual who came to mind for them:

  • Always displayed a sincere concern for the long term best interests and continuous development of them as individuals;
  • Was unselfishly generous in their provision of time both during and after office hours;
  • Was always accessible, easy to talk to, nonjudgmental, and served as a good sounding board to have them think through their own ideas;
  • Encouraged people to take risks, championed their efforts, provided protection and helped them learn from their mistakes.
  • Demanded a sense of urgency, attention to detail and people's best efforts on every single client project; and
  • Took great pride in their work and in the team, always displaying a positive attitude and a sense of humor.

What was most revealing, was that this individual was not cited for their authoritative presence, their extraordinary vision, their seniority, their rainmaking ability or personal book of business. It would seem that they were admired in their role because they were perceived as someone these people could go to if they had a problem and someone who was actually perceived to care and would help people become more successful.

They Count Management Time As Billable Time.

One of the important first steps for those in firm leadership seeking to enhance each practice coaches' role and effectiveness, is to define "mutual" expectations with those chosen to coordinate the groups activities. The best performers seem to set a minimum-maximum requirement for the amount of non-billable time that should be devoted to practice management matters. Often that non-billable time will be somewhere around 300 hours a year. The leadership of the firm will also clearly define where and how that time should be invested, how it should be recorded (by date and activity), and how accountability will be determined.

By way of an example, accredited time is often that time that a practice coach spends engaged in one-on-one mentoring, counseling and assisting members of the group with their individual projects and their practice development efforts; as well as that time spent visiting with the clients of the practice group to get feedback on their relative satisfaction and potential future needs. Any non-billable hours spent in meetings of the practice group would not be accredited since the practice coach would normally be in attendance at those meetings as a member of the group anyway.

What is most interesting about this approach is that the economic sacrifice to the firm and to the practice coach is negligible as the process of giving up 300 billable hours simply encourages the individual to delegate those billable matters that most likely should have been and could have been delegated in the first place.

They Seek "Input" From The Practice Coach On Individual Compensation.

Practice leaders who are given a whip by virtue of being able to significantly determine the compensation of group members may soon be regarded as simply authority figures. Conversely the opinions of the practice coach should not be disregarded where they may have some valuable input to share into the relatively invisible contributions of some members or the conscientious efforts of others that have not yet evidenced a measurable return.

The key phrase here is "input". In the best groups the practice leader is asked to provide comment on each of the members of their group as one further factor to determining individual compensation.

Effective Practice Groups Start Out Through A Process Of Self-Selection.

When it comes to setting up their groups, many firms seem to want to demonstrate their seriousness by attaching every single professional to a number of different practice groups within the firm. The result is group members who feel no real sense of personal commitment. The exercise should be one of allowing professionals to determine for themselves what group (or groups) they want to belong to, feel that they have developed the credentials to make a contribution to, and have the discretionary time available to forge a commitment.

One of the most fascinating exercises we had the privilege of orchestrating, occurred during a firm's annual Retreat. This firm wanted to introduce the concept of having "industry groups". At the partners' lunch we placed on every table a prominent sign identifying a specific industry that this firm had some experience in serving. The professionals were then invited to sit at whichever table they found most appealing. You can well imagine the scuffle that transpired as they examined each option and looked to where their colleagues were choosing to sit.

During the lunch they were assigned some basic discussion topics:

  • What clients and experiences have we each had? (What have each of us learned about working with this industry that others around the table may not know?)
  • What are the Top 3 emerging issues facing companies in this industry? (What is it that is keeping key executives awake at night?)
  • What is it that we are uniquely able to offer this industry, that is of value, and that these prospects/clients can't get from any other firm?
  • What benefits could we get from working together, and if there would be any benefit to us in exploring further discussions together on this industry -- what specifically is our next step?

The Best Consciously Address "What's In It For Me?"

The best teams invest some time early in the process to address a basic issue with their people - the question of: "What's in it for me and why should I join a practice group in the first place?"

When we have asked of groups of lawyers: "What benefits might you expect to get out of practicing with a group of like-minded individuals with a common purpose - that you couldn't get if you were practicing by yourself?" - - the type of answers that we are likely to hear, include:

  • The group could serve to provide a "sense of community" if people agreed to work together and become mutually supportive.
  • The group could be a source of work for me if we were to engage in some joint-marketing and cross selling activities. The group could help us all develop a perception of "bench strength" in that we would have a critical mass with meaningful presence and "brand name" in our marketplace.
  • The group could provide a conduit for intellectual exchange whereby I could gain access to others' skills, bounce some ideas around, or get a quick favor.

