This Executive Briefing is based on the insights shared in our June 2023 LeadWise Forum. LeadWise Forums are complimentary invitation-only monthly events for law firm talent, DEI, practice management, business development, and marketing professionals to confidentially share experiences, ask questions, exchange ideas, and find solutions to their most critical challenges. They are designed to be highly interactive where every participant brings something to the table. If you are interested in joining our next Forum, scroll down to request your invitation. 

Our June 2023 LeadWise Forum explored strategies and approaches for helping lawyers become more effective managers taking into account generational management preferences and expectations, and the post-pandemic switch to remote and hybrid work, both of which made the management effectiveness issues even more complex. 

6 Key Stages for Helping Your Lawyers Become Better Managers

In the past, not much emphasis was placed on helping attorneys become effective managers and leaders. And while most partners try to do their best with what they know or what they’ve learned from others, many have blind spots when it comes to effective people management.  For example, some come across as arrogant, dismissive of others, controlling, rigid, and defensive (which creates a culture of blame and finger-pointing) while others avoid conflict, delay important decisions or tolerate lack of accountability (which creates a culture of victimhood). The outcomes are the same – low morale, low motivation, and low productivity.

During the Forum, participants highlighted a few typical challenges that get in the way of helping lawyers become better managers, including the fact that:

  • the billable hour requirements often take precedence over everything else; 
  • lawyers are really busy and managing others feels too time consuming; 
  • lawyers are not trained as managers and many struggle to trust in the competence of others and let go, which keeps them stuck doing everything themselves; etc.

To guide the Forum discussion, we used the LeadWise six-stage Mastering People Management process:

  1. Understand the Gaps
  2. Create Self-Awareness & Educate
  3. Provide Structure & Guidance
  4. Create Incentives & Establish Accountability 
  5. Develop & Deepen Trust
  6. Strengthen Communication

Below are a few of our insights along with the experiences that worked well in the past as shared by the participants:

  1. Understand the Gaps by Conducting a Needs Assessment

One of the keys to helping lawyers transform into effective managers is to have clarity around the current people management challenges and gaps they experience. So your first step should always be a needs assessment process. 

To assess your lawyers’ people management skills and the gaps that might exist: 

  • Review your current performance metrics data, such as attrition rates, employee engagement, etc.
  • Review management-related concerns lawyers shared in the last 12 months
  • Conduct stay/insights interviews to get direct feedback from your lawyers about their development needs
  • Conduct an upward review process to get feedback from associates about partners’ performance in key areas such as management, leadership, mentoring, and development
  • Consider using an outside expert to increase openness and transparency in reporting – an outside consultant can conduct the interviews, analyze the responses, summaries key themes and takeaways, and develop a plan of action
  1. Create Self-Awareness & Educate

To help your lawyers become effective managers, start by helping them understand their own management styles and preferences. One of the tools that works really well is the DiSC Management Profile assessment, which takes a deep dive into each person’s management style and the styles of other people’s, including how they prefer to be managed, delegated to, motivated, and developed. 

Once the lawyers deepen their self-awareness around their own management strengths, preferences, and limitations, introduce training program topics that align with the outcomes of the needs assessment process. 

Here are a few ideas as shared in the Forum:

  • Present different case scenarios involving management situations and what stories participants tell themselves about those situations; the goal is to explore and reflect on those stories and assumptions they make.
  • Conduct individual coaching meetings to provide personalized guidance and support.
  • Implement leadership development programs, which include both one-on-one coaching and cohort-style meetings, to foster skill development and knowledge sharing.
  • Encourage lawyers to complete self-assessments and surveys at different stages of their development, enabling them to track their progress and identify areas for continued improvement.
  1. Provide Structure & Guidance

One common challenge for most CORE (Competence in Organizational and Relational Effectiveness) skills development programs – like a management skill program – is that once the program is over, most participants revert back to their established ways of doing things. Unless a structure is built to help them practice implementing these new skills. Having a structure works both ways in supporting the managers and those they manage. 

