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Countdown to 2020: A Recap of 2019 Best Ideas and Tips

12.18.19 | Susan Duncan

We published 24 articles in 2019 on topics geared toward law firm leaders and managers as well as those geared toward individual lawyers and professionals. This recap includes only the high-level points made in many of those posts, but we encourage you to go back to the original posts to receive the more thorough analysis and recommendations each incorporated.

As we gear up for 2020, we welcome your input on topics of interest to you and your firms. In the meantime, very best wishes to each of you for a healthy, happy and prosperous new year!

On Practice Group Leadership

In our four-part series on Practice Group Leadership, we described in detail the roles and responsibilities of Practice Group Leaders: the framework and leadership role and the PGL as Strategist, PGL as Financial Steward and PGL as Talent Manager/Coach.  Each post defined the areas practice group management encompasses. Clearly, the role of practice group leader has become a substantial responsibility in many firms and usually more than one person can do.

12 Steps to Accelerate Practice Group Leader Effectiveness:

  1. Define the job and write a job description; include a description of how the PGL will be evaluated, measured and compensated.
  2. Put the right leaders into the position by formally assessing partners’ personality traits before appointing them PGL, using the defined objectives of the practice group and the likely responsibilities and traits to identify ideal candidates.
  3. Provide training in all of the core responsibility areas, e.g., finance, project management, knowledge management, coaching, business planning, business development, performance review, team-building, communications including addressing conflict and having difficult conversations, emotional intelligence and time management.
  4. Inculcate an Emotional Intelligence culture that lends itself to successful leadership: 360-degree reviews, personality assessments, sharing and application of findings, teamwork.
  5. Provide them with their own executive coach who can serve as a sounding board.
  6. Give them some relief from ambitious client/billable goals.
  7. Schedule quarterly one-on-one meetings/calls with the Managing Partner to share progress, feedback, strategic and operational priority shifts.
  8. Develop a team-coaching forum for all PGLs to meet at least quarterly to share challenges and success strategies.
  9. Provide dedicated, professional support via a business manager, a business development manager and/or a skilled and organized executive assistant (who isn’t assigned to 2-5 other partners/lawyers!)
  10. Ask the partner to complete a self-assessment on a semi-annual basis to be shared and discussed with the firm’s managing partner (or department chair.)
  11. Reward and recognize PGLs through compensation and public recognition.
  12. Begin training the next generation of practice group leaders early on, either by giving them a role as a deputy leader and/or through distributive leadership, whereby younger partners in the practice group are given discrete areas of responsibility, e.g., hiring, associate reviews and development, marketing, etc.

On Personal Business Development and Effectiveness

Be Intentional about…

 …Every interaction. Whether it is a conference call with a client, lunch with a referral source or an internal practice group meeting, take a few moments before you pick up the phone or leave for a meeting to jot down your primary objective for each interaction.

…How You Listen. Becoming a trusted advisor and developing trustworthiness requires you to be particularly good at asking meaningful questions and listening to the answers, where you do more listening than talking.

…About where and how you network. The best way to be introduced to your next client is through an existing client or referral source. As you plan your schedule for which events and conferences to attend, reach out to clients and others in advance to find out if they will attend and email contacts in advance to schedule specific times/places to meet.

…About which conferences you attend and speak at.  Seek input from clients and referral sources about where they go to network or for information and deliberately select one or two of those conferences to attend and speak at.

…About your personal brand.  Establish, enhance and promote your professional brand in your firm or in the marketplace: be the responsive and trusted advisor your clients and others seek, increase and showcase your skills by speaking on panels at conferences where clients, referral sources and other “influentials” will be, maintain and monitor your brand online (your bio, your LinkedIn profile and any other social media presence you have or use.)

…About your board and civic involvement.  Carefully consider why you want to join or become active in an organization and make sure it helps you achieve a personal or professional goal. Identify key people in the organization and before each board or committee meeting, identify 1-2 people you don’t know and intentionally sit next to them or seek them out before or after the meeting.

…About your career and business development. Thinking strategically about what you want to accomplish in five years and then devising annual plans to meet those goals is the best way to control your own destiny. What gets written gets done.


Executive Presence:

Executive presence is comprised of the gravitas/aura you project, the ways in which you communicate, your appearance, the impression you make and your authenticity. Like so many other success attributes, good communication is essential to high executive presence. There are three elements to personal communication: 7% is the spoken word, 38% is your voice tone and tempo and 55% is your body language.

Verbal Communication. There are a number of ways to improve effectiveness: modify your tone and tempo, command your audience, and improve your presentation skills.

