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Practice Groups Part 4: Practice Group Leader as Talent Manager and Coach

01.09.19 | Susan Duncan

Perhaps one of the most challenging responsibilities for today’s practice group leaders is the “people” side of the business. In our prior two posts, we have discussed the Practice Group Leader as Strategist and the Practice Group Leader as Financial Steward. While PGLs often get help from others managing the associates and staff in the practice groups, they are increasingly spending time and energy meeting with partners, running interference, resolving disputes, providing support and encouragement. It can be time-consuming and energy draining.

This aspect of practice group leadership is perhaps the most important, but it is not a skill set many practice group leaders possess, especially those who landed in the position by virtue of their success as a rainmaker and large books of business. As a result, firms are either providing skills training to practice group leaders and/or selecting new, co- or deputy leaders who can serve as coaches, motivators, mediators, communicators and morale-builders.


Practice group leaders are expected to have genuine concern for everyone on their team, but especially for partners as individuals, their professional development and their success. This requires PGLs to get to know all members of the practice group: what their goals are, what motivates them. They should speak with and meet with each partner on at least a quarterly basis, including going to visit those in other offices to discuss workloads, matters, business development, operational issues and practice development.

Effective PGLs are accessible and have an open-door policy. They provide ongoing and constructive feedback and are empathetic listeners. As a coach, the practice group leaders encourage partners and others to take risks, to think creatively and innovatively and will support them if their efforts fail. PGLs also have to hold partners accountable to ensure they meet or exceed goals and expectations and may have to address disruptive behaviors on the part of some partners.

Communicator and Collaborator

Practice group leaders must understand and work effectively with different communications styles and personalities. They need to establish open lines of communication with members of the practice group by holding effective monthly practice group meetings that encourage participation and commitment from all levels of timekeeper and staff, communicating about practice group and firm matters, trends, new clients, etc.

As firms continue to get larger, many lawyers and staff get frustrated with a lack of transparency and knowledge about what is going on in the firm. Effective practice group leaders share information and updates on firm strategy, new policies, and on anything else that is likely to impact others’ practice development or operational effectiveness. PGLs also should actively participate in meetings with other PGLs to share best practices and strategize about challenges they’re having, as well as look for opportunities for cross-selling.

Motivator, Morale- and Team-Builder

Practice group leaders set the tone for a positive work environment that expects, encourages and celebrates collaboration within the practice group and with others in and across the firm. As leaders, they are responsible for establishing a vision and ground rules for the PG having sought input from others to do so. Practice group leaders should push people to do their best and take pride in their work and their teams and be generous with credit and celebrating successes.

Talent Manager

Finally, there is a fair amount of time spent on assessing what is needed at every level of service delivery: the skills, experience, seniority level, non-traditional expertise. Practice group leaders continually monitor workloads and client demands and anticipate in advance where either understaffing or overstaffing is likely to occur. In concert with other firm professionals and in alignment with firm goals, PGLs will oversee:

  • Recruiting for associates and other timekeepers to include consideration of increasing diversity and the changing nature of the workforce and working model
  • Diversity and inclusion considerations
  • Lateral partners: due diligence, conflict and profitability analyses, recruiting and negotiation process, successful integration and monitor performance progress in six month intervals
  • Associate mentoring, training, CLE, training benchmarks and checklists, and other professional development resources
  •  Attorney retention
  • Performance and compensation reviews
  • Succession and retirement of senior partners, selection/coaching of successors and ensuring next generation is ready to assume responsibilities

Final Tips

As described in this four-part series, the role of practice group leader has become a substantial responsibility in many firms. To be effective, firms should consider:

  1. Defining the roles and responsibilities with written job descriptions
  2. Holding PGLs accountable for executing these responsibilities
  3. Compensating PGLs for their substantial time commitment
  4. Hiring practice group business managers
  5. Providing leadership training and coaching
  6. Using a distributive leadership model where responsibilities are spread among several partners; this can be a great training ground for the next generation of partner leaders