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Law Firm Best Practices Blog

Better Associate Performance Using a Structured Practice Planning Process

 Practice planning is a process of organizing and prioritizing an individual lawyer’s billable and non-billable time investments. Each practice plan considers the firm’s needs and performance expectations along with the individual lawyer’s ability to meet these expectations.  Usually, a lawyer’s first five years of practicing are heavily influenced by law firm members, whereas afterward, it becomes a mix of firm opportunities and personal choices. 

 

Practice plans represent an opportunity for law firms to set expectations using a balanced approach to career development. Rather than having a uniform set of expectations focused primarily on short-term contributions, law firms committed to practice planning can set different goals and billable targets for each timekeeper based on longer-priorities and needs.  This proactive practice leads to a better trained and more motivated professional staff.

 

Practice planning is a proactive way for law firms to  secure a better trained and more motivated professional staff.

 

Considerations

A practice plan is considered a strategic career view since it is based on a shared vision of success between a lawyer and the firm. Each practice plan considers the needs and performance expectations of the firm, as well as the individual lawyer’s ability to meet such expectations and career aspirations. The goal is to align personal and firm goals.

PracticePlanning_image

 

Structure

The practice plan is structured to quantify the total amount of time necessary for a lawyer to progress or remain successful. We refer to this universe of time as a lawyer’s scheduled hours. A lawyer’s total scheduled hours are split between billable and non-billable hours, usually on a 12-month basis. Time is allocated, and priorities are defined, all in accordance with the firm’s policies, strategic plan, and attorney career development goals.

 

Listed below are non-billable factors carefully considered in practice planning.

NON-BILLABLE FACTORS CONSIDERED IN PRACTICE PLANNING

Icon_Dollar_Sign_2

Billable time/timekeeper revenue generation

Time spent on legal matters

 

Icon_MoveForwardMarketing activities

Professional organizations, contact management, content development, relationship-building, networking, and other business generation activities

search_icon_grayNew practice area/service development

Acquisition of knowledge of a specific legal area

Icon-StrategicPlan_DeveSkill Development

Research and training of specific legal, administrative and marketing skills

 

icon-communityserviceCommunity service activities

Pro bono work

 

Icon-Policy_Development Administrative contributions

Billing, expense management, firm management, etc.

icon-2Training others

Developing and supporting less experienced lawyers

 

Icon-RecruitingRecruiting activities and support

Efforts to encourage strong candidates of interest to work at the firm

 


Each of these factors should be considered individually when estimating the number of hours to invest and possible costs. If a factor requires material amounts of money and time, a detailed subset plan is recommended. For example, the plan summary below indicates an investment of $5,000 and 330 hours in marketing activities. It is fair to expect that firm management will require a detailed marketing plan to support that investment.       

 

Approach

Firms can approach practice planning in various ways as outlined below.

 

Uniform Approach

 

Firms that require s a minimum number of billable hours to contribute to revenues and profit will take a uniform approach to practice planning. Once billable hours are scheduled, an attorney can determine the amount of non-billable time that will accompany the legal hours.  The most important non-billable tasks (e.g., administrative tasks like time tracking or marketing tasks like client entertainment and conference attendance, etc.), are assigned next. Beyond these tasks, an attorney can account for additional non-legal hours to support the development of their practice, until the total number of hours the individual is willing to schedule is reached.

 

The table below indicates a sample standard hour approach to practice planning by years of experience.

 

Total Hours Contributed

2,200

2,300

2,400

2,400

Experience Years

1-4

5-8

9-13

14 +

Contribution

Hours

Hours

Hours

Hours

Scheduled Hours

2,200

2,300

2,400

2,400

Total Legal hours

2,000

2,000

1,865

1,800

Administrative

100

125

180

200

Skill Development

25

25

30

30

Marketing and Related

30

50

100

180

Bar, Professional,Civic

25

50

150

150

Pro Bono

15

15

15

0

Recruiting

5

10

10

10

Training Others

0

25

50

30

Total Non-Legal Hours

200

300

535

600

 

A uniform approach recognizes a lawyer’s differing priorities as they become more experienced. Firms with stable and well-defined practice areas may want to use a uniform approach. In a sense, these firms already know what is necessary for success, and the practice planning process is a tool to teach lawyers “the business.” 

 

Bespoke Approach

 

Taking a more customized or “bespoke” approach, an attorney may start the process with the planning of non-legal tasks. In this case, the attorney first considers the different activities that go into each non-billable factor to estimate the overall non-billable time. 

 

A customized approach allows lawyers to be more strategic in their career development.  It does require a structured process to ensure that non-billable time investments advance strategic goals and to confirm that necessary revenue generating hours meet the firm’s financial needs.

 

If a firm has a minimum billable hour’s requirement, the two (non-legal and legal) are added together to calculate the total hours (scheduled) for the practice plan. When no minimum legal hour requirement exists, billable hours are the result of subtracting non-billable hours from total scheduled hours.

 

For example, the table below indicates a few different practice plans for attorneys of similar experience.

 

Total Hours Contributed

2,200

2,300

2,000

2,400

Experience Years    5-8

Associate 1

Associate 2

Associate 3

Associate 4

Contribution

Hours

Hours

Hours

Hours

Scheduled Hours

2,200

2,300

2,000

2,400

Total Legal hours

2,000

1,900

1,800

2,100

Administrative

100

125

80

150

Skill Development

25

35

50

15

Marketing and Related

30

60

25

50

Bar, Professional,Civic

25

100

25

50

Pro Bono

15

40

20

15

Recruiting

5

40

20

15

Training Others

0

25

0

10

Total Non-Legal Hours

200

400

200

300

 

Bespoke planning processes work better for firms that have a wide variety of practice areas and differing client needs. In these firms, creativity and ability to adapt to ever-changing priorities have the highest value. Entrepreneurial firms built around people who have different talents and skills will likely get better results with a custom planning process.

 

ALIGNING WITH COMPENSATION AND INCENTIVES

 

Icon_DollarSignA well-developed practice plan supports the progression of a lawyer’s capabilities and career. Firms that tie compensation and incentives to attorney practice plans and to the factors indicated in the table below can be assured that they are paying competitively for economic contributions and adequately assessing qualitative increases in attorney value.

 

INCREASES

CONTRIBUTIONS

Quality of professional work

Personal productivity

Work ethic

Profitability of others (leverage and supervision)

Client relations and service

Client profitability (originations)

Personal development

Recruiting profitable lawyers

Business development competence

Training contributions

Professional recognition

Billing and collections management

Training contributions

 

Adding to the reputation of the firm

 

 

Ultimately, a practice plan is an effective guide to successfully achieve desired outcomes.  When law firms make practice planning a priority, both individual attorneys and the firm as a whole benefit.  Lawyers develop their own legal skills, and in turn make the firm's services more valuable to clients.