Lawyers manage people. They don’t make widgets; they build lawyers and they hire, supervise, train, review and hopefully promote them. A widget machine will produce more widgets if it is properly maintained, oiled and adjusted. Lawyers will be more productive and profitable if they are well-trained and supervised, and if they get sufficient feedback as they develop their craft to learn how to improve their skills. But where in their careers or through their education would lawyers learn the skills necessary to manage people? And what are the impediments inherent in the practice of law that stand in the way of lawyers spending time on managing their people effectively?
WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY
Unless a supervising attorney has studied management or human resources in college, or has been a supervisor before attending law school, he or she probably hasn’t been schooled in managing people. While a lawyer would never consider practicing tax law without carefully studying the code and taking the appropriate courses and CLEs to remain current, lawyers frequently demonstrate the misguided notion that they can manage people without reading anything about how to do it successfully and without consulting resources with knowledge greater than their own. When interviewed one-on-one, many lawyers will confess their lack of understanding about how to be a good supervisor, and many indicate that they fall back on their own experience being supervised, which was often a less than positive experience. This is the way in which supervising others often looks something like parenting—and how often do we hear young parents say in horror, “Oh no, I am turning into my mother [or father]!” All too frequently, we simply imitate what we have seen others do, often without assessing whether it was a success or the best method to follow.
The basis on which law firms decide to offer management roles, and reward them, can also be problematic. Sometimes a person may be named managing partner or department chair because he or she is the source of the firm’s largest client. In a misguided attempt to reward them, attorneys who are great rainmakers are often hobbled in a role where they are asked to spend more time on day-to-day management issues rather than doing what they do best: successfully marketing the firm to new and existing clients. Likewise, attorneys are often asked to take on management roles without any additional compensation for such an important position or, worse yet, without any reduced expectation about the amount of time they are asked to spend billing clients, marketing services or managing their practice. When attorney compensation is based almost entirely on business origination or billable hours, it is no wonder that the activities associated with attorney and firm management are likely to get short shrift.
Further, training of all kinds for lawyers has taken a big hit in the current recession. During flush times, firms believed that attorney training and development was good for business and retention. Now, in light of changing expectations of lawyers by clients, there is an even greater need for efficiencies, good management and leadership skills. Attorneys are knowledge workers, so turnover of mid-level associates is always an expensive proposition. And even in the worst of economic times, firms are always vulnerable to losing their most productive lawyers. This is one of the many reasons that good supervision and management are crucial to firm financial success.
WHERE TO INVEST
While there may be no such thing as a natural born manager, most people can look within their own work experience, or their own firms, and identify others who have had a positive impact based upon their supervisory skills, or by observing managers in their firm who demonstrate strong leadership. If there are specific people in your present or past who manifest these capabilities, and you want to learn more about managing, interview them about where and how they picked up their expertise. If they offer concrete resources, consider following their lead.
If you are going to manage people, or if you are managing people, you owe it to them and your firm to learn some of the fundamentals. While you may not get paid directly for this investment, it should pay dividends in terms of increasing productivity, putting people into roles at which they are most likely to succeed, decrease turnover and improve morale. There are a number of ways to make this investment, from taking an online course to attending a supervisory seminar to reading a book. A number of large law firms have partnered with colleges and universities to develop programs geared specifically to teaching lawyers management and supervisory skills.
Here are just a few of the many resources that might be helpful. Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Managing People, available through Amazon.com, is a place to start. Written by a variety of leading thinkers on management, it can be read one article at a time, so it is easy to digest. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink, may help you think differently about your role as a supervisor. Pink is the author of several well-known business books and is a lawyer by training. If you aren’t willing to take the time to read his book, watch his TEDTalks video on ted.com. It will take only 19 minutes, and the payoff could last your entire supervisory career.
If you want to step outside your comfort zone, search the Internet and read Valve’s Handbook for New Employees, which promises a “fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.” Uploaded by an employee, the manual is a keyhole into how a nontraditional organization manages. Valve is a completely flat organization; there are no hierarchies and no bosses. Published this year, the handbook was covered in media outlets as varied as the Daily Mail, ABC, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Lest you think that this is just a rogue start-up that would never be able to compete in a more established work environment, the company has more than 300 employees and has higher profit levels, per employee, than Google, Microsoft and Amazon. Valve has a lot to teach about hiring the best people and allowing them to work on what they do best. While some of their processes certainly wouldn’t work in a law firm, many of its principles could be successfully adopted in a more traditional organization.
WHAT GETS MEASURED IS WHAT GETS DONE
Unless and until measurements are applied to lawyer and firm success other than billable hours and profits per partner, good management and supervision will never be emphasized. Putting good supervision practices in place takes time and is an investment that will not necessarily see significantly measurable results in the first year. But unless firms implement some metrics to track good management practices, they won’t happen at all. And just like change in the tax laws, you won’t know the outcome until you apply the code.