Non-Verbal Communication: 55% of our communication with others occurs through non-verbal signals and behaviors.  Body language and appearance are critical aspects of improving executive presence. Key components include: dress for success and grooming, “Make Yourself Big,” monitor your mannerisms, make a good first impression and be present.

On Innovation

Many misconstrue that innovation in law firms is all about technology.  It isn’t.  Some of the most fundamental innovation that is occurring has to do with how work is done, why, by whom and for whom. Innovation focuses on people, process and platform.  The following suggestions should help:

  • Beware of creating solutions in search of a problem; don’t guess at the need or solution, work with clients to find the problem.
  • Avoid getting too enamored with technology as a silver bullet.
  • Don’t focus only on costs – focus on process/inputs and outcomes/outputs and on knowledge management (KM). Prior knowledge, precedents and data analytics are core components of innovation.
  • Align solutions to the commercial business and their goals (not just to the legal department.)
  • Law practitioners are not what clients need – they need legal solutions that solve a business problem. Since it may not require a lawyer,  explore alternatives.
  • Relationships don’t carry the same weight as they used to – be aware that that the buy-sell ecosystem is changing.
  • Don’t be tempted to promote your innovation unless it truly has been getting traction.
  • Engage your clients in meaningful discussions around problems and how they’d like them solved. Remember that unless your solution helps drive value and revenue to the business (not the legal department,) it likely won’t be deemed valuable.

On Talent: Future Skills, Competencies and Growth

The Skills Gap

Inherent in all of the client-driven change and digital transformation that is taking place in the legal profession, it is clear that more and different skills will be required for lawyers and law firms to remain viable and successful in the future.  This has implications for leaders and talent officers in a number of areas and we offer the following recommendations:

  • Call a meeting of your top talent professionals and partner leadership to actively explore and identify the skills your firm needs now and in the future.
  • Once skills have been identified, determine which of these will be required and carried out by traditional lawyers from traditional law schools versus law school graduates with new model skills as well as other technical professionals who do not require a law school degree.
  • Revise your recruiting criteria and talent pipeline to reflect new skills sets required for the future.
  • Adjust your recruiting process and the schools/employers from which you recruit.
  • Hire students who have participated both in course work and experiential internships in legal operations, legal informatics, technology and innovation (see next post.)
  • Modify your training and professional development curriculum.
  • Develop a more robust rotation and client secondment program
  • Train/retool your existing lawyers, including partners.
  • Collaborate with your clients! Their lawyers need the same skills training as your lawyers do.
  • Open the doors – bring together all of your talent across the firm including your professionals who support back and front office functions.

Lateral Partner Hiring and Integration

If lateral partner recruiting is to remain your firm’s growth strategy of choice, it would behoove you to put in place a better, more sound business approach to the recruiting and integration process.  Below are several suggestions:

  • Be strategic, not “opportunistic” (identify needs through your firm and PG strategy, not in reaction to a call from a headhunter)
  • Assess and improve your lateral recruiting process
  • Develop the ideal candidate profile
  • Carefully select and manage your executive search partner(s)
  • Thoroughly vet candidates
  • Follow a Due Diligence Checklist

Once hired, assign responsibility and accountability to a team:

  • The Lateral Partner Sponsor
  • The Lateral Integration Manager
  • The Firm Buddy
  • The Business Development Coach


Organic Talent Growth

Growth is not an option for firms that want to continue to compete and provide advancement opportunities into their partnerships.  While organic growth was the primary way law firms grew in the past, organic growth alone will not achieve the growth firms need in today’s market but it still plays a critical role. Firms should take time to assess and improve upon their approaches to organic talent recruiting, development and retention, especially as the talent market continues to tighten:

  1. Assess the market
  2. Hire for cultural fit
  3. Hire for the future
  4. Commit to and nurture diversity
  5. Train and mentor
  6. Provide feedback in real time
  7. Develop career advancement strategies and alternatives
  8. Provide meaning in work
  9. Encourage, measure and reward collaboration
  10. Consider and address well-being

On Growth Strategy

We authored a 7-part series on growth strategy. We have summarized the highlights below of Smart Growth Part 1 (Framework), Smart Growth Part 2 (Strategy as Competitive Differentiation,)  Smart Growth Part 3 (PESTEL and SWOT,)and Smart Growth Part 7 (Organic Revenue Growth.)

Take stock of your current strategy and process.