Together we could cooperate in developing support systems, train juniors, and share work product all of which would make my work more efficient and my life easier.

What this should suggest is that while practice groups may have been initially organized for strictly marketing reasons, there is a much greater scope of benefits that could be obtained. We find that if practice groups do not invest the time to answer this one to the satisfaction of their professionals, little else matters.

High Performance Groups Breed A Sense Of "Exclusivity".

If you think about it, the harder one has to struggle for something, the more precious it becomes. Belonging to a practice group then, doesn't count for much if almost anyone can drift in or out of the group at will. Being part of a practice group of truly committed, exceptional professionals has a profound impact on each member. We have observed that the best practice groups create that sense of exclusiveness. They make membership into their practice group a big deal by ensuring that there is some acknowledged criteria for admission - a minimum level of substantive experience, a willingness to freely share client contacts and knowledge, a commitment to attend meetings (on time), to complete projects; perhaps even by having each professional provide the group with their written commitment to live up to certain acknowledged standards. They find that stiff criteria for admission and for retention causes the weak-hearted to de-select themselves.

This approach incorporates one of the most fundamental motivators throughout human history - pride in belonging.

The Best Are Obsessed About Limiting Their Size.

Bigger does not always mean better, and nowhere is that more evident then when it comes to assessing practice group effectiveness. Observations drawn from our research confirms that one of the best ways to ensure failure is to allow membership to grow beyond a small, "core" working group.

We have seen practice groups in some larger law firms with forty, sixty, and even in excess of a hundred professionals, even though everyone should have recognized instinctively that practice groups that large can not be productive. While the larger practice group may be viewed as the means to bring more minds to bear on the growth and development of the practice, it soon becomes evident that not all of those minds actually have any significant contributions to bear.

What to do? Here are some options to consider that we have observed other firms using successfully:

  • Reorganize existing groups into smaller practice units. One tactic may be to break up larger teams into smaller practice-specific splinter groups. In this model, the high technology industry group might become the computer technology group, the telecommunications group, and the biotechnology group; irrespective of location. Or, the litigation group could be sub-divided into the securities litigation group, the product liability group, the professional malpractice group, and so forth.
  • Protect the core and institute a "resource member" approach. It may not be easy to remove some individuals from some groups, but the long term impacts on productivity makes this effort critical. A "core" group should consist of only those partners whose full-time practice efforts are involved in the specialized area. The core group meets regularly and makes decisions on the direction of the practice. Concurrently, practice coaches remain free to invite others to assist and participate as substantive experts on specific client projects or to "help get stuff done" as the need may arise - but like the darting seagull, the resource member drops their load and departs.

This is not to suggest that obsessing on having smaller practice groups is the be all and end all - "small is beautiful." Rather - getting better is beautiful! However, in too many cases, we observe that getting bigger becomes the substitute for getting better.

High Performance Groups Collectively Set Standards For Mutual Accountability.

One problem in most practice groups is professionals who don't follow through on what they say they are going to do. If the practice leader isn't to be given a big stick (like compensation) to scold those group members who are tardy for meetings, consistently inattentive, argumentative, or not meeting project deadlines; how do you compel professionals to do anything?

Every championship team, in every endeavor, has attained their championship status largely by having some hard and fast, non-negotiable rules that everyone agrees to abide by. The best practice groups seem to formulate together and commit to (writing) a set of sensible rules for how their championship team will work together and self-manage, by bringing about constructive peer pressure.

Professionals then hold themselves, and each other, accountable. If someone does something inconsistent with the defined standards, anyone in the group can say: "Excuse me, didn't we all agree that . . ." In fact, effective practice coaches make sure that the group even addresses it's collective mind to what the consequences will be if any of the group's standards are violated - - after all, if there are no consequences, there probably are no standards. The group then collectively manages the standards, and the standards manage the practice group.

The Best Practice Groups Meet Frequently.

We are struck by how often any firm leader who cites one particular practice group that stands head-and-shoulders above the others, then tells us about how "of course they meet weekly!"

