Elowitt and Wasserman on Lawyers as Managers

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Andrew N Elowitt and Marcia Watson Wasserman

© 2017 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. Slaw readers can receive a 10% discount on purchase of this book. Use the discount code LAMS17 at checkout; this offer is valid until December 22nd, 2017.

Excerpt: PART III, Chapter 17, pgs. 219, 269-277

The contents of this excerpt may be also be downloaded in PDF format. (.8 MB)


Part III: Managing Specific Individuals and Situations

The chapters in this part of the book offer practical advice on how champion managers use the skills and mindset described previously to deal with many of the challenges, situations, and individuals commonly found in today’s law firms. Champion managers know the different skills and approaches they need for getting the best out of their underperforming, superstar, and average employees.

For example, they look past facile generalizations about Millennials, treat them as individuals who may or may not be different from older generations, and recognize that there are different keys to motivating them. Champion managers know how to supervise an increasingly diverse workforce that now includes contract attorneys, temps, interns, and employees that may be working on a flextime, part-time, virtual, or telecommuting basis. They also understand that it’s good business and ethical to manage for diversity and inclusion, to prevent harassment and bullying, to protect privacy and confidentiality, and to promote individual and firm-wide wellness.

Chapter 17: 17 Managing B Players

Many managers overlook the B players in their firm—champion managers don’t. They recognize that these solid, good-enough employees make a substantial contribution to a firm’s stability and are often an untapped resource for future growth and profitability (DeLong & Vijayaraghavan, 2003). Champion managers know that characterizing an employee as a B performer doesn’t mean they believe he or she has reached their full potential with no room for further growth and improvement. They make managing and developing their B players as high a priority as managing their superstars and underperformers, and they know that when B players are ignored they may begin to see themselves as unimportant, underappreciated, or low performing. As a result, their morale, engagement, and productivity may suffer.

It’s not too difficult to understand why so many managers spend too little time focusing on their B players. By definition, B players are already doing well enough, so their development is not seen as a high priority. They don’t present the same critical risks and problems that underperformers do, so their managers may not feel much of a sense of urgency in managing them. And they don’t need the attention and appreciation that some superstars demand, so their managers may feel it’s acceptable to leave them be. Some managers may also wrongly assume that their B players simply lack the talent or potential to ever become A players, so investing more time in developing them will yield limited and infrequent returns.

Managers (especially high achieving ones) may simply find it more enjoyable and gratifying to work with their superstar employees and peers. Their conversations and collaborations may lead to impressive results, thus bringing immediate recognition and credit to both. Developing B players, on the other hand, can be more time consuming, and the results may not be quite as spectacular as those achieved by superstars, but over the long run improvements in the performance of B players can be equally, if not more, important to a firm.

Who Are the B Players in a Law Firm?

B players exist in all sorts of organizations, and the lack of management and development attention they typically receive is nothing unique to the legal profession. Although they are estimated to make up about 60 percent of most organizations, they seldom receive the attention that the top- and bottom-performing 20 percent of their organizations do.

B performers are solid workers and consistent contributors; they exist at all levels of a law firm. They perform well when provided with guidance, follow up, and feedback. They may not be self-starters, or have a strategic perspective, or understand how their work contributes to their firm’s overall objectives and operations, but they get things done—well and on time and without a lot of drama. Their ambitions and expectations are often more modest than those of A players, and they may be satisfied with lower compensation in exchange for less stress and a more enjoyable work-life balance. Attorneys are, of course, not the only B players in a firm that deserve attention and development. Champion managers appreciate their B-performing staff members and offer them ways to further develop their skills and talents.

Managing B Players

Champion managers know that, in most respects, managing their B players is easier than managing underperformers and superstars. Many of their best management and development practices for those groups work equally well with their B performers. For example:

Champion managers provide their B performers with frequent feedback that is candid, constructive, and future oriented. This helps them to develop to their full potential.

Champion managers offer their B players authentic, personal, and specific praise rather than generic and insincere expressions. Secure B players usually need less frequent and fulsome appreciation than some of their insecure A player counterparts.

Champion managers provide their B players with interesting and challenging job assignments to keep them engaged and develop their skillsets. This gives them a sense that they are trusted and valued.

Champion managers provide their B players with regular training, coaching, and mentoring. This not only accelerates their development, but also helps with their satisfaction and retention.

Champion managers recognize and reward their B performers’ accomplishments; both those that are extraordinary, and those that demonstrate the B player’s high degree of consistency, quality, and reliability. Slow and steady producers should not be overlooked.

At the same time, champion managers understand the ways that their B players are different from their superstar and underperformer counterparts. They embrace these differences in the following ways.

Champion managers are aware of their B performers’ individual aspirations and motivations. They don’t assume that every B player aspires to be an A player, but when someone is ambitious, they give them the resources and opportunity to grow.

Champion managers realize that many of their B performers may be so focused on their individual responsibilities that they lack a broader understanding of their firm’s strategic objectives. Champion managers take the time to show them how they fit into the bigger picture and how they add value to both the firm and its clients.

Champion managers also understand how well their B performers deal with pressure and stress. They realize that some of their B players may not want the high stress and workloads of their superstar counterparts, so they delegate and make assignments accordingly. They realize that some of their B performers may perform very well when workloads increase, but cannot sustain that same high level of productivity over the long run when high work demands and stress are chronic. As a result, they make sure that high-pressure assignments are episodic, so B performers can enjoy their desired work-life balance.

