Questions to ask to find out whether a practice group of a law firm will benefit your department

Practice groups in law firms make sense for both them and their clients. If you are a law department lawyer, however, and a partner from a law firm touts the firms “[Fill-in-the-blank] Practice Group,” what should you find out about to determine the Group’s value to you and your client? Let me suggest some questions to ask, diligently.

Knowledge capital. “How would you describe and quantify the knowledge capital that the Group has codified?” This question goes to their efforts to memorialize experience in guidelines, samples, annotations, flow charts or whatever makes tacit knowledge more explicit.

Breadth of Knowledge. “What have you done, if anything, to combine the insights of third parties?” Some practice groups focus exclusively on the law, and quite logically, but others draw on business people, researchers, and consultants to complement the legal knowledge.

Clients. “What did members of the Group do for specific clients in the past two years that strengthened the Group?” Penetrate broad claims – “We often help major clients in the Group’s field with their most difficult problems!” Watch out for distant projects possibly handled by long-departed lawyers – “We have done many class actions!” even though the most recent was 1987 – and spot the concentration of work for only one or two clients –“We did 12 matters for MegaCorp and one for one other client.”

Recognition. “What have members of the Group published or spoken on in the past 18 months?” Again, specify the recent past and drill down for actual output. If a self-proclaimed Group has no articles to its credit (or, heaven forfend, no blog posts) and no one has seen fit to invite them to share their expertise at a conference, how real are the touted skills of the Group? If a partner co-chairs the relevant ABA Committee, that buttresses the claim of recognized experience.

Bench Strength. “In the past 12 months, how many lawyers billed at least half their time to Group matters?” This gets to the crux of the inquiry: does the firm actually have a critical mass of lawyers who are still with the firm and work today substantially on day-to-day on issues that pertain to the Group’s focus?

My comments on practice groups in law firms have been strewn across a dozen earlier posts (See my post of Oct. 4, 2005: practice groups; Dec. 22, 2006: one firm’s enterprise risk practice group; March 6, 2007: comparisons of law firms by practice group strength; March 11, 2007: practice groups and secession from a firm; March 11, 2007:how practice groups might use social network software; July 19, 2007: practice group leaders may have to approve fee arrangements; Feb. 6, 2007: billing rates that vary by practice group; Nov. 11, 2007: views of law-firm practice groups; Feb. 17, 2008: law firm practice group to include academics; April 6, 2008: fee arrangements and the varying profitability of practice groups; June 26, 2009: do GCs push law firms to form practice groups; and Aug. 17, 2010: metrics needed finer than law firm level.).

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