I can watch old episodes of the iconic TV show The Office on Netflix all day long. In my opinion the actor Steve Carell was brilliant in his portrayal of Michael Scott – a fictional character on The Office who served as the highly dysfunctional regional manager of a paper company known as Dunder Mufflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
However contrary to Michael’s own belief (and his coffee mug), he definitely was not the “World’s Best Boss.” Unfortunately we seem to be reading more news reports about senior leaders in well-known organizations across the business, political, cultural, academic, non-profit and sports worlds who unfortunately act like Michael Scott and are not good people managers.
While leading technology assets like software, cloud computing, devices, data and artificial intelligence can help law firms and corporate in-house legal departments digitally transform to provide more high-impact legal services to their clients, we can never lose sight that people are still the most important asset of any legal organization. As many of us know it is often the case that employees do not leave companies, they leave managers.
All lawyers can be better leaders and people managers. Leadership and management are key competencies that are generally not taught in law school and in continuing legal education programs that many of us may attend. Even if you do attend leadership/management trainings during your career, they are still vital skills that need to be developed and honed over time.
It is important to remember that we are ALL leaders. Here are some guiding principles for lawyers to embrace as leaders:
Ethics & Integrity Are Non-Negotiables
Leaders are role models and must always, always, always demonstrate a high-degree of ethics and integrity in their actions. Constantly setting this tone of the importance of embracing compliance and integrity will help make them part of your team’s DNA. Look for opportunities to share lessons learned when lawyers and business people have not acted in an ethical fashion.
Learn, Learn and Learn
Lawyers need to have a “learn-it-all” mentality versus a “know-it-all” mentality when it comes to leadership and management. Be sure to learn from the great, good, mediocre and poor leadership practices demonstrated by lawyers, clients and others that you observe over time. Also learn from the less than ideal actions that you have taken in the past as a manager. Last July I assumed a new role leading 14 outstanding lawyers and legal professionals scattered across the US and I find myself constantly learning from my team, my peers, our customers, our partners and others on how I can improve to be a more effective and impactful leader.
Provide Recognition and Say Thanks
Look for opportunities to recognize the great work of your team and get in the habit of continually thanking them for their hard work. Such recognition can range from informing your immediate management team of their great work to highlighting their accomplishments during team meanings to providing periodic awards to offering “Kudos” via LinkedIn. Also do not forget to congratulate them on their work anniversaries.
In my experience embracing a deep sense of empathy is a necessary skill for all lawyers. Lawyers can better lead their teams by being able to appreciate, understand and identify the needs of their teammates. Do you best in trying to “walk in the shoes” of your team members.
Invest in Your Team & Serve Them
Leaders need to have a service-first mentality with their teammates and should pose this question: “How can I serve you better?” When you hire new legal talent be sure to invest the time to train them. Develop a thoughtful on-boarding plan, introduce them to key clients/members of your legal team and provide them with opportunities to shadow you and others. Over time offer your team growth opportunities via stretch projects, mentor them (and suggest other potential mentors), provide them with chances to gain visibility with senior leaders, do not play any favorites and drive an inclusive culture free from Unconscious Bias.
The legal profession is filled with long hours, pressure and the wellness of lawyers is a growing and vitally important topic. Lawyers will only be their best in the workplace if they feel their best. Always be sure to emphasize to your team that they should take excellent care of themselves, excellent care of their families, and to take the necessary time away from the workplace to vacate their minds and recharge.
Have an Eye for Great Talent
Lawyers must have the innate ability to identify and attract great talent for their organizations. Leverage your networks to find such talent, avoid constantly hiring from the same sources (e.g., Top 20 law schools), seek lawyers from diverse backgrounds and do not rely solely upon your human resources team/recruiters. While hiring great talent is an inexact science, put a premium on the so-called “soft” skills and always go with your gut intuition.
Feedback is Fabulous
Take the time to periodically provide meaningful and constructive feedback to your entire team when applicable so they can learn and grow. Do not wait to share any feedback at a certain point in time like during a future performance review session – instead provide such feedback immediately. In addition, the best leaders always asks their team for specific feedback about themselves.
Be Clear & Transparent
Lawyers can often be vague, verbose and ambiguous in their communications. As leaders, we need to drive greater clarity, consistency and transparency in our communications to build trust with our teams and to better enable them to provide impactful advice to our clients. In my experience, lawyers and legal professionals crave and expect a high-degree of transparency from their leaders. Lack of clarity, ambiguity and inconsistency within legal teams can lead to confused and unsatisfied clients and legal team members.
Tough Conversations & Decisions
On occasion being a leader will require you to have difficult conversations with members of your team and making tough decisions. When needed practice your delivery of those conversations with someone that you trust and be very thoughtful yet decisive in your decision-making process. Also do not worry about whether your team will still “like” you as managing a team is not a popularity contest. If you are unable to have these conversations or make difficult decisions then you should not be a people manager.
Generate Positive Energy & Enthusiasm
Whether we realize it or not, the energy and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) of senior legal team leaders is highly contagious. Like CEOs and other senior business leaders, lawyers also need to be positive motivators, passionate and inspiring.
Provide Air Cover
While practicing law is not an easy, it can be easy to second-guess a lawyer’s advice on difficult issues. Be sure to have your team’s “back,” never rush to any judgment regarding your team’s performance without speaking directly with your team and having a clear understanding of the facts and constantly reinforce your support to your team.
Put the Right People in the Right Place at the Right Time
Just like a head coach in sports, a legal team leader needs to be thoughtful as to how she assembles and deploys her team of lawyers and legal professionals to have the maximum positive impact. Doing so requires a deep understanding of the strengths/growth opportunities of team members, the specific requirements of clients and the business needs of your legal organization.
Always Be Accessible & Responsive
While we are all busy, lawyers need to make themselves readily available to their teams to set them up for success. Be sure to have periodic high-impact 1:1 meetings with your direct reports, understand their preferred modes of communicating, and never ignore your teammates (and be quick to respond to their emails) as leaders must be super responsive to their team’s needs.
During discussions with members of your teams be sure to focus on them, make eye contact, do not be distracted, avoid multi-tasking and engage in active listening. We owe it to our team to always “be present” when we connect with them. Leading psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais has spoken and written extensively that “being present” is a key attribute of high performing teams.
On occasion I have seen lawyers promoted to senior leadership positions who have let their new responsibility, power and influence “go to their heads.” While it is important for people managers to exude confidence, it is equally important to remain humble and well-grounded as a leader.
It is always a shame when lawyers and legal professionals decide to leave organizations because of their managers and leaders. Remember to always work hard to continually develop your leadership skills so that you can help build the next generation of great lawyers and legal professionals – and leaders – within your legal organization.