- 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).
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.
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 leading—or a willingness to learn—one 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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: