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Managing Principal Steve Nelson spoke to the DC Bar’s Washington Lawyer on the top issues that law firms face – and how to fix them.

By William Roberts | April 2017

The environment for legal services is changing rapidly as firms consolidate, billable hours decline, and technology disrupts old practices. Winning and keeping clients require solid strategy and execution. Steve Nelson, a managing principal with The McCormick Group Inc., an executive search consultancy based in Arlington, Virginia, offers the following advice.

1. Develop a Strategic Plan – and Follow It

A lot of law firms have strategic plans but don’t follow them. Executing the plan is particularly important, and branding and developing a core practice are critical. “Choose things that are really core to your firm, that you plan to focus on, so that you are a firm that is known for something and have a reputation,” Nelson says.

2. Implement a Real Practice Management Program

Managing each practice group as a business unit – as opposed to management by office – is key to firm success. This means creating a business management structure within each practice group. The person in charge of managing each practice group needs support from financial, business-focused people. Managers focus on finance, staffing, and client satisfaction. “The rise of alternative fees has made it so much more important to manage each engagement. Even if it’s just a cap on fees, you’ve got to make it profitable and meet the client’s needs,” says Nelson.

3. Compensate Rainmakers and Performance

Be sure your compensation system is balanced by properly rewarding rainmakers, but also taking care of people who do the hard legal work and handle client contact. Some firms use a “closed system” – partners don’t know who makes what – as opposed to the more commonplace transparent pay systems. “All firms are struggling with this. You want to have some institutional loyalty. And if most partners think the system is fair, and it rewards the right people, they won’t leave,” Nelson says.

4. Create a Strong Client Feedback Program

“Clients are much more sophisticated about service these days. Studies show that clients generally will not offer formal complaints or formally complain about practices with a firm. They will just move with their feet,” according to Nelson. Successful firms use a client feedback program that allows them to constantly check in with their clients on ways to improve service. Sometimes this is done by outside consultants, in-house specialists, firm leaders, or executive committee members.

5. Hire for Talent First, Business Second

When hiring new partners, many firms will focus too much on the portable book of business that a lawyer will bring with him or her and overlook the personal qualities and talent that person brings to the job. Most partners who move laterally to another firm will see a 50 percent turnover of new clients within three years. That puts a premium on talent. “Talent isn’t just the ability to handle the legal work,” Nelson says. “You need to be asking: Is this the kind of person who will develop relationships with the clients in the future?”

To read the original article, pick up the April 2017 edition of the Washington Lawyer or click here.

To contact Steve Nelson, go to | Steve Nelson


The McCormick Group is a national executive search consulting firm that since 1974 has delivered high-qualified candidates to fill key positions across a diverse range of industries and all functional disciplines.

As the largest executive search firm based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, The McCormick Group has superior knowledge of federal Washington and its impact on the nation’s business community and non-profit sector.