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Law Practice Today


Death by Bad Management: Leadership as an Antidote to Terrible Bosses

Hong Dao


  • Want to be a better manager? Become a better leader.
  • Many lawyers mistakenly assume that their stellar performance in one role (lawyer) will automatically translate to excellence in another role (management). 
Death by Bad Management: Leadership as an Antidote to Terrible Bosses Bradbury

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Law firms are known for their high turnover of associates, who leave to join a different firm, take a job as in-house counsel or government lawyer, or depart the legal profession altogether. Some of the reasons include demanding hours, unbearable pressure, a toxic culture, and a lack of work-life balance. But the reason we shall delve into here is the terrible boss.

The sentiment that lawyers make bad managers appears repeatedly in blog posts and articles. Although lawyers receive educational and practical training to develop and improve their lawyering skills, many managing partners or supervising lawyers receive little to no training on how to manage or lead others effectively. A firm’s decision to promote someone into management rarely takes leadership skill and ability into consideration. This has serious consequences for those under a manager’s charge, as well as the firm as a whole.

I Am the Boss of You!

For many lawyers, being a managing partner or lawyer (hereinafter “manager”) is about being a boss. That means telling others what to do, what not to do, how to do it, how not to do it, and making sure that things get done. Management focuses on creating a system to delegate tasks, control behaviors, and measure productivity. It is hardly about vision, empowerment, engagement, innovation, or creativity. These are the qualities of leadership. Being a leader is about building trust; engaging, inspiring, and empowering those under your charge; and giving them the tools and guidance to be successful. It’s about providing employees with a vision that ties their day-to-day work to the firm’s broader purpose. It’s about leading, not managing, people toward the direction of that purpose. There is nothing wrong with management per se. But when management lacks leadership, it can result in a stifling environment that hinders trust, cooperation, innovation, and growth.

Many lawyers mistakenly assume that their stellar performance in one role (lawyer) will automatically translate to excellence in another role (management). For those lawyers who want the perks of being in management, but who have no interest or skill in leadingor a willingness to learnone of two things frequently happens. One: They proceed in their new role as though nothing has changed, so they continue being a lawyer and neglect their managerial duties. Or two: They take delegation, control, and productivity seriously, but don’t focus on any other leadership qualities. These lawyers often end up engaging in the following behaviors that demoralize their subordinates and hurt their team.

  • Micromanaging – Micromanaging is when a manager monitors and controls all of their subordinates’ activities. They delegate tasks but don’t let go of control over them. They require their direct reports to run their work through them and then tweak or redo that work to meet their own expectations or style. They also want something done exactly their way, but offer little or no context, guidance, or support.
  • Creating an environment in which employees are afraid to speak up or speak out – Managers create a culture of fear when they do not have clear goals, defined values, or expected behavior; or when they ignore bad conduct, dismiss legitimate concerns, or show no tolerance for being challenged or questioned. To avoid the wrath or cold shoulder from the boss, employees will not likely voice their disagreement, speak their opinions, share their ideas, provide feedback, or otherwise engage in discussions. A telltale sign of this environment is when the boss does all or most of the talking in meetings.
  • Cutting off any feedback loop – Many managers wait until it’s time for the annual review to give feedback to associate lawyers under their charge. Any feedback given at that time is just perfunctory. They actively avoid providing regular and consistent feedback to subordinates or asking for feedback on their own performance. Creating a culture of fear is a sure way to cut off any feedback loop, reducing or removing meaningful learning and training opportunities for associates.
  • Encouraging a culture of self-preservation – Managers who do not have their subordinates’ backs and provide a psychologically safe work environment create a culture in which employees seek only to advance or preserve their own interests. This is how silos and fiefdoms are formed at many organizations, as individuals and groups hoard information and fight for limited resources.
  • Viewing employees as disposable tools of labor – Managers who do not see the humanity in their employees often view them as mere tools to perform the labor required in a job. Concerns from associate lawyers are often met with “if you don’t like it here, then leave,” or “just do your job.” The belief that employees are disposable often results in a lack of effort to retain talent or help employees become successful. It also leads to managers taking credit for a subordinate’s hard work, because the latter is seen only as a means to an end.

At the core of many of these behaviors is the manager’s indifference or insecurity, and lack of trust in the firm’s employees. This is keenly felt by associate lawyers, and it saps them of any feeling of autonomy and agency, which are foundational to well-being and optimal functioning. Bad managers leave subordinates no bandwidth or desire to be creative or to innovate, exercise independent judgment, or go the extra mile for that manager or the team.

The consequences of having a terrible manager in a law firm or any organization include:

  • Poor/mediocre performance – It is hard to expect employees to excel in their work and give it their all when managers engage in the behaviors above. Managers who strive to maintain the status quo and focus on short-term goals do nothing to inspire their teams to do things differently, challenge the process, and take risks. Employees are much more likely to exert minimal effort to get the job done. It takes a truly self-motivated employee to thrive in this environment.
  • Job dissatisfaction – Employees become unhappy or have negative feelings about their job when they are poorly managed. They feel unmotivated and withdrawn and spend less time doing their work and more time being distracted. They no longer find meaning in their work, stop being committed to the firm, and continue to work only for the paycheck and benefits. This dissatisfaction ends up hurting their and the team’s overall productivity and quality of work.
  • High turnover – The combination of poor/mediocre performance and job dissatisfaction will eventually lead to termination or resignation. High turnover is costly to firms, because of the time and resources expended to replace the departing lawyer. Firms also lose the value of that lawyer’s experience and the investment in training that person, not to mention the impact on staff morale and disruption in the work environment.
  • Poor health – Having a bad boss is not good for our health. Forbes magazine reported on a few studies that show the effects of having a bad boss on employees’ physical and mental health. These studies found that employees who work for toxic bosses are more likely to suffer a stroke, heart attack, or other life-threatening cardiac condition. Employees are more susceptible to chronic depression, stress, and anxiety when they have a bad boss.

The solution to bad management is not more management training, but a focus on leadership. Managers must be leaders if they are to excel in their role.

Strive to Lead, Not Boss People Around

People don’t want to be managed; they want to be inspired. They prefer to follow leaders who they can trust, and who will protect them. The followers, in turn, will repay their manager with loyalty and hard work. This organizational behavior is a matter of anthropology, according to Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. Humans thrive in an environment where we take care of and look out for one another, and work together for a common purpose. This was true on the African plains thousands of years ago, and it is true in the American workplace today.

Managers who are also leaders focus on putting people first. They do this by inspiring a shared vision, cultivating the “Circle of Safety,” practicing empathy, and leading by example.

Inspire a Shared Vision

What sets leaders apart from managers is that leaders have a vision, and articulate that vision to inspire others to move toward it. It’s like providing a picture on the box of a jigsaw puzzle and not just the pieces. Without understanding how their individual work fits into the big picture, employees are not likely to engage and contribute more than they have to. Visions are not goals and metrics; they are ideals that leaders want to see come to life. The goals and metrics only serve as a guidepost to the vision. Unlike goals, a vision evokes an emotional response and inspires people to action. Managers who want to be leaders must find their vision. It doesn’t have to be unique, but it should be something that people believe in and makes their work meaningful.

Cultivate the Circle of Safety

Managers who strive to be leaders need to cultivate the Circle of Safety. Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last describes this circle as a strong culture built on trust, empathy, and other human values and beliefs, and where people are protected against threats from outside as well as inside the organization. First, leaders need to provide a psychologically safe space for employees to candidly share their concerns, opinions, and ideas. Second, leaders need to protect their people by having their backs, supporting them when they falter, and offering both positive and critical feedback. In this safe environment, employees are more willing to disagree and dissent, to admit and own up to mistakes, and to be challenged by their peers. This circle needs to include everyone in the firm, not just those in the “inner circle” or only other managers and executives. When fully extended, the circle will foster trust, breed innovation and creativity, and minimize office politics, silos, and fiefdoms.

Practice Empathy

Empathy is an important quality for all leaders. It’s the ability to recognize, understand, and share the feelings of another person. So when someone shows up late to a meeting, it’s asking, “Is everything ok?” as opposed to, “Where the hell were you?” Without empathy, the leader cannot create and implement the Circle of Safety. Empathy allows our humanity to come out, so we can care about employees as human beings and not just about their performance. It allows leaders to better understand how their decisions or the firm’s policies impact the people below.

Leaders can practice empathy in the following ways:

  1. Allow others to be vulnerable − let others express or expose their emotions and shred their protective coating without your judgment or overreaction.
  2. Practice deep listening − to truly understand and relate to another’s feelings and thoughts, leaders need to listen deeply and well. This requires a calm and receptive state of mind. When the mind is defensive, agitated, frantic, or preoccupied, it is more likely to assume and misunderstand.
  3. Show your own vulnerability − this makes leaders more relatable, and helps them build trust and emotionally connect with others. Leaders who admit to mistakes, accept criticism, or share their struggles also demonstrate strength of character.

Lead by Example

Nothing breeds resentment more than managers who do the exact opposite of what they say, and avoid the hard work that they require of others. Employees see the behaviors, values, and choices of their managers and will model them. Leaders earn the respect and trust of their followers when they lead by example. One way to do this is by getting your hands dirty. Spend time with your team to understand firsthand what they do and the challenges they face. You are never too good or too important to roll up your sleeves and get things done alongside your team.

Another way to lead by example is to create an environment for risk-taking. Challenge the team to try new ideas, and allow them to take acceptable risks. Be willing to go first and take risks before anyone else. Support, rather than punish, employees when they make mistakes, and continue to encourage them to try again. Also, follow the same standard of conduct that you set for others, and uphold and apply it consistently to all employees. A double standard is transparent, and will result in a loss of credibility and moral authority.

Leadership is Not a Rank

Managers in a firm or any organization do not need to wait to lead until they have a more impressive title like senior managing partner, executive director, or CEO. Those positions come with a lot of authority, but authority itself does not make a leader. Leadership is a choice. It’s a learned skill. Sinek’s analogy that leaders are like good parents is apt. They build self-confidence and give others opportunities to try and fail, so that they can achieve more than they could imagine for themselves. A truly excellent firm or organization will encourage everyone to act like leaders, provide training to develop leadership skills, and create opportunities for others to lead.

To learn more about transforming management into leadership, see:

  • Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and others Don’t, by Simon Sinek. Portfolio/Penguin, 2014.
  • The Essence of Leadership for Lawyers, by Richard JD, PhD, Larry, What Make Lawyers Tick, December 24, 2016.
  • Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, by L. David Marquet, Portfolio, 2013.