February 26, 2018

Why good management matters

“Even with loads of intelligence and determination, lawyers often struggle when it comes to motivating, developing and holding their people accountable,” Mark Goulston writes in the foreword to “Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees,”

by Andrew Elowitt and Marcia Watson Wasserman.

Indeed, management is not taught in law school and few lawyers enter the profession with that experience, but Elowitt and Wasserman make the case that “while billable work produces revenue, good management produces profits.”

YourABA caught up with them to find out more about why managing a law firms is like “herding cats,” what makes a “champion manager” and the fallout from being at a poorly managed firm.

Why have lawyers traditionally struggled with managing their people and their firms?

It’s unrealistic to expect anybody to intuitively know how to manage people without first having some training and experience, and few people enter the legal profession with either. In the past, only a few law schools considered practice management an important subject. This was a reflection of the outdated mindset that law was purely a profession rather than also a business. Perhaps in response to last decade’s recession and the rapidly changing market for legal services, more schools are now offering a course in law practice management. But even in these courses (which typically attempt to cover a very broad subject in one semester) there is little room for a discussion of how to actually hire, develop, manage and motivate the people in your office.

There are also relatively few resources available to practicing lawyers on this subject and they tend to focus on the technical aspects of management. Most of the literature on people management in firms is written from a human resources or employment law perspective. They do a good job of explaining what needs to be done to be in compliance with laws and minimize risks, but they provide little guidance on how to actually lead, communicate and interact with colleagues and coworkers. The lack of a comprehensive guide to this subject is why we wrote our book.

In the book, we also explain why lawyers are not the easiest people to manage. It’s often said that managing a law firm is like trying to herd cats. Lawyers are more autonomous, skeptical, untrusting and unsociable than the general population. These traits make them slow to warm to the kinds of trusting relationships that are the keys to close collaboration and effective management. The very structure of many firms adds a further challenge: at times a lawyer may need to manage colleagues who are more powerful or influential than they are, have a larger book of business or more equity in the firm.

You write about “champion managers.” What do you mean by that?

We thought long and hard about what term to use to describe the best managers we’ve trained and worked with. We found that all of them (either through their personal efforts or delegation) did a great job in fulfilling seven key people management responsibilities:

  1. hiring and onboarding
  2. training, supervising, and developing
  3. ensuring productivity and efficiency
  4. fostering collaboration and teamwork
  5. engaging, motivating, and retaining
  6. managing conflicts
  7. maintaining positive morale and culture.

Managers become “champions” when they demonstrate the highest level of people management skills. They are also devoted to championing the people who work in their firm and developing them to their full potential.  Their development efforts can turn firm members into champions, so champion managers end up managing a team of champions. Champion management cascades down through a firm to all levels.

What are the three most important qualities of a good manager?

To become a champion manager, a person needs to not only have the right people management skills but also the right mindset. In fact, having the right mindset makes developing and using people skills much easier. Part of the right mindset is making people management a priority rather than saying, “Well, it’s not billable time – I don’t want to deal with it.” The best managers understand that management is a necessary, high priority, everyday activity.

Champion managers also have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset: they are curious, open to change and willing to stretch out of their comfort zones to learn better ways to manage their firm members. Champion managers have high emotional intelligence, social intelligence and conversational intelligence and they realize that unlike one’s IQ these three intelligences are learnable. Having a growth mindset, they are eager to develop these intelligences.

They are excellent communicators especially when it comes to delegating work and providing feedback. They also know that their actions will speak louder than their words, so they lead by example and with integrity. Their walk matches their talk.

What is the biggest payoff for being known as a good manager?

The word “payoff” is interesting. A lot of lawyers think in terms of spending time on practice and people management. They feel it’s necessary but that it takes them away from more important billable activities that produce revenue. We see good management as investing time in a firm’s most valuable asset – the knowledge, skill, experience, judgment and ability of its people. As with any investment there needs to be a suitable payoff. While billable work produces revenue, good management produces profits. The biggest and most obvious payoff is financial. It’s being the member of a firm that is more profitable and resilient than its poorly managed counterparts. Compensation and security are typically higher in well-managed firms.

There are also intangible payoffs that shouldn’t be overlooked. Even though a manager may be a champion, it’s highly unlikely he or she will receive a trophy, medal or laurel wreath for their efforts. Nor are they likely to expect them. The biggest intangible payoff for a particular manager depends on what their values and priorities are. Many enjoy the personal interactions and relationships they are part of. For some it may be pride in the quality of their firm and its work. For others it may be satisfaction in seeing the growth and development of firm members or being able to solve a specific management problem. And many champion managers tell us their biggest delight is creating a firm culture and atmosphere that makes it a pleasure to come to work every day.

What’s the fallout from working at a badly managed firm?

Working at a badly managed firm can be painful and draining. Morale and engagement are typically low, and turnover may be high. Without strong leadership and a shared vision for the direction of the firm, infighting and dissension are more likely to occur. These firms are seldom as robust and resilient as their well-managed counterparts. They are more likely to struggle or fail as they try to adapt to changing market conditions.

When firms are poorly managed, getting the simplest things done can require a disproportionate amount of time and effort, so they are generally less productive and efficient. This not only hurts profitability but also makes it harder for the firm to retain clients. Lower profitability often means lower compensation and fewer available resources for a lawyer’s professional development.

How can a lawyer interviewing at a firm tell if it is well-managed?

It can be a bit of a Catch-22. Just as it’s difficult for a firm to assess the quality of a prospective hire from an interview, it’s hard for an applicant to know everything about a firm from a short visit. Interviewees can look at the application and interview process as one example of how well-managed a firm is. If it’s not smooth and well organized, it may be a sign of broader management weaknesses.

Visiting a firm can also give applicants some sense of the culture and atmosphere of the office. Do people seem happy? Busy? Stressed? What conclusions would you draw if during your interview you heard a lawyer loudly berating a member of the firm? A more proactive approach often yields the best information. When being interviewed why not ask the interviewing attorney for examples of the ways he or she thinks the firm is well-run and managed? Try to get beyond “we make a lot of money” or “our clients love us.”  And then ask if, in their opinion, there are any areas that they wish were managed better. Their response — or lack of response — may tell you a lot.