Research shows that practice group heads, at mid-sized law firms in particular, often lack the skills that are generally considered most important for the role, says Tony Reiss
The role of practice group head (PGH) in a law firm is a challenging one. As the cliché goes, it´s like herding cats. I know that many firms struggle to find suitable volunteers to take on the role and, to coin another well-used phrase, it can be seen as a poisoned chalice.
I conducted an online survey in September 2014 to analyse leadership challenges faced by PGHs. Firstly, I wanted to find out what key attributes and perceived skill levels were required by PGHs. Secondly, I wanted to determine how much time PGHs should spend in the management role and how much time they actually spent. Finally, I wanted to ascertain what support and training PGHs were offered to be effective.
I generated a list of ten factors widely thought to be important attributes of leaders. I asked participants in the survey to what extent these factors were relevant to the role of PGHs. The response? The most important activity for PGHs was thought to be ‘developing a vision/strategy for the team’. The least important was ‘being merciless on inaction’ (see table for the complete list and scores)
I asked respondents – of which there were 83 – what skills the average PGH in their firm had. The top attributes were ‘being a good role model’ and ‘getting support from the board for special challenges’. PGHs were considered least skilled at ‘being merciless on inaction’, though this was not considered an important factor (see table). PGHs were also judged to be not very skilful at ´being a good coach’.
I then calculated the ‘skill gaps’ of the PGHs (see the right hand column of the table). Strikingly, the biggest skills gap exists in the most important factor – developing a vision/strategy. This finding matches my own experiences coaching partners – they rarely answer my questions about the focus and direction of their practice group.
I then looked into what training PGHs were given for the role. There was a big difference depending on firm size. Nearly 80 per cent of mid-sized firms offered no formal training or executive coaching to their PGHs. How do such firms expect their PGHs to deliver?
Finally, I asked about the time taken to manage a practice group. There were wide variations. On average, respondents thought PGHs should spend 6.4 hours per week in the role but thought PGHs actually spent 4.5 hours per week. Quite a big difference.
Most firms seem to adopt a ‘sink or swim’ approach to appointing PGHs. Given the importance and size of most of these business groups, is this wise? It makes a difference if a practice group can create a motivated team of professionals pulling in the same direction. What I often see in law firms is a lack of commitment to initiatives. There’s just grudging acceptance meaning projects don’t fully deliver.
Tony Reiss is a founding principal at Sherwood and a guest faculty member of IE Law School’s Lawyers’ Management Program (LMP), which is hosting the “LMP Global Seminar Series” of online seminars. For more information, please contact: