No-one would deny that the role of practice group leader in a law firm is a challenging one. After all, there are all those cats to herd! I know that many firms struggle to find suitable volunteers to take on the role – it can be seen as the equivalent of a poisoned chalice.
So I conducted an online survey in September 2014 to analyse the leadership challenges faced specifically by practice group heads (PGH’s).
I wanted to find out:
- what were the key attributes required by PGH’s and their perceived skill levels .
- how much time PGH’s should spend in their management role and how much time they actually spent.
- what support and training PGH’s were offered to be effective in their role.
I received 83 responses – mostly from partners, including managing partners and practice group heads themselves.
I generated a list of 10 factors, widely thought by commentators on leadership to be important attributes. See https://tonyreiss.com/2014/02/27/from-surviving-to-thriving-as-a-practice-group-head/ for a full description of these factors.
I asked to what extent these were relevant to the role of PGH’s. The most important activity for PGH’s was thought to be ‘Developing a vision/strategy for the team’. The least important was ‘Being merciless on inaction’. See table 1 for the complete list and scores:
Table 1 – Relative importance of various attributes for Practice Group Heads (PGH’s)
|PGH Activity||How Useful Would this Activity Be?|
|Develop a vision/strategy||3.73|
|Being a good role model||3.57|
|Get clear what is expected||3.48|
|Get support from Board||3.44|
|Keep reinforcing the vision||3.32|
|Good project management||3.28|
|Give praise when due||3.25|
|Be a good coach||3.15|
|Delegate some roles||3.08|
|Be merciless on inaction||2.72|
Scores: 4=essential, 3=very useful, 2=of some use only, 1=not very useful
I then asked respondents how skilled the average PGH was in their firm. The two attributes that came out on top were ‘Being a good role model’ and ‘Getting support from the Board for special challenges’. PGH’s were considered least skilled at ‘Being merciless on inaction’, though this was not considered an important factor (see above). PGH’s were also judged to have low skills in ‘Being a good coach’. See Table 2 for the full list of scores:
Table 2 – Relative levels of leaderships skills for Practice Group Heads (PGH’s)
|Factor||How Skilled is your Average PGH?|
|Being a good role model||2.73|
|Get support from Board||2.62|
|Give praise when due||2.40|
|Good project management||2.39|
|Delegate some roles||2.37|
|Get clear what is expected||2.31|
|Develop a vision/strategy||2.19|
|Keep reinforcing the vision||2.19|
|Be a good coach||2.06|
|Be merciless on inaction||2.01|
Scores: 4=skilled in all aspects, 3=skilled in many aspects, 2=has some skills, 1=not very skilled
To complete this analysis and see what recommendations might be appropriate, I have compiled a table showing the ‘skill gap’ of PGH’s
|Leadership Attribute/Behaviour (in order of usefulness)||The Leadership Skills Gap|
|Develop a vision/strategy||-1.54|
|Being a good role model||-0.84|
|Get clear what is expected||-1.17|
|Get support from Board||-0.82|
|Keep reinforcing the vision||-1.13|
|Good project management||-0.89|
|Give praise when due||-0.85|
|Be a good coach||-1.09|
|Delegate some roles||-0.71|
|Be merciless on inaction||-0.71|
What is most striking about this table is that the biggest skills gap exists for the most important factor – Developing a vision/strategy for the team. This finding matches my own experiences of coaching partners – they are rarely able to answer my questions about the focus and direction of their practice group.
I then looked into what training/support PGH’s were given to be equipped for this role. There was a big difference depending on the size of firm. Nearly 80% of mid-size firms (ie no international offices) offered no formal training or executive coaching. I’m not sure how such firms expect their PGH’s to deliver!
My last area of questioning was about the time taken to manage a practice group. There were wide variations. On average respondents thought PGH’s should spend 6.4 hours/week in this role but thought PGH’s actually spent 4.5 hours/week. Quite a big difference.
Most firms seem to adopt a ‘sink or swim’ approach to appointing PGH’s. Given the importance of these business groups, is this wise?
It can make a big difference if a practice group can create a motivated team of professionals all pulling in the same direction. What I often see in law firms is a lack in true commitment to initiatives. There’s just grudging acceptance meaning that projects don’t fully deliver.
Paraphrasing the words of the inspirational Ben Zander, leader of the Boston Philharmonic, ‘If the eyes of your team members aren’t shining, first of all ask yourself, how are you being’.
Are the eyes of your team members shining?