The Hidden Potential of B Player Teams

Champion managers know another way to develop their B players: when placed on high performing teams, their skills and confidence improve. These dynamic, high-performing teams can be comprised of A and B players, or solely of B players. Synergies between B player team members are important, and teams of B players when expertly managed and led can actually outperform teams of A players lacking that same support (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2015). This doesn’t happen automatically; champion managers must be proactive and skillful in their management of the team and particularly its B-performing members. Champion managers need to provide a clear vision and strategy for the team, descriptive feedback on individual and team performance, and an environment with strong purpose and morale.

B players typically need a clear vision and roadmap more than their A player team member colleagues. When strategies, action plans, milestones, and metrics are cleanly defined, Bs can better understand their roles and responsibilities, and see how all the proverbial pieces fit together. They can also assess their performance and see how they are contributing to their team’s overall efforts. Champion managers make sure the strategies and objectives they articulate are realistic and attainable. When they’re not, B performers may feel they’ve failed, leading to lower engagement, confidence, and morale.

Less skilled teams that get feedback can outperform more skilled teams that don’t receive it. Champion managers provide all of their team members with feedback that is accurate, honest, and not inflated. Rather than making sweeping generalizations or vague assessments, their feedback is based on observable facts and accurate data. Distinguishing facts from opinions helps team members do a faster and better job of discovering and addressing problems. This in turn improves individual and team performance, allowing B performers to work harder and smarter, and thus develop faster.

Champion managers are particularly sensitive to the interpersonal dynamics and morale of their teams. They recognize that these factors are often more important than the aggregate experience, skill, or expertise of the team’s individual members. When they assemble teams of B players who are engaged, share common values and drivers, and care about each other; they see their B performers working harder, raising their individual performance, and accomplishing more for the success of the team. When this occurs, they can outperform teams of A players who lack their same high levels of morale and engagement.

Chapter Summary

Champion managers don’t overlook B players. They recognize their substantial contribution to a firm’s stability and potential for future growth and profitability. B players may be one of the following types:

Former A Players who slow down, want to spend more time with their family, wish to reduce their workloads as they grow older, or want to contribute to their community or a charity.

Subject Matter Experts who are experts in areas of the law that are somewhat tangential but still complementary to the firm’s core strategic focus.

Go-To and Glue People whose knowledge, skills, experience, and relationships contribute to their firm’s success. Staff members are often the most important go-to and glue people.

Minders and Grinders who manage cases and clients and do most of the actual work on those matters.

Champion managers use their best management and development practices in working with B performers. They:

Provide frequent feedback that is candid, constructive, and future oriented.

Offer authentic, personal, and specific praise.

Provide interesting and challenging job assignments.

Provide regular training, coaching, and mentoring.

Recognize and reward their accomplishments.

Understand their individual aspirations and motivations and provide them with the resources and opportunities they need to grow.

Understand how they deal with pressure and stress and delegate work accordingly.

Place them on high performing teams to improve their skills and confidence, providing them with a clear vision and strategy for the team, descriptive feedback on individual and team performance, and an environment with strong purpose and morale.


Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2015, July 13). How to manage a team
of B players. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

DeLong, T., & Vijayaraghavan, V. (2003, June). Let’s hear it
for B players. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Four Kinds of B Player Attorneys

Former A Players. Some superstars and overachievers eventually slow down and work less intensely. They may wish to start or devote more time to their family, or they may wish to reduce their workload and pressures as they grow older and financially more secure. Or they may wish to use their talents for the benefit of their community or a charitable organization. Some superstars become B players after burning out; their performance may not match previous stellar heights, but they remain productive and valuable members of the firm. The trend towards flextime working arrangements and a higher proportion of non-equity partnerships suggests that we will see more of this kind of B player in the future.

Subject Matter Experts. These attorneys are respected experts in areas of the law that are somewhat tangential but still complementary to their firm’s core strategic focus. Even though their practice may not be a seamless fit with those of their fellow attorneys, their firms feel it is better to keep an in-house specialist rather than turn to outsiders for guidance. If they were a superstar or overachiever in their particular practice area, it is likely that they would be a member of a firm with that specialty. Because they are a bit removed from the firm’s central practice, they are often perceived as being impartial and objective with few ambitions and personal agendas.

Go-To and Glue People. Although these attorneys may not be the highest performers, their knowledge, skills, experience, and relationships contribute to their firm’s success. They understand how things work in their firm: when new people need to be shown the ropes or things need to get done, they are the go-to people. They are usually loyal, long-term firm members who serve as its institutional memory and provide a sense of stability and continuity, especially during tough times and transitions. Their networks of working relationships are the glue that holds firms together and ensures their viability. In many firms, staff members are the most important go-to and glue people. Though they may not be in formal positions of leadership or power, they often have a clear understanding of a firm’s interpersonal dynamics and are indispensable in getting things done.

Minders and Grinders. The old paradigm of law firm attorney roles was “finders, minders, and grinders”—in other words, rainmakers who find and develop clients, attorneys who manage those clients’ cases and transactions, and attorneys who do most of the actual work on those matters. In the last ten years, this leverage model has evolved slightly in larger firms, with an increasing number of contract and staff attorneys being used for grinding, and an increasing number of finders also doing the minding. Even if these changes continue, B players will be needed and found among the attorneys who mind and grind.

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