Corner Office

New Roles for Group Leaders

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The new Orleans-based firm McGlinchey Stafford celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, having grown to 175 lawyers by old-fashioned recruitment and through mergers or lateral hires. Along the way, the firm has evolved from old-fashioned management, by way of a founder’s force of personality, to an elected managing partner and appointed practice group leaders.

Now comes the next level. The firm expects to hire non­lawyer professionals to help run the individual prac­tice areas, making them even more like corporate divisions.

“We want to give our team leaders in practice groups some support other than secretaries and other lawyers,” says Rodolfo J. Aguilar Jr., the firm’s Baton Rouge-based managing partner. “We want someone who is business-oriented and knowledgeable about marketing and organizing people toward a goal.”

More firms are beginning to place greater emphasis on practice area leaders, and McGlinchey Stafford wants to go one step further with professional staffing to help out. Rainmakers traditionally assumed the lion’s share of power in law firms, and that magnificent beast still reigns in some. Most, however, have moved on to more sophisticated management approaches, with the election and appointment of those running firms.

But further down the chain of command, the practice group leader is often little more than a title. “A lot of them are just going through the motions,” says Bryan Schwartz, chairman of Chicago’s Levenfeld Pearlstein. “If you’re just giving somebody a title, that’s an absolute waste of money.”

Wanted: A People Person

Like any new way of doing things, the move toward a business model of practice group leadership comes with a quiver of buzzwords: emotional intelligence, collaboration, authority and responsibility. And patience.

“It takes about two years after a firm decides to morph to a higher level,” Schwartz says. “Everybody can say they’re on board, but you still go through the stages of death–acceptance, denial, etc.–before everyone is humming along on the same page.” The key is getting the right people in the job.

Traditional rainmakers tend to be too competitive, both outside and inside the firm. They lack such abilities as emotional intelligence. Under these leaders, practice groups could become warring factions. A practice group leader needs skill in relationships and organizing. He or she should be involved in the nitty-gritty detail and coordinate with other practice group leaders.

But the business-model approach goes only so far when applied to law firms. “Some firms make a mistake trying to have component profitability,” says Schwartz. “It’s still a service business and you can’t demand that the litigation department be as profitable as corporate. Cor­porate needs litigation to serve its clients well.”

All practice groups, though, need equal footing in firm management, and that means considerable authority must be invested in the groups’ leaders. Many say a critical aspect of this is compensation–not of the group leader but of the practice group members.

“The practice group leader has to have significant input on the compensation of every partner in that group,” says Schwartz. “Without that, you have nothing. You have to have their attention and respect.”

Responsibilities and authority of practice group leaders must be far-reaching and specific. Atlanta’s Alston & Bird, known for innovative management, put those aspects in writing with a list of 13 points outlining the roles of practice group leaders.

Among them are strategic planning and continual revision and implementation of the group plan; financial management of practice group resources; monitoring and coordinating hiring, mentoring, evaluation and recruitment; acting as eyes and ears of the managing partner, the partners’ committee and the administrative committee; as well as “walking the halls.”

“Everybody takes the job more seriously this way,” says Ben F. Johnson III, the firm’s managing partner. “It facilitates a certain entrepreneurial approach to management of the firm closer and more hands-on.”

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