Making Committees Work

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How to Limit Your Law Firm's Number of Committees - And Improve Their Focus

 

Do the words “Let’s form a committee” often signal an ineffective or time-draining activity in your law firm? 

Law firms are fertile environments for forming committees. Diverse practices, demographics and often multiple offices, combine with culture and values that support broad-based input and decision-making—and lead to a proliferation of committees.  Many firms have committees that are meeting less and less often, have difficulty remembering their charter, and/or exist only on paper.

Following are five points to help reduce unnecessary proliferation of committees in your law firm.  By following these guidelines, you will improve your management’s focus and better match structure and process to the issues at hand.

1. When to form a committee

Before forming a committee, the Managing Partner, Executive Committee or other empowered group should ask:

  • Is a committee the right vehicle for the job at hand?
  • Can an existing committee handle this?
  • Will a new committee conflict with an established committee?

2. When a committee structure is likely to be effective

In general, committees are good vehicles for the following activities:

  • Fact-finding
  • Soliciting diverse opinions
  • Spreading or sharing power and responsibility
  • Making decisions or recommendations where diversity or a representative cross-section is necessary to ensure broad-based support;
  • Making simultaneous use of different individuals’ talents, expertise and experience

3. Standing vs. Ad Hoc Committees

A law firm has ongoing and likely permanent needs that, except in very small firms, are probably best addressed by committees, including the following: 

  • Management or Executive Committees, to gather information and input, make important decisions collectively, supervise firm management and policies;
  • Compensation Committees, (which increasingly overlap or coincide with the Management/Executive Committee role), to receive input and make collective decisions regarding compensation system application and compensation decisions;
  • Lawyer Recruiting Committees—although recruiting is an area where the use of individual managers, and lawyers with special recruiting skills is often replacing rotating or broad-based committee structures;
  • Technology Committees to draw on technology-savvy lawyers with skills in finance, different practice area perspectives, and end-user aptitudes; plus professional management—the Executive Director and C-Suite level IT professional are critical and increasingly have central recommendation responsibilities.

In other contexts, law firm leaders should consider whether an ad hoc committee, rather than a standing committee is appropriate. Unlike (relatively) permanent standing committees, ad hoc committees typically have a specific mission, usually with a target date deadline or seasonality.  Examples include:

  • Completing a multi-disciplinarian analysis, or (selectively) managing a multi-disciplinary project;
  • Providing a recommendation where significant drilling down, fact-finding and research are needed;
  • Providing a recommendation where differences of opinion appear significant, dramatic or across-the-board.

Ad hoc committees are less likely to proliferate or outlive their charters because they have missions carefully defined by the issues and a sunset accompanying their mission, targets or deadlines.


4. When a committee is unlikely to be effective

Committees are usually not effective at implementation and follow through.  Group implementation is circuitous and inefficient.  In general, motivated individuals are more likely to implement, and to do so more time-effectively than groups.

When a committee is charged with implementing a program, the committee’s initial activities should involve:

  • Deciding what tasks and activities are involved in implementation;
  • Delegating tasks to individuals whenever appropriate;
  • Monitoring implementation: actually, a chairperson or designated coordinator usually does this better than a group; and finally
  • Deciding whether the committee should continue, or morph into an implementation-oriented structure, emphasizing individual responsibilities.


5.  When an individual will perform better than a committee

Following are examples of tasks sometimes delegated to committees that would probably be better handled by individuals:

  • Managing a client relationship or client team—instead establish a key client/relationship manager whose charter includes emphasizing and stimulating teamwork, rather than coordination of activities by a team
  • Drafting policies and documents, as opposed to conceptualizing, reviewing or approving draft documents
  • Managing implementation of a firm’s marketing and business development plan—instead consider key managing roles, including:
  • -- Marketing Director reporting to Managing Partner or Executive Committee member for management support, sounding board and leadership; 
  • -- Practice Group Leaders, with Marketing Director support, responsible for coordinating practice group level marketing and business development, with leaders and Marketing Director periodically meeting as a committee for cross-selling, best practices and information sharing.

By employing the five points above, your law firm can streamline its current committee structure and design future decision-making groups for maximum effectiveness.  As a result, your firm will save time and money, invest valuable lawyer time where it will make a difference, and make best use of your professional managers. 


Alan R. Olson is a principal of legal management consultancy, Altman Weil, Inc., serving clients throughout the United States and Canada from the firm's Midwest office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  For over twenty-five years, he has advised law firms on strategic planning, practice management and compensation systems.  Contact Mr. Olson at arolson@altmanweil.com.

 

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