High performance practice groups meet frequently (weekly) for short (one-hour) highly focused interactions. They have specific agendas (written) calling for action reports (submitted in advance) and often rotate within the group the responsibility for facilitating discussions. Some of these meetings will be dedicated to short-term (quarterly) practice group planning; conducting post-mortem reviews of specific client transactions and substantive learnings; hosting a member of the group, client executive or some other practice leader invited to brief the members on new developments; discussing efforts to obtain additional work from existing clients; and so forth.

High Performance Groups Take Action in Incremental Steps for Continuous Improvement.

Without something to show for their efforts, the most talented assemblage becomes little more than a social club or therapy group. We have observed that in those groups consistently "shooting-the-light-out", practice coaches operate on the basis of:

  • Having lawyers voluntarily choose that project that most interests them. Professionals cannot be drafted or assigned to specific projects or tasks that arise during group meetings. Practice coaches conclude meetings by going around the table and having each member take responsibility for a specific action task.
  • Ensuring that each specific task is small and doable. The practice coaches role is to ensure that the task is very small ("what is the first step that should be tackled to start this project?"), carefully defined ("what can we expect to get from you by the next meeting?"), and completely capable of being accomplished. The best practice leaders know that it is important to return to the next meeting with people reporting small successes, not excuses.
  • Identifying progress and celebrating successes. Good coaches know that it is important to recognize the outcome of present actions as they play a major role in determining future actions. Their primary goal is to build an early success to continue the momentum.

They Manage Internal Conflict By Abandoning Individual Egos To The Pursuit Of Some "Compelling Challenge".

Most energetic, ambitious professionals do not want to join a practice group, they want to join a crusade or join a movement - - something that has a larger meaning and gives them a sense of purpose about what they are doing. In interview after interview those practice groups that achieve high performance are those where the group collectively has found some great, "compelling challenge" to aim for. We have usually observed that sense of challenge to be manifested in any combination of the following:

  • A specific, high profile "project". The group may be playing for high stakes, racing toward the completion of a time sensitive objective, or aiming to achieve an accomplishment that redefines the practice;
  • A perceived "Cause" or "Crusade". Some of the best practice groups believe that they can change the world; act as if they were on a crusade. Members of the group have become committed to either effect significant change (explore a positive course of action) or arrest an economic condition (divert a negative course of action);
  • The perception (real, created, or imagined) of a rival to be vilified – a "competitor" to be vanquished. Sometimes a very important ingredient to achieving success is in having a competent, tireless enemy.
  • A sense of themselves as "rebellious underdogs". They view themselves as a feisty collection of mavericks with fresh ideas for how to serve clients, or a spunky little group of upstarts determined to set new directions.
  • A "dream" that members of the practice group share of creating something new, exploring new precedents or solving some tough problems, and achieving some sense of professional recognition.

When a practice group is in pursuit of some compelling challenge, especially an important one, other considerations seem to fade into the background.

The Best Groups Have A Formal Client "Screening" Process.

There is an old adage that says, "we are known by the company we keep." This is very evident among the best practice groups we have observed.

In the best groups every new client is put before a formal "screening" process to determine whether the practice group has the ability to handle the matter and add significant value; whether the assignment presents sufficient challenge to the group's members; whether the client offers any sense of prestige, new and needed experience, or something other than income; and whether the partners of the practice group believe they would enjoy the relationship and hence serve the client with enthusiasm.

While this process may never be perfect and while there may be economic times when any new revenue may be regarded as needed revenue, it is the simple act of having a formal screening process that is notable.


Simply labeling a collection of professionals a practice group does not make it one.

A real practice group is a small cadre of professionals with complimentary skills who are committed to the achievement of a compelling challenge, have predefined standards of performance, an implementable action plan for which they hold themselves mutually accountable to produce, and a practice coach in place to help each member become more successful than they might otherwise have become.

The best practice groups teach us something about effective leadership, inspired professionals, and performance that is truly worthy of being emulated.

Copyright. Patrick J. McKenna.

Patrick J McKenna Ashridge House
11226 - 60 Street Edmonton, Canada T5W 3Y8
Phone (800) 921-3343 or (780) 428-1052 Fax (780) 426-4182
[email protected]

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