One way to do that is by incorporating people management topics/skill development into your mentorship and sponsorship programs. Some Forum participants shared that in their firms they do targeted mentoring programs that are created for lawyers at different experience levels, such as summer programs and first-year lawyer mentoring programs. Another participant shared that they pair a partner who has never mentored with a junior associate outside of their practice area. 

  1. Create Incentives & Establish Accountability

Many lawyers don’t see their management obligations as part of their job. Others feel that the younger generation is not as capable, competent, or hard-working as they are. So they are less likely to engage in effective management because they see it as futile (why bother). Motivation plays a significant role in driving lawyers to excel in their management responsibilities. Implementing appropriate incentives and establishing accountability measures are crucial to foster growth and reward desired behaviors. 

Research on management has found that when people have to prioritize where to focus their attention and time, they tend to choose areas that:

  1. are more clearly and easily measured
  2. directly linked to their compensation
  3. pay relatively more per unit of effort

That means making management responsibilities clear and “profitable” is one way to motivate lawyers to be more proactive and effective managers. For example: 

  • Create a list of management functions that your lawyers are expected to perform at different levels of seniority (this can be incorporated into your performance competency model if your firm has one)
  • Consider offering a certain number of billable hours for management activities (e.g., monthly one-on-ones with their team members; training or coaching their team members; attending skills development programming)

And when it comes to effective people management, nothing is as demotivating as communicating expectations and then not holding people accountable when they fail to meet them

In a study published in Harvard Business Review, 46 percent of  high-level managers were rated poorly on the measure, “Holds people accountable when they don’t deliver.” The study authors write: “The unfortunate consequence, however, is that no matter what short-term costs an upwardly ambitious manager avoids by not playing the sheriff, they are overshadowed in the long run by the creation of a culture of mediocrity and lackluster organizational performance. Add this up over time and across departments and business units and the aggregate costs of neglecting accountability can be staggering for everyone.”

Your employees – and especially more junior ones – are watching you! So look for ways to ensure that you have accountability measures in place:

  • If you include people management responsibilities in your performance management process, make sure there are clear consequences for those who fail to meet these expectations (e.g., not eligible for a special discretionary bonus)
  • Include a “people management effectiveness” score in how practice group performance is measured internally and have those scores included in internal reporting
  • Reward practice groups who score high on the “people management effectiveness” metric
  • Have practice group leaders actually address internal complaints about poor management behavior by discussing the issues with the lawyer and determining appropriate measures to change the situation (e.g., enrolling the lawyer in appropriate training, signing them up for individual coaching to strengthen their management skills, etc.) 
  1. Develop & Deepen Trust

The new breed of legal professionals sees their ideal leader as an inspiring coach, a compelling communicator, and a self-aware, culturally-informed manager, who has an inclusive decision-making style versus “command and control.” Or as one millennial associate said, “You don’t tell people what to do, you empower them.” 

Lack of trust as an issue goes beyond people management. When lawyers don’t have enough trust in each other, productivity, creativity, and cross-collaboration suffer too. 

To cultivate trust among lawyers, look to create opportunities that promote understanding, empathy, and connection:

  • Offer programming (training and/or coaching) focused on self-awareness, empathy, and trust building
  • Create opportunities for people to spend time together socially doing something productive (e.g, volunteering together for a cause)
  • Strongly encourage lawyers to build relationships with their colleagues in other practice areas or offices (e.g., create an internal competition that rewards people for cross-departmental connections, like attending other practice groups’ monthly meetings)
  1. Strengthen Communication

It goes without saying that effective communication is vital for successful management. Law firms should focus on enhancing communication practices to facilitate collaboration, understanding, and alignment among team members. 

Consider the following aspects:

  1. Types and tools: Differentiate between synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (non-real-time) communication, utilizing appropriate tools for each, such as video conferences, instant messaging platforms, and project management systems.
  2. Expectations: Help your lawyers understand the critical importance of setting clear expectations and how to communicate them effectively, including frequency, responsiveness, preferred modes of communication, etc. 
  3. Information sharing / access: Establish systems and platforms that enable seamless information sharing, ensuring that relevant information is accessible to those who need it. This can include document management systems, knowledge-sharing platforms, and centralized databases.