How to Create Strong Law Firm Managers

While law firms tend to be a relatively flat structure, there is usually a management structure that helps to guide things along.  Typically, this includes a lawyer leadership team (a Managing Partner and potentially, an Executive Committee), practice or client team leaders if the firm is organized into teams, and an administrative team comprised of non-lawyers.  This could include an Administrator or COO, a Marketing manager, HR manager, Accounting manager, library/resource Manager, an IT manager, and an Office Services manager.  Depending on the size of the firm, a single manager could be wearing two or more of these hats.  Some of these positions may also be outsourced (especially the IT role).

Given the very different tasks of each of these managers, you would expect that they would have very different roles and need very different skills.  It’s true that the job descriptions for each are unique, but there are (or should be) more similarities to these roles than you might think.

Whether hired, appointed or elected, here is what good managers should be expected to do:

  • Clarify the annual goals for whatever is being managed: management is about leading people and an organization toward something. Managers must ensure they know their purpose at any given time.  That purpose might be given to them (by the firm), or they may be required to declare that purpose and have it approved by the firm.  A job description is a good start, but managers must also know the firm’s business and marketing plans so they can ensure their activities help to work toward the accomplishment of these plans.
  • Determine the methodologies for accomplishing those goals: Managers determine what their department or constituents must accomplish, but they also determine how those things will be accomplished. Too often these decisions are done in a reactionary way – in the moment and with little strategic thought.  That’s poor management.  Ideally, a manager develops an operation plan to determine how the defined goals will be accomplished.
  • Be responsible for the implementation of those action items: Once the manager knows their role, their purpose, their goals and their action plan, they are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the department under their care accomplishes those tactics. In other words, the job doesn’t stop at planning…it’s only starting.
  • Be constantly aware of the playing field, both internally and externally: In addition to guiding their department/firm through implementation of operational plans, managers are expected to keep their finger on the pulse of any changes within the firm, and outside of the firm, that might affect their department/firm in any way. This includes changes to internal resources, the competition, the marketplace, and clients in particular.
  • Serve as advocate/ambassador of your plan and your constituency: Managers must be actively seen to promote and support the department/firm they are managing.
  • Be a leader, not a friend: Management is NOT about being everyone’s friend. Nor is it about being feared.  It’s about being a leader.  Be seen as logical, fair, compassionate, determined.
  • Deal with anchors: There will always be lawyers or staff who fall into the role of sabotager or anchor to any plan. Managers need to deal with these anchors.  This will be the theme of my next blog post.
  • Be the cheerleader: Managers can complain and gripe to each other, but otherwise must be seen as cheerleaders for their department and the firm. Full stop.  There is no emotional space in a successful firm for a manager who acts like an anchor, or puts enough negative energy into the firm that it’s clear they aren’t completely on-side with the various plans.   Think of being a manager in a law firm like being part of a board. You can fight about things on the inside but once a decision has been made, it’s unanimous from the perspective of those outside of that room.  And don’t just fake it: actively support the firm’s plans.
  • Engage everyone: A manager’s role is to ensure everyone in their department/firm feels engaged and on-side with the firm’s direction and operations. You won’t accomplish this by pontificating.  Consensus (or at least support for the path chosen) comes from personal engagement and discussion.  If you have someone in your group who is quiet, call on them in meetings to encourage them to speak their mind.  Give them space to develop their voice.  If some of your constituents are overly vocal, speak to them outside of the meeting to encourage them to hold back and help engage some of the members who don’t speak out as much.
  • Be accountable: Most importantly, managers are responsible for delivering what they said they will deliver.  If the firm doesn’t have an accountability process, a great manager will design one and put it before the firm.  But hopefully, the firm will create an accountability process to give all managers a chance to explain how they are doing and the resulting benefits or concerns.  In other words, part of what makes for a great manager is a great accountability system.  It can be as simply as requesting quarterly written and in-person reports.

Managers rarely have some or even all of these skills.  In most cases, managers are trained over time, and may require coaching and other support to get them to the caliber of management most firms need.

We need to consider carefully whom we chose for manager roles.  In the case of lawyers, it should neither be the busiest lawyers nor the least busy.  A manager must command respect, and be someone that others are willing to follow.  Lawyers with a faltering practice will then then be followed as a legal business expert.  And your top producers might be successful in their field, but that doesn’t make them a great manager – often quite the opposite.  Moving them into a position outside of their core competency that simultaneously lowers their productivity simply isn’t a good business strategy.

In terms of staff, we need to select individuals who know their craft and are respected within their own profession, who have the courage to advocate for their department, and who can earn the respect of the lawyers over time.

Management – whether by lawyers or staff – is a responsibility and requires thoughtful action and determination in order to be done well.  We need to select our managers carefully, be clear with them regarding their job description and expectations, give them training and support if they need it, and ensure that they practice accountability.

Management is going to take some time.  We might as well spend that time doing it well.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com