Best Practices for Lawyer Managers: Managing People and Building a Practice

Being a great manager of lawyers requires a lot more skill than legal knowledge and reasoning abilities.   Great leaders know how to motivate people to achieve goals over a sustained period.   This requires strong emotional intelligence skills as well as a keen understanding of each team member’s legal abilities and motivators.   I provide below some of the key traits of the best managers I have known.

Legal Managers Have Motivated Staffs

Lawyers by their nature tend to be motivated and want to be perfect. The fact that lawyers went to law school after earning their undergraduate degrees shows that they are willing to put in the extra work to achieve goals. Otherwise, they would not have gone to law school.

I often felt lucky compared to managers in other divisions of organizations.   Lawyers generally know how to reason and write well. They all had to study hard in college and work hard in law school. These individuals have self-selected to be lawyers based on their intelligence, willingness to work and reasoning skills. That’s why most lawyers love a good analytical discussion.

The point is that as legal managers, we have skilled and motivated individuals as part of our team.   That is a great asset that gives us a tremendous advantage as managers.

Yet, Many Lawyers Do Not Have the Right Management Skills

I have heard many times that lawyers are not the best managers. Why? First, we are not risk-takers. We always focus on the downside risks. We are paid to find potential pitfalls and as a result, are risk-averse. This causes us to micromanage projects and work an issue to death.

Second, lawyers are often promoted based on their legal acumen rather than their interpersonal skills. This creates problems for the lawyer manager who does not have strong relationship skills or the ability to engage in small talk. Check my prior IPWatchdog article on lawyers who are too smart and lack emotional intelligence skills.  Your team will perform much better if they like and respect you as a manager.   If you can’t relate to your team members individually, it will be difficult to motivate them and create a high-functioning team.

Third, as lawyers, we tend to focus on the law to the exclusion of other equally important issues.   For example, is the goal to find the legal issues that present problems or is it to help the company or client achieve its business objectives with the lowest amount of risk and the highest potential for gain?   Are there some legal risks that are not worth worrying about? Lawyers worry about everything and this anxiety can be crippling to a legal team, if not managed and placed in the proper perspective.

Key Skills Needed to Be a Top Legal Manager 

As the general counsel of two organizations, I have managed other manager lawyers and worked with many managers outside of the general counsel’s office.   Some traits have always differentiated the top managers that I have known from the others. Many of these traits do not involve legal or intellectual skills.   In fact, many of the best managers that I have known were not the smartest members of their teams.   In other words, each of these top legal managers managed lawyers who were better lawyers than they were.

Managing a team of lawyers who are brighter and more educated on a topic than the manager can be difficult.   It takes a manager with a lot of self-confidence to feel secure.   Yet, the best legal managers always seek to hire lawyers who are smarter and more knowledgeable about certain topics.

So what skill set enabled these lawyers to be excellent legal managers and rise to the top?   I present below several traits that I have found to be most effective:

