Another case for small is beautiful

Patrick McKenna thinks that the bigger the practice group, the less that is achieved

To reach their maximum potential in productivity and profitability, more law firms are focusing on the development of effective practice groups.

However, many firms choose the wrong lawyers to lead their groups.

Firms have tended to make practice leader that lawyer who is the most senior in the practice area, who is most competent in attracting clients or who bills the most hours, not the lawyer who is most accomplished at bringing out the best in people.

Then they allow these leaders to create large practice groups built on a mistaken notion that if they have a big group with a big budget, then their role as group leader must be more important.

Bigger does not always mean better and nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to measuring practice group effectiveness.

Observations drawn from our focus on group research with US managing partners, our client assignments and our practice group leadership workshops demonstrates that one of the best ways to ensure practice group failure is to allow membership to grow beyond the level of a small, solid working group.

When it comes to the practice group structure, many firms demonstrate their seriousness by attaching every single lawyer to a number of different practice groups. They seek to make every individual who has some remote connection with a practice area a member of their groups.

The result is that practice groups have grown in size but decreased in effectiveness, with group members feeling no real sense of attachment or commitment beyond having their names in group brochures and finding that they are spending an increasing amount of non-billable time in meetings.

And in an effort to avoid offending anyone, practice group leaders continue to add people to their groups. At the end of the day it becomes a high price to pay for trying to make sure that no one is feeling left out.

While the larger practice group may be viewed as the means to bring more minds to bear on practice growth and development, it soon becomes evident that not all those minds make any significant contribution to the group.

Research studies on group size in industry show that as the size of any group increases, so individual productivity decreases. And, a law firm is no different. As a practice group increases in size, each partner or associate's participation decreases dramatically.

In fact, our own observations and research show that as the number of practice group members increases, so the level of participation, trust, and accountability decreases.

'Free floating' is a term we have come to use to describe the drop in individual effort as the group grows. This free floating occurs because the more people that become involved in any practice group, the less responsible any of them feels for the group performance, the less commitment any shows to following through on individual projects and the less input any individual has for the group's success or failure – there are always other professionals around to pick up the slack.

However, when a lawyer believes their individual performance is important to the group's cumulative efforts and their progress is visible to their peers, it becomes clear they are more likely to be concerned about how peers view them.

As a result lawyers are more likely to produce when active in smaller practice groups, than they are on a larger team, where they can easily get lost in the crowd.

Also, we have observed that the larger the practice group the more likely it is that a few power partners or strong personalities may dominate the group's agenda, discussions and decision-making process.

In larger groups many professionals may be hesitant to voice their ideas and opinions for fear of criticism – unwilling to disagree with the group's leader or give each other honest feedback and not fully confident that they can depend on each other.

Therefore, the level of interpersonal trust can be damaged as the group size increases. Conversely, smaller groups tend to enhance trust as more members feel free to participate and the result is usually a greater number of good ideas.

Although the optimal size of practice groups may depend upon the practice area and the culture of the firm, empirical research suggests that 10 to 12 professionals is the maximum size for effectiveness. There is no getting around it – small practice groups seem to work best.

What to do? Here are some options to consider:

– Do the right thing, downsize your practice groups. When new practice groups are formed, insist that they include less than 12 lawyers and reorganise existing groups into smaller units.

It may not be easy to remove some lawyers from groups, but the long-term impact on productivity is worth it.

– Use a 'resource member' approach. A core group should only consist of those lawyers whose full-time practice efforts are involved in the specialised area. The core group meets regularly and makes decisions on practice direction and business development. Concurrently, practice group leaders remain free to invite others to assist as experts on specific client projects or help get things done as the need may arise.

– Create splinter groups. One tactic may be to break up your larger teams into smaller practice-specific splinter groups. In this model, the high technology industry group might become the computer technology group, the telecommunications group, and the biotechnology group. Alternatively, the litigation group could be sub-divided into the securities litigation group, the product liability group, the professional malpractice group, and so forth. These smaller practice groups then provide a real opportunity for individual members to use their expertise and have an impact on the outcome.

A law firm's practice groups seem to be particularly prone to the temptation of getting large in an effort to be effective. They do this despite the fact that common sense suggests that smaller is better.

But then common sense is not always common practice.

Patrick McKenna is a consultant at Canadian management consultants The Edge Group.