As new law firm partners, attorneys have a lot to figure out in their first year or two post promotion. In addition to getting a handle on law firm finances and business development, new partners need to master people management to effectively run their practices. In other words, to become the type of partner whom associates and staff actually want to follow. That requires a mix of management skills and leadership competencies that will inspire others to do their best work, remain loyal, focused and accountable, and work collaboratively towards the greater good of the practice group and the firm.
Paula Dixton, director of professional development at Greenberg Traurig, believes that it is important for law firm partners to possess strong people management skills: “When these skills are developed and nurtured, they positively impact morale, employee engagement, productivity, and retention,” she said. “Moreover, partner behavior impacts the firm’s culture and its reputation in the legal community.”
In my experience as a coach and consultant working with hundreds of lawyers over the years, many partners think that they are effective managers and leaders, but have “blind spots” that inhibit their effectiveness. For example, some may unknowingly come across as arrogant, dismissive of others, controlling, rigid, and defensive, while others avoid conflict, delay important decisions, or tolerate lack of accountability.
“Being a great lawyer doesn’t always equate to being a good manager. It is a different skill set. People often assume that it’s automatic. It’s not. These skills need to be developed and honed over time,” Dixton said.
What can the firms do to support their new partners in their quest to become effective managers and caring leaders?
Kristin Heryford, manager of professional development at Cooley, is proud of the programs that her firm offers to their new partners: “We have an annual Cooley Partner Academy for our new and most recent partners, during which, in addition to the traditional new partner orientation topics like business development and partner compensation, our new partners partake in a leadership development mini-series intended to help them develop their own authentic approach to leadership. Sessions and activities include a DiSC Management style assessment; conversations on collective leadership and leveraging stylistic differences for high functioning teams; an inclusive leadership panel examining in detail how DE&I efforts are central firm values; as well as team management fundamentals, among other topics.”
According to Heryford, the Academy is hosted right before the firm’s annual all-partner meeting, which allows the new partners to spend a couple of days before the main event learning and connecting with each other before connecting with the greater partnership. And the support doesn’t stop there: “After the Academy, we continue to work with our partners through more focused individual efforts, such as coaching or working on their business plans. The end result is that we’ve been able to create a culture of continuous learning and development to support our new partners.” This commitment is underscored by Cooley’s Director of Professional Development, Gene Gilmore, when he says: “My team and I are dedicated to helping our lawyers unlock their full potential and be their personal and professional best.”
Key people-management skills include commonly discussed ones such as communication, delegation, and providing effective feedback. In addition, a few simple strategies are frequently overlooked, but can have a tremendous impact on the quality of relationships new partners develop with their teams and the level of commitment and performance they produce:
Understanding and connecting with individual lawyers’ personal and professional goals – what drives them, gives them purpose, and provides them with meaning – will allow partners to adopt approaches that address those motivations and gain their people’s buy-in.
The desire to be known and valued is core to how we are wired as humans. Associates are no exception. Partners who treat the partner-associate relationship as purely transactional, or “all business,” don’t get the loyalty and productivity they could. When partners show that they care about their associates and staff as human beings and support their professional development, they are able to get more out of their people. Conversely, associates who perceive their partners as uncaring and mercenary are unlikely to go above and beyond the call of duty when the chips are down.
In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier recommends that managers hold a 10-minute coaching meeting focusing on the employee’s agenda. The following are the essential coaching questions the author recommends:
- What’s on your mind?
- The “AWE” question–and what else? (ask this question several times)
- What’s the real challenge for you?
- What do you want?
- How can I help?
- What was most useful to you about this conversation?
The key here is to focus on what’s important to the associate, rather than what’s important to the partner. Those who have adopted this habit have found it to be remarkably informative and a great way to strengthen relationships with their employees.
Clarity is the pathway to solid results. Effectively setting expectations is a critical part of successfully leading and managing associates, as well as developing a culture of accountability. Unclear expectations are one of the top sources of frustration for associates. Associates who are clear about what’s expected of them are more engaged. Engaged associates are happier, and happy associates stick around longer.
Whether performance-related or behavioral, a good set of expectations is not abstract such as “keep me in the loop.” Rather, it is well-defined and concrete, like “I would like you to email me a short status update by every Friday” or “I would like you to “cc” me on every email in the Smith case.” Bottom line: communicate unambiguous actions or behavior with specific deadlines.
When you include people, you make them feel valued. Today’s associates want to be part of things. While I am not suggesting that you tell your associates everything or include them in every meeting or in every communication, spending time identifying how you can be more inclusive with your team members will go a long way. Are there meetings that you can bring them to that you currently don’t? Can you share your overall matter strategy or why you did or didn’t do something on a case? Are there things that they can be learning about your clients’ businesses? Are there discussions about their matters that they are not privy to? Are they only given a narrow limited amount of information, but you can share more context with them?
Partners also demonstrate inclusiveness by being open to the input or opinions their associates offer. By being open-minded and refraining from quickly dismissing their ideas, concerns, or input simply because they’re less experienced than you makes them feel more involved. By considering their ideas, it will make your team members feel that they have a voice. It also gives you the advantage of gaining additional perspectives. Bottom line—what might you be missing by not having your people included?
Using these simple yet frequently overlooked strategies will help new law firm partners become effective people managers and run successful practices for years to come.