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We describe the best law firm managers we work with as champions for three reasons. First, they are champions in demonstrating the highest levels of people management skills. Second, and of more importance, they are dedicated to supporting and championing the members of their firms. They help them develop to their full potential, and foster relationships among them so they work together smoothly and efficiently for the benefit of their firm and its clients. And third, as a result of their development efforts, they end up creating and managing their own team of champions.
Champion managers don’t expect or receive trophies, ribbons, or plaques. While recognition for their management efforts is appreciated, the reward they really care about is having a profitable, resilient law firm with a positive, harmonious culture. Champion managers recognize that a firm’s most important asset is its people, and for their firm to thrive, they must invest time and energy in the management and development of them.
In working with numerous managing partners and firm leaders, we’ve found that even those who are very good at technical and tangible aspects of managing (e.g., budgeting, forecasting, receivables, governance and formulation of policy) often struggle and feel stuck when it comes to the people side of management. At times they feel lost or ineffective when it come to motivating, engaging, developing, holding accountable and retaining the members of their firm. Champion managers, by contrast, excel in this area, and we’ve found that they share certain traits and beliefs. Here are the five that we see most often.
- Champions make managing their people a priority, not an afterthought. They make time for getting to know firm members and building strong working relationships with them. It’s not something they “get to” when clients aren’t calling. For them it’s not just a matter of scheduling (and protecting!) regular times for people management activities. They are also keenly aware of small but important opportunities throughout the day to listen, give feedback and provide guidance. Firm members appreciate this accessibility, and are usually more willing to share their own ideas and follow their champion manager’s lead. Champions see these activities as a critical and ongoing investment in the future of their firm that lets them assess morale and keep their finger on the pulse of the firm. They have a clear sense of the interpersonal dynamics of their firm. and member departures seldom surprise them.
- Champions clearly understand and embrace the scope of their responsibilities as a people manager. They actively participate in all aspects of people management, beginning with overseeing the hiring and onboarding of new firm members, as well as the training, supervision and development of all. They foster collaboration and teamwork, and proactively manage and resolve conflicts between firm members. They use people management as way to ensure that their firm is productive, efficient and profitable. They also pay attention to some of the more subtle sides of people management: they work hard to engage, motivate and retain firm members; and they enlist everyone’s help in fostering and maintaining high morale and a positive firm culture. Most important, champions understand that these responsibilities are interrelated. For example, good onboarding and training accelerate the professional growth of firm members and set the stage for excellent teamwork and productivity; and paying attention to what motivates individual firm members leads to higher engagement and more robust firm cultures.
- Champions rely on their emotional intelligence and conversational skill. Champions have the self- and social-awareness to use tools for creating the conversations, interactions and relationships that are the foundation for a thriving law firm. They know that communications problems can derail the best efforts of individuals and firms, so they:
- are clear about the purposes of their conversations
- find the right time and place for them
- listen attentively and expansively
- use open-ended questions to understand what others are thinking and feeling
- get into the habit of paraphrasing and summarizing what they’ve heard to make sure they’ve understood correctly
Champions use delegation not merely as a way to get things done, but also as a tool for developing firm members. They are also extremely skillful when both giving and receiving feedback. Rather than seeing feedback as a way to correct behavior and improve technical competence, they see it as an opportunity for mutual learning and collaborative problem-solving. Champions know that delegation and feedback are the best tools for driving engagement.
- Champions lead by example. They recognize they must walk their talk and practice what they preach. Effective management—let alone championship-level management—is impossible without sufficient trust between employees and managers. Authenticity is one of the keys to building this trust. By being an authentic manager, they set an example for the members of their firm. Not only does their authenticity build trust, it challenges and encourages their firm members to be authentic as well. They understand that no matter how loud and frequently they may preach—whether it’s the way they want something done, the way they want clients handled or a priority they may want to establish—the people in their firm will pay more attention to what they actually do than to what they may say. They model the behavior and attitudes they want to see. They know it’s no use to want their firm members to work hard, act with integrity, and treat others with civility and respect, if they’re not setting an example.
- Champions never stop working at becoming even better managers. As successful as they may be, champions are humble, curious and interested in becoming even better managers. They have an open mind, and make time to reflect on what they are doing well and what they need to do better. Champions don’t go it alone: like their counterparts in athletics, they’re ready to ask for assistance from coaches, trainers and mentors. Many ask for feedback from fellow firm members or peers they may know from managing partner roundtables. And all recognize that changes—whether they’re technological, generational or driven by client demands—mean that law firms are now adapting at faster speed than in the past, and practice management must keep pace.
One of the most interesting things we’ve learned about champion managers is that very few of them consider themselves born leaders or managers. Rather than champion management being a matter of innate traits, most attribute their success and effectiveness to a desire to learn, hard work and practice.
About the Authors
Andrew Elowitt is managing director of New Actions, LLC, and is a professional certified coach and practice management consultant. Marcia Watson Wasserman is president of Comprehensive Management Solutions, Inc., a law practice management consultant firm. They are co-authors of Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees (ABA 2017). Contact Andrew on Twitter @aeNewActions and contact Marcia at firstname.lastname@example.org.