While time (and billing based upon it) has historically been a revenue driver, the name of the game today is efficiency. At the root, it is also time—the limited hours in the workday and the emphasis on efficiency—which has spawned the practice management function. At a law firm, a practice group leader has two primary responsibilities: (1) managing and growing a practice and (2) overseeing the administrative aspects of managing an entire practice group. This dynamic presents issues for the practice leader who needs to strategically parcel time for their leadership responsibilities. While the administration of the practice remains important, it plays second fiddle to client work and revenue generation. This is where the support of a practice management professional adds value by injecting business acumen and analytical rigor while freeing up billable time of practice group leaders.
What Does a Practice Management Professional Do?
Practice managers, whose titles can widely differ firm to firm, take the persona of the COOs of a practice area because, at their core, practice management professionals lead the operational aspects of running a law firm practice. The functional responsibilities of a practice management professional today vary based on the firm, its structure and the needs of the practice, but by and large there are several consistent elements to these roles:
Marketing and Business Development – Practice management at many law firms grew out of the marketing and business development function. Sophisticated professionals in marketing and business development have developed subject-matter expertise and are able to act in advisory roles to the attorneys in the practice. As these roles broadened over time, these professionals are increasingly exposed to other business functions (e.g., finance and recruiting) which support the practice. Practice managers, leveraging their intimate knowledge of the practice and its attorneys, work with their firms’ marketing and business development departments on connecting the dots internally—making best use of and extracting information from the CRM and identifying ways to better serve the client with cross-practice work—and helping attorneys think about managing their practice with initiatives such as business planning and thought leadership opportunities.
Practice and Finance Analytics – One benefit of more rigorous business practices in law firms is the ability to better decipher practice metrics and use them as measures of success and opportunity. Practice management professionals help practice leaders by monitoring the financial goals of a practice and advising on ways to improve performance. This might take the form of analyzing attorney utilization or productivity. Some practice management professionals work with their firm’s technology department to develop financial dashboard tools that provide attorneys quick insight into the performance of their practice. Having insight into these performance metrics can be powerful in understanding components such as utilization, realization, productivity and client or matter profitability.
Recruiting – Working with a firm’s legal recruiting department, a practice manager (with the support of the practice leader) can focus the department’s efforts on targeted and strategic recruiting projects for specific talent. Practice administration professionals can assist in growing a practice by leveraging their comprehensive knowledge of the firm’s operations and the practice’s strategic needs. In these cases, practice administration professionals might conduct independent research into the efficacy of adding an attorney group or complimentary practice in a new market for the firm, develop a targeted list of attorneys and groups to approach and, once the appropriate group was identified, facilitate a connection with the firm from due diligence through to integration.
Lumping staffing into this category (because of the human capital commonalities), practice management professionals are often tasked with engagement staffing. Taking into consideration many factors such as professional development and broadening the skill set of attorneys in the practice, utilization, profitability and diversity, practice management professionals help to find the right balance in the composition of engagement teams.
Another benefit of having practice managers develop well-managed metrics is the ability to identify underperforming attorneys or areas of bloat and providing practice leaders with data to justify reductions in headcount.
Pricing and Project Management – Today’s law firms have fairly well-developed pricing and project management functions, and practice management tends to serve as the connective tissue holding everything together. With intimate knowledge of the practice, its attorneys’ rates, staffing models and a wealth of practice financial data, practice management professionals can be invaluable in their contributions to pricing strategies and their attorneys’ adherence to the budget by ensuring the engagement is handled in accordance with the project management plan.
Technology – A practice management professional contributes to the technology function at law firms by staying informed of initiatives and tools coming down the technology roadmap and being a voice and advocate for a practice regarding how those technologies could be tailored to a practice to maximize its use to the firm. This extends to all facets of operations including making best use of the firm’s customer-relationship management (CRM) system or working with the technology team to develop attorney dashboards for practice group leaders to, at a glance, understand what’s happening in the practice.
While functionally similar to a chief operating officer, practice managers’ responsibilities lack an important component that almost makes the job of coordinating operations harder: direct oversight and reporting relationship for those operational areas. Practice management professionals must manage by influence rather than through direct reporting lines. These individuals are one-man or one-woman resources who, through the course of their day, individually contribute to and influence the full complement of business functions within a practice group. While a practice manager cannot say that a CHRO, CIO or CMO/CBDO is a direct report, their ability to work collaboratively with each of these functional leaders and their respective teams to support a marketing, HR or technology initiative for a given practice group is invaluable.
Who Makes the Best Practice Management Professional?
Historically, practice management professionals have come from marketing and business development positions. Over time, they were charged with ad hoc projects outside of the traditional marketing and business development scope—likely because of their intimate knowledge of the practice, its clients and their relationship attorneys within the practice. Consequently, now these professionals come to the role with a variety of backgrounds, including MBA’s from consulting firms and former practicing attorneys with a facility for both people and financial management. Today, these roles have assumed a proper spot in the organizational chart and involve a skill set beyond marketing and business development.
Professionals who are most likely to succeed in these roles do not have to have marketing experience, or even possess a JD or MBA, but they should be collaborative, have low egos and high emotional intelligence. They should also be willing to get in the trenches to accomplish goals. Armed with these softer skills, a practice manager can successfully orchestrate the operational initiatives to support a practice.
Sitting at the intersection of the practice and a firm’s operations, a practice manager’s ability to influence successfully will be the key to success as these roles have ascended beyond the purely tactical, administrative tasks to providing a heavy influence on strategy development and execution. They are compensated as solid contributors to their firm’s success and undoubtedly earn their keep.