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What Makes for a Good Lawyer Leader/ Manager?

It’s common that the type “A” personality attracted to the practice of law would similarly be enticed to take on leadership positions when on offer. These may be external – such as a board opportunity, or internal – such as a chance to serve on a committee, as head of a practice group or client team, on the executive or as managing partner.

Often, the decision to pursue or accept these positions is made from an emotional standpoint. We want to be seen as desired. We want that title on our biography. We want to be seen as someone who can ably lead a group or organization. And in our core, we believe we have something positive to offer.

These are good reasons to consider a leadership position but the wrong reasons for accepting such a position.

Leaders of any type, and at any level, are first and foremost managers. Leaders should also be visionaries, but that capability plays distant second fiddle to management skills. Yet I’ve met very few lawyers with innate management skills. This might seem counter-intuitive as most lawyers would consider themselves good managers. Afterall, they manage clients, files and their assistant. They usually feel they do a good job of managing associates and others on their teams. But at best, most lawyers tend to be adequate in managing process and documents, and poor at managing people. In fact, a good 25% of the associates I’ve coached have cited poor lawyer management as the primary reason for wanting to change firms.

Partnerships intuitively understand this, which is why many administrative roles within law firms have been delegated to professional managers. Administration, accounting, IT, marketing, library resources and office services are frequently run by experts in their field. But there are other leadership roles that simply can’t be done by a non-lawyer. No one understands the practice of law, or is better positioned to understand how to manage around that practice, than lawyers. And no one can truly lead a lawyer except another lawyer. The key is to train them on how to do the role effectively.

Start by understanding what manager do. Managers actively, consciously and pro-actively mange people, resources, client experience, and strategy development and implementation. As a consequence, they also manage revenue and expense budgets. Strong managers are active, conscious and proactive in their role.

Active Management:  In my experience, an uncomfortably large proposition of lawyers asked to take on a leadership position do so with the only change being a line item on their bio. Management is not simply a title, it requires activity. For this reason, I encourage firms to write a job description for the role before recruiting for the position. This establishes expectations of behaviour, purpose and accountability. This may help individuals to self-select in and out of the process.

Conscious Management: Management is not something that’s practised off the side of a desk, considered from time to time as an adjunct to a law practice. I’ve worked with hundreds of practice group and client ream managers, and dozens of managing partners. The most effective ones think consciously about the role, what they need to manager, and how they will go about doing so. Management is so much more than dealing with a crisis. Management takes place at all times. Every communication should be carefully considered. Every action should have a purpose and be fully committed to in that moment. Every miss-step should be acknowledged, analyzed and corrected.

Pro-Active Management: Managers are not required to have the same visionary skills as ultimate leaders (such as managing partners or the chair of a board); but they are expected to effectively steer the group they are managing. For example, practice group leaders should monitor changing trends in the marketplace and help their group to prepare for corresponding shifts in service needs. They should also monitor their resources carefully, preparing for upcoming gaps (for example in budget, in team members by year of call, in particular skills, etc.)

Most importantly, managers should help set up and then keep groups accountable for strategy and implementation plans. Too often, planning is a fall weekend event that magically disappears until the following year-end when someone remembers the group once development a list of goals. In that case, no management occurred throughout the year, as management by definition is leading a group toward declared goals. To re-iterate, management is NOT looking at what was done and trying to align that after the fact with previously declared goals.

Nor is management simply dealing with decisions and issues as they arise, with no relation to a bigger picture strategic or plan. That’s monitoring, not leadership. It is the combination of vision, planning, implementation and daily management against a group’s goals that define strong leadership.

It should also be noted that while managing to a plan is the most effective way to lead, strong day-to-day management is the most effective way to inspire. Clear communication, transparent goals, logical implementation, regular marketplace reviews, consistent internal data analysis and fair management of crisis will inspire team members to be better followers. And strong followers serve as individual outboard motors for your team boat. This is critical because great managers are not great because of what they can achieve. They are great because of what they can encourage their team members to collectively achieve.

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