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How You Can Better Manage Your Legal Team

Managing other people is an underrated part of being a lawyer. Law school tends to be a solitary pursuit. You may have a study group, but you essentially manage yourself. You rise and fall on your own aptitude and are rewarded with the grades, and then jobs, based upon your performance.

However, once you enter the profession you learn that law is a relationship business. And, many of the relationships you must navigate are with people you manage. You have to manage support staff. As a new lawyer you have to “manage up” with the partners who give you work. You have to manage your clients. As you get more successful you may have other lawyers working for you and now you have to manage them.

So, most lawyers are managing lots of people and have little training to do it. Sometimes managing others runs counter to how lawyers see their days. After all, managing others takes time that the lawyer cannot bill to a client so many busy lawyers see managing people as a waste of time. In my experience, “my way or the highway” is a common management technique.

However, improving how you manage others really improves the bottom line. Well-managed teams function at a higher level offering the lawyer better efficiency and better client service. In the long run that will translate in more income.

If you want to do a better job managing people, Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better has a wonderful chapter on improving your management skills. Duhigg draws from the experiences of the FBI and General Motors to craft lessons on how to improve managing others.

One of the first lessons Duhigg shares is that managing others is about putting people in the position to succeed and become an expert of leader in something. He draws upon the NUMMI venture between Toyota and General Motors to demonstrate that when you empower the people closest to the problem to help solve it you create better overall outcomes. For NUMMI that meant giving line workers in the factory the power to stop production when something needed to be fixed. In the legal context this could mean empowering your legal administrative assistant or paralegal to have a say in how the final brief is created. Because they are doing the line work, they may have insights into how to make the process more efficient. You can imagine how counter-cultural that approach would be in most law firms.

Duhigg summarizes the most recent research on organizational culture to identify five basic workplace cultures:

1. Star Cultures – people are hired from elite schools or other successful companies and given lots of autonomy.
2. Engineering Model – fewer individual stars but the engineers (thing product creators) are the key group. Most people have the same backgrounds and mindsets.
3. Bureaucracies – cultures with thick ranks of middle managers; ruled by org. charts and job descriptions.
4. Autocratic Culture – similar to beauracracy except all the rules are structured around one person at the top. Think of this model as “you do what I say and you get paid.”
5. Commitment Model – people are passionate about the work. They plan to stay with the company and the company values its employees as a top priority. These companies believe getting the culture right is the most important thing and seldom do any lay-offs.

Research reveals that the commitment model is the only model that guarantees success. That is not to say that other models cannot be a success, but a study of start ups in Silicon Valley revealed that none of the companies with a commitment model failed. They tended to hire slowly, but did a good job of finding self-directed people. As one of the study authors noted, “Good employees are always the hardest assets to find. When everyone wants to stick around, you’ve got a pretty strong advantage.” (Duhigg at 150 quoting James Baron)

So, the best cultures are those where the employee’s and company are committed to one another. They want each other to succeed. And, because they are committed to one another’s success, decisions are pushed down to the lowest level that can make them not held up at the higher levels:

“Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success. A sense of control can fuel motivation, but for that drive to produce insights and innovations, people need to know their suggestions won’t be ignored, that their mistakes won’t be held against them. And they need to know that everyone else has their back.”

(Duhigg at 165)

Unfortunately, few legal employers have the kind of culture Duhigg is describing. Most legal employers function more like an Olympic Track Team than they do a Football Team. On the Olympic track team, everyone wants to win gold. Yes, they want the team to capture the most medals, but most of all they want to win gold for themselves. The team’s success is simply the accumulation of individual successes.

In contrast, on a football team the goal is to win the game. On the best football teams individual statistics take a secondary role to the winning. The linemen are not going to score the touchdowns, but the team cannot succeed if they don’t block well. The unit has to function effectively.

In most legal employers, each attorney wants to be successful on their own. Each person wants the biggest book of business, the best associates assigned to work with them and the biggest payday at the end of the year. To the extent the firm succeeds, it is often simply the accumulation of individual attorneys having a good year. It is far less common to sacrifice for the good of the firm, to hand off a client to a newer lawyer for example. Or to take less money to help cover for a colleague who had a down year. Most firms are star culture at best and autocratic at worst.

In these environments it is difficult for newer lawyers or support staff to really be invested in the firm. Movement is so rampant among new lawyers because few of them are in firms where they feel the firm is as invested in them as they are in the firm. In firms where few people are going to make partner, it is virtually impossible to have a commitment culture. After all, how can all the new associates really be invested in having each other’s backs when they know they are really competing for a limited number of opportunities?

Doing a better job managing people really means taking a very deep look at how a firm is fundamentally structured. It takes tremendous will power and leadership. However, given the benefits of high functioning work cultures, I am confident the investment is worth it.


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