Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

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Articles: Strategic Business Development Archives

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The Management Bargain

As law firms turn more to rewarding for new business-focused production, "eat what you kill," and to pursuing laterals with sizable portable business portfolios, what are the responsibilities of organizations and their management to help their members and employees succeed? Shouldn't it go further than providing some overhead and basic marketing tools?

Most of us would respond "Yes," or a firm is no more than a group of solo practitioners sharing space. Maybe it amounts to even less than a virtual law firm connected by cyberspace and the commitment to work together for the benefit of a client and send referrals among members.

A law firm or any other organization cannot perpetuate itself in the long-term or attract, keep, and develop talent even in the shorter term without doing the following to help its people succeed:

  • Support practice building;
  • Encourage and facilitate introductions for marketing and service delivery opportunities;
  • Integrate the firm's lawyers and practices, whether home-grown or laterally acquired;
  • Provide training and annual assessment of professional growth for all lawyers, not only the junior ones.

The firms that do not undertake these responsibilities have been turning into revolving doors. The results are clients poorly served and thereby prime for picking by other firms, low morale, and weakening of the foundation of an institution that must be able to weather the competitiveness and uncertainties of the legal profession's present and future.

Let's look at each of these management responsibilities and firm members' obligations in return.


With the growing prevalence of laterally acquired lawyers and practices, firms must work harder than ever to integrate new people from diverse firm cultures into a workable whole. We think most often of the need to focus on the newly acquired laterals, but firm management must watch to see that integration goes both ways - not neglecting to orient the laterals to the existing practices and client base.

Effective integration requires a focus on: frequent internal communications; a clear message as to the value of both the new people and the combination of talents to clients, referral sources and the public; and visible, tangible support from management, partners and staff. The plight of a lateral, no matter how high the promise of resulting business, is filled with risk. They are more likely to be forced out more quickly than longer-term firm attorneys because they may have no "rabbi," and firms may have short-term objectives in bringing them on. If management neglects the responsibility of helping them to succeed, they are likely to blow a costly investment in money, time, image and political capital.


Today no lawyer should feel entitled to a supply of work provided primarily by other lawyers in the firm. The expectation, whether formally articulated or not, is that every lawyer should be making the effort to generate business from both existing and new clients. Some will be better business producers than others, but all should have the support of the firm to build their practice, reputation and marketing capabilities. This is one of management's key responsibilities.

On a practice group basis, specific roles can be divided up according to the lawyers' capabilities, interests and contacts. Management can help to motivate and support the group and individuals within it by requiring implementation of annual plans and projections and basing compensation partly on how well each member meets his or her own targets and commitments. Different people may have different targets and roles, but all the bases should be covered among the group. Teamwork should be encouraged by backing up lip service with coaching and shared recognition.


While all attorneys should be expected to cultivate their own sources and contacts, management can act as a referral source for opportunities hroughout the firm because the committee or individuals assume the position of firm representatives with a firmwide view. Management is responsible for knowing each group's capabilities and each individual's talents. As the "face" of the firm in many outside situations, management should develop a sense of the competition's positioning as well as look out for opportunities for anyone in the firm to pursue new business, expand work with an existing client, gain visibility for the firm as a speaker or writer or contributor to professional or community activities. Those opportunities should be communicated to individuals and supported by the firm.


The market for particular kinds of legal services tends to be changing and cyclical. This past year is a prime example. A usually productive lawyer willing to work hard can be rendered unproductive by changes in economic and political factors and marketplace needs. It is management's role to be sensitive to marketplace changes and encourage retooling to a more viable area for the current and future market. Not every lawyer will be flexible enough in outlook as well as skills to make a switch, but a firm should be willing to support for a reasonable amount of time, agreed upon in advance, those who make an honest effort. In the long-run, this makes good economic as well as human sense. However, individuals making major practice changes, learning a new knowledge base and skills, and endeavoring to make contacts in a changed milieu, are taking risks for the firm as well as themselves. They deserve management support and encouragement.

In order to maintain flexibility and maximum strength, management should require an annual skills assessment. Lawyers should be asked to report what new skills they have learned in the past year and what they plan to add for the next year. Such a policy will avoid accumulation of dead wood. While attorneys may grouse about finding time to sharpen their swords, they will maintain their marketability that way. The mandatory CLE requirements, when taken seriously, support development of new skills.

Along these lines, it is management's responsibility to provide or support training in legal technical areas, business development and client service. If the training is not offered in-house, attorneys should be encouraged to attend off-site training and be credited with the time expended for professional development. Otherwise, many lawyers will neglect this most important professional obligation.


Having charged firm management with these responsibilities to help individuals succeed, what is required from the other party to the bargain - the individual attorneys? The willingness to be held accountable, to be managed. Unfortunately this still goes against the grain of too many lawyers who see themselves as independent professionals, protective of their autonomy. Accountability is a sensitive issue in many firms. Though they grumble, partners are reluctant to enforce accountability on other partners. Unwritten rules arise and may prevail.

But they can't have both autonomy and substantial firm support. In exchange for firm support, encouragement, introductions to opportunities and help in gaining new skills, the lawyers need to agree to submit to assessments, develop plans, strive conscientiously to meet their goals, account for their time, share information, help others and maintain the firm's articulated standards - in other words, be accountable for their commitments. This requires a change in attitude and values which then will lead to behavioral change. In a partnership culture, it is not very likely to come from imposition of policies.


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2001.

Published in the New York Law Journal 1998.