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What to expect when you’re expecting a new practice group

Like growing a family, expanding a firm via a new practice group can be an exciting proposition, especially for first-timers.

In order to avoid sleepless nights and growing pains, however, those who’ve been there recommend careful planning and a strong development plan. Here’s what experienced firm leaders had to say.

Conceiving the idea

See a need that’s not being met? That’s often where you’ll find the seed for a new practice area.

“Keep your eyes open for what the marketplace demands, in terms of specialized expertise,” said Randy Crocker, managing partner of von Briesen & Roper SC, Milwaukee. “For example, we’ve seen significant growth in energy law. So we have people who are concentrating in helping address those areas — green energy, alternative or biofuels, and other areas that are developing as the economy develops.”

Crocker leads the firm’s Crisis Management group, which started in 2010. The multidisciplinary group stemmed, in part, from past experience shepherding clients through crises that affected the viability of their companies.

“We were able to assist clients in ways that ultimately brought about a very positive result, and we felt it was an area where we could dedicate ourselves to do more,” Crocker said.

Milwaukee-based Godfrey & Kahn SC just added a new practice group this month: Emerging Companies.

The group’s two members, John McDonald and Jed Roher, are closely working with start-up companies in Milwaukee and Madison.

“It really represents what we’ve been doing since the formation of this firm: representing entrepreneurs and start-up companies,” McDonald said. “But we never formalized it into its own separate practice group until now.”

Milwaukee’s Michael Best & Friedrich LLP has expanded its offerings to include five industry teams, the latest addition being Food and Beverage, within the larger umbrella of the Advanced Manufacturing team.

“The idea is for attorneys to really know the client’s industry, as opposed to just the legal issues of the industry,” said Dave Krutz, the firm’s managing partner in Milwaukee.

Nurturing to maturity

The seed of a good idea can fail to thrive without strong guidance, so finding the right combination of practice group leaders is key to long-term success.

“Get it started with the right people leading it and the right core team,” Krutz said, “because they’re the ones who are going to have the interest in the project and they’ll push it.”

Compatibility among initial team leaders also is worth considering. McDonald and Roher, for example, were a natural fit at Godfrey & Kahn.

“We started at the firm at the same time,” McDonald said. “We’ve worked together closely on a lot of matters, and both enjoy this kind of work. So we’re excited to now be doing it together, on a more formalized basis.”

Moreover, because they’re at the senior-associate level, they’re billed at a lower rate and generally are more available, commitment-wise, McDonald said.

While it’s helpful to have a few lawyers with a little recognized “star-power” in a specific area, it’s not always necessary, Crocker said.

“I’m a big believer in the five-year plan,” he said. “There’s no reason any smart lawyer with any dedication can’t eventually rise to be among the best in the area they choose to practice. You have to write, teach and win — and success will follow.”

Once the team’s in place, Krutz said to draft a detailed business plan outlining concrete goals for the first 30, 60 and 90 days, then six months and a year.

Planning for Michael Best & Friedrich’s Food and Beverage team took about three months, he said.

“We did a lot of research on the statistics, if you will, within the firm, as well as looking outside to the market and what made sense for our clients; what were going to be the hot issues, topics or industries for them,” Krutz said.

“And then internally, we gave a good deal of thought to what type of structure we’d want to put in to make these formal teams and how the attorneys would coordinate and work together.”

Build in some time for unexpected delays, as well, Krutz said. It’s easy to get off the schedule, he said, if the team leader suddenly gets busy with an existing client matter.

Announcing the new arrival

Marketing considerations, such as crafting the language to be used in promotional materials and seeking partnership opportunities, should take up a sizeable portion of the planning, McDonald said.

“The hardest part,” he said, “was we didn’t want it to come off as something new, because we’ve been doing this for years.”

Godfrey & Kahn built up authenticity for its new group by launching it in conjunction with a three-day event for start-ups on the Marquette University campus.

DeWitt Ross & Stevens, which recently began offering frac sand mining experts, participated in a webinar with Rock Products magazine, Marketing Director Michelle Friedman said. The webinar was viewed by almost 200 people the first day it went live.

The firm also retooled its website, Friedman said, to attract those interested in the specific expertise it now offers. Measures included revising attorney Bryan Esch’s bio to reflect the new practice, using key words that would bring in those searching for frac sand mining attorneys. Website analytics demonstrated not long afterward that his profile became the most visited biography on the site, she said.

Watch them grow

Eventually, new practice areas might take on a life of their own, Crocker said, such as the Real Estate group at von Briesen. That group has expanded well beyond traditional mortgages, leases and deeds, he said, into areas such as condominium law and virtual leases.

The firm’s Technology group, which started small, also has grown and evolved, he said. It now has its own niche in software licensing agreements.

“They’ve become extremely dynamic, complex and layered areas,” Crocker said. “These groups have metamorphosized into much more specific, cutting-edge areas.”

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