  1. Help Your Lawyers to Be Successful
  • Put an Oar in the Water. Helping your staff complete a project is the one of the best ways to show that you care and appreciate their work.   If you have an idea where they might look for the answer, tell them.   Also, let them know if you have an idea what the right answer might be and why.   One concern here is that you do not want to micromanage.   Be engaged, but show that you trust them to complete the project.
  • Help Your Lawyers Create a Career. Help them to create their brand and develop a career.   Give them time to write articles and speak.   Support their memberships in bar and trade associations.   This benefits your company or law firm as well because your staff members will stay abreast of legal developments and practice trends.    For tips on how to help your staff members create their brands, see my prior IPWatchdog article on how to create your legal brand.
  • Share the Credit and Take the Blame. A great manager gives credit to her team members publicly and with senior management.   Nothing makes an employee feel better than having the general counsel, CEO or managing partner tell them how much their good work helped the company or firm.   On the other hand, if things go wrong (and they will from time-to-time), do not blame your staff member.   As the leader you should take full responsibility, unless your team member was acting without your knowledge.   I have never respected managers who blame a member of their team for errors in order to try to deflect the blame from themselves.   This doesn’t work.   As the leader, all errors are yours.   If you have a team member who is not competent, transition them out, but do not publicly humiliate them.   Take a look at my prior IPWatchdog article for a discussion on how to motivate a team by sharing the successes.
  1. Be Transparent and Share Information
  • Give Constructive Feedback. People love feedback on their performance.   It shows that you care about their careers and their work product.   For feedback to be effective, it must be well received.   Check out my prior IPWatchdog article on the 9 elements for constructive feedback.  It’s important to provide both positive and negative feedback and in a timely manner.   I always tried to deliver negative feedback in the lawyer’s office so that they did not feel like they were being “called to the principal’s office.”  Feedback is a gift.   It’s one of the hallmarks of a great leader.   See my prior IPWatchdog article on the ingredients to motivate a team to achieve goals.
  • Share Information About the Organization. If it’s true that “information is power,” then share your power with the team.   Let them know about company or firm initiatives and staff hiring.  People are much more invested when they know what is going on within the company or firm.
  • Trust Your Staff. Trust your staff to get the job done and on time.   If you can’t, you don’t have the right people.   Great managers hire the best people and then trust them to do the job.   It’s also important to trust them with information about your life just as they trust you with information about theirs.  Relationships are a 2-way street.   Of course, some information cannot be shared with the team and that is understandable.   Yet, being too closed off and insular prevents you from having a strong relationship with your team members.
  1. Know Your Staff
  • Use Emotional Intelligence Skills to Connect. Having empathy or understanding your team member’s point of view and perspective is important.   This is empathy and allows us to connect with others in a more meaningful way.   Similarly, a manager who gets upset and yells or is belittling to a subordinate will lose the respect of the team.   Don’t “fly off the handle” when things go wrong.   A good manager has strong impulse control skills.   See my prior IPWatchdog article on the important components of emotional intelligence and how to effectively use them.
  • Understand the Pressure and Fears. Many lawyers are anxious because we are taught to always look for what could go wrong.   We are paid to find problems and spot the downside risk.   This focus on what could go wrong creates fear and anxiety.   There are other fears as well such as having a good stream of work.   Know the fears faced by your legal team and appreciate them.   The fears faced by lawyers whether in corporate, a law firm or in government are real.  Recognize these fears and try to ameliorate them, if possible.   See my prior IPWatchdog article for a more thorough discussion of the fears faced by lawyers.
  • Small Talk is Not a Waste of Time. We need to get to know our staffs and help them to feel comfortable around us.   Otherwise, they will not freely communicate information to us.   This requires stopping by their offices and talking about vacation, children, golf or whatever.   This helps to create a connection.   The people who report to you get information about the company, firm or your team that might be helpful to know.   Keep the lines of communication open.
  1. Promote Different Viewpoints and Backgrounds
  • Focus on Diversity and Inclusion.  In my organizations, I found that having diverse legal teams promoted the development and expression of different points of views.   This led to more robust discussions of alternative approaches and I believe, stronger conclusions. A strong leader promotes the development of different points of view and diversity is the key.   Studies have shown that diverse teams are more innovative than homogeneous groups.   I have also found that diverse groups are more exciting to work in.   A good manager looks to promote diversity in hiring and promotional opportunities.   For a discussion of the role unconscious bias can play in management decisions take a look at my prior IPWatchdog article 7 Ways Unconscious Bias Inhibits Legal Diversity & Inclusion.
  • Include Everyone. As managers, it’s easy to gravitate to people who have similar viewpoints to ours. That’s humane.   Yet, as managers, we have a duty to recognize these tendencies and compensate for them.   It’s important not to have favorites and to give them the best projects and all of the inside information.   The team will see you as being unfair.
  • Play to Individual Strengths. We all are better at some things than others.   Look at your team members and assess their individual strengths and weaknesses.   It’s far easier to help someone to develop by focusing on their strengths than to try to improve a weakness.   You get “more bang for the buck” when you give a staff member an assignment that they are good at handling.   It’s a waste of time to give employees projects that they are not good at handling and do not enjoy.   Of course, employees need to take on new work as a developmental opportunity.  It’s our responsibility to push employees as managers.   Outside of a promotional or growth opportunity, I would give staff members the work they enjoy.   They will love you for it and do a much better job.
  1. Show Your Appreciation 
  • Recognize Great Performance. The number one thing that employees value is feeling appreciated.   We all like being appreciated.   Don’t forget to let your staff know how much you appreciate their good work.   Also, be specific and say what you liked about their work so that it has greater impact.   For example, don’t just say “thanks for the great job,” but instead say, “I thought that your personal jurisdiction argument was a first-rate analysis of the law and reached a conclusion that I might not have considered.”
  • Celebrate Successes. It’s important to stop and recognize significant successes.   This is one way to let people know that you appreciate their work.   I often would have a small get together to celebrate the success and would give the employees an award.   This provided good closure and showed everyone on the team that good work is valued.
  • Be Accommodating to Work-Life Balance. Like any profession, lawyers suffer from burnout.   Staying motivated, engaged and energized is difficult when you are working long hours and under stress.   It’s important to recognize when your staff members are being overworked and suffering from burnout.   Lawyers who are overworked and fatigued cannot do their best work.   Check out my prior IPWatchdog article on combatting lawyer burnout and how to recharge your career.   As managers, we must be able to recognize when a staff member needs a break.   We can give them less projects or maybe some time off from work.   Also, people have personal life demands or sometimes get sick.   I would always recommend being as accommodating as possible.   Your employees will love you for it and be long-time loyal colleagues.

Being a Great Manager Takes Time and Commitment

For sure, it takes time to get to know your employees and to appreciate their perspectives and interests.   It also takes more time to show your appreciation and to celebrate successes.    It’s easy to forget to invest in these steps because of the day-to-day pressures of work.

Yet, in my experience, these steps pay off huge dividends and are worth the time and commitment.   It also makes your work more fun and your legal teams more energized and committed.

If you are not using any of these steps today, try them one or two at a time and see if they help.  I’m sure they will.  If you would like more information on how to manage lawyers and achieve optimal success, I’m happy to help.