Before launching into your 2020 growth strategy, which for many firms will look a lot like their 2019 strategy, take time to consider these questions:

  • What is the firm’s strategy and how future looking is it? How well does it reflect what the firm must do to survive, position itself for opportunities and competitive threats?
  • What market research and competitive intelligence — including in-depth discussions with clients, prospects and other influentials — did you conduct before determining your growth priorities?
  • What will your talent profile and pipeline look like in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years to meet the needs of clients and the rapidly changing model for delivery? Will you hire lawyers with traditional legal training or those from progressive law schools that are combining technical/legal/business skills with experiential learning?
  • Will you be developing a multi-disciplinary set of offerings and/or those that incorporate technology into the platform?
  • Which growth strategies will you pursue? How will you ensure thorough and effective due diligence and also be nimble enough to modify, discard or expand service offerings?
  • Have you established financial goals and metrics to execute the growth strategy? How will you monitor and measure progress through benchmarks and metrics?
  • Who will drive growth? Who will be responsible for executing growth initiatives? How will they be held accountable?
  • How have you inculcated an innovation and growth mindset throughout the firm?


Make smart strategy market-centric and a top priority.

  • Create a sense of urgency.
  • Embrace innovation and inculcate it into every level of firm management and client service.
  • Elect leaders who think forward and big, who are not satisfied with where the firm is today, but where it needs to go and grow to be differentiated, competitive and profitable.
  • Ask yourself the kinds of questions suggested by Porter in his 5 Forces and by Blue Ocean strategy 9 (see our last post).
  • What are our clients buying now? In 5 years?  10 years?
  • How do they make their purchasing decisions? Who makes them and on what basis?
  • What do they value about us? What do they value about other providers?
  • How will megatrends impact their industry? Their business? How will those trends impact our practices?
  • What new needs will our clients have? Are there any unmet needs now?
  • What are our competitors’ unique advantages? Value? (this has to be derived from what you learn directly from your clients)
  • What are we doing that is not bring value to our clients? What are we doing that is not distinctive or profitable? Should we stop doing some of these things?
  • Should we change our business model? Our delivery methods or channels? Our talent mix?
  • What makes our firm/your offerings distinct/unique?
  • Where will your next Blue Ocean opportunity be?
  • Be willing to eliminate practices, offices or even partners that don’t fit the future or who aren’t willing to challenge themselves to seek blue oceans.
  • Once you differentiate and develop new markets/solutions, have an aggressive but disciplined plan for growth and positioning.


Grow revenue organically by expanding representation of existing clients.

Even firms that use lateral hiring and mergers to buy shorter term revenue bursts, those that are strategic also recognize that the most effective way to build long term revenue growth and stability is through deepening and expanding existing client relationships.  The following are 10 ways to improve your organic growth:

  1. Be strategic about growth. Deliberate, comprehensive client and market research should drive your priorities for where your best opportunities are to grow more business from existing clients and new business from new clients by existing partners.
  2. Analyze your data. Use client lifecycle information to identify areas of shrinking revenue, growth in revenue and areas of potential cross-selling opportunity.
  3. Use market research diligently. Conduct good research and intelligence and convert it into analysis and extrapolation to drive smarter, market-driven decisions about growth and priorities.
  4. Install and enforce use of CRM (by partners.)  Enforce participation by partners in your Customer Relationship Management platform  to assess why and how business has been won, what marketing and outreach activities your clients are responding to and how the web of networks throughout the firm can be used to grow new organic revenue.
  5. Regularly assess feedback and client needs.  This should include outreach throughout engagements, after action reviews, annual client feedback interviews, client audits and client visits.
  6. Build value for and with clients. Use value-added approaches, e.g., CLE, shared resources, secondments or value-enabling activities, e.g.,  legal project management, process improvement, technology enablement and resource sharing, pricing and project staffing, etc.
  7. Understand clients’ businesses and industries. Make sure firm lawyers, regardless of their practice specialty, are commercially focused for clients. Establish industry teams that have formal plans and budgets.
  8. Key client teams. Establish key client teams for the firm’s largest, most profitable and highest growth potential clients, developing plans with steps that are followed, discussed and measured.
  9. Build a culture of collaboration. The firm’s performance process and compensation process should reward/penalize partners for collaboration, sharing, cross-selling and broadening the firm’s representation of clients.
  10. Provide client development training. All attorneys and staff should be trained in the art of exceptional client service,  customer experience (CX,) relationship strategies, emotional intelligence and effective communication.

RainMaking Oasis provides consulting, training and coaching services to law firms and lawyers in the areas of business development and growth strategy, innovation, client retention and expansion, succession planning and leadership and personal effectiveness skills. Please contact Susan Duncan at [email protected].