The lawyer as manager

Wherever you are in your in-house career, you cannot escape the fact that, in order to thrive, you need to be a good manager.

Managing can take different forms – you need to manage yourself so that you’re organised and effective; you need to manage your work (and perhaps the work of others) to high standards to provide a first class service to your in-house ‘clients’; you may need to manage a team of lawyers in providing legal services to part of, or the whole of, the organisation; and you need to manage your relationships with your own manager and other key colleagues, as well as perhaps people outside the organisation.

We've picked up six key themes on the topic below:

1. The importance of good recruitment and induction processes

If you’re recruiting a lawyer for your team, you’ll want to make sure that you get the best available person for the role. You won’t know who’s going to apply but you can control how the role is structured and explained. This can save you time in interviews explaining what the new lawyer will do, what the main objectives of the job are, who the key clients are and the opportunities for career development and learning. Think also about how the recruitment process can test and reveal your candidates in a way that will give you the feedback you need and whether tools such as psychometric testing will be useful or not.

Once you’ve recruited the right person, you’ll want to ensure that their induction is as comprehensive as possible so that they’re able to get to grips with the job quickly. Many organisations have excellent induction processes, but think also about what extra steps (if any) you may want to take for your new lawyer to ensure that they have all the key information and contacts they need to get off to a flying start.

2. Don’t let conflict fester

Disagreements can be healthy. If you’re a manager you do not want to be surrounded by ‘yes people’ who agree with everything you say as that can be dangerous. Similarly, you can sometimes expect robust feedback from business colleagues where they may question your advice. This is part of the ebb and flow of life in-house. But where genuine conflict arises it can be time consuming and confrontational. If it arises in your team, don’t let it drag on but deal with it quickly. Certainly, you will want to understand the causes and views of those involved. But, ultimately, you will need to resolve the issue and there may be no ideal or easy solution. Remember also that there will be others who can help you resolve difficult issues – not just your HR colleagues but also line managers, mentors and any other trusted advisers you can call upon.

3. Managing Up

As well as managing your direct reports and the wider team, it’s important to also manage up. The more senior you are the more independence you’re likely to have but your own manager will want the reassurance that things are under control and that there are no nasty surprises looming. It’s worth taking the time to cultivate a good relationship with your boss, not least as you will want them as an ally when, for example, you’re pitching for additional resources or when your legal advice ruffles feathers.

Managing up may well also cover the wider executive management, boards and committees. Here you need to be trusted and persuasive. The more senior the ‘client’ the more you are likely to sometimes be challenged on your advice and recommendations. Robust dialogue is healthy but you need to be prepared to stand by your advice and, if necessary, persuade others why it’s correct. Trust is not easy to define but being on top of your brief (both the law and its impact on the organisation) and acting with integrity and professionalism, should take you a long way (a sense of humour usually helps as well!).

4. Effecting change

As a manager you will, from time to time, want to make some changes to the way things are done. This may be a small change with local effect only, or something more substantial impacting the way people work or the way services are delivered to the organisation. More substantial change usually involves disruption and can make people unsettled as it means doing things differently. You will be a cheerleader for the changes you want to make but others, inside and outside your team, may be less enthusiastic and require persuading. To take on this task entirely yourself can seem daunting, so look for change agents who will be your allies in bringing the changes about. You’ll certainly want some of these people to be in your team, and you’ll want your own manager on board. But look also for allies in the wider organisation who may see the benefits of what you want to do. Effecting meaningful change is rarely easy but going it alone makes it much harder. So cultivate supporters and let them act as your agents for change.

What about changes that are ‘imposed’ on you – organisational change that you may be doubtful about but which you are expected to deliver? First, state your objections before roll out – if you get the chance. Second, get behind the change as your lack of enthusiasm will be evident and reflect poorly on you. Third, if you’re unenthusiastic, be honest with your team about how and why the change is happening and why the legal team has to go along with it.

5. Pitching for resources

When you take on a management role, you’ll sometimes need to make the case for additional resources, or perhaps to retain some of your existing resources. This can seem like a task you’re completely unprepared for. The discussion is one that will usually be tied to the annual budget and business planning as the organisation is unlikely to entertain bids for additional in-year spending, other than in exceptional circumstances. So how do you approach the task of making the case for more resources, particularly people? You’ll need a good business case, which should include the following information:-

  • The current picture. If you want new resources you need data to explain where you currently deploy your resources – the who, what, how and why (including the cost) of the activity in your team. Where are the gaps and what impact will the additional resource have?
  • What are the alternatives? What are the alternative options to additional recruitment? Is there a technology option or could work be better done elsewhere? Is a new permanent lawyer the best option compared with more flexible resourcing options such as a secondment in or a contract lawyer?
  • What are the benefits? How will your additional lawyer benefit your clients and the service you’re providing? How will this translate into the meeting of key business targets and objectives? You need to set out a compelling narrative (backed with data) to make a persuasive case.

6. Clarifying your purpose

Managing people means managing the team collectively, providing purpose and direction and managing individuals within the team – which may be the whole team or other managers within it. There’s a balance to be struck here, which is partly driven by the size of the team, your personal style and the culture of the organisation.

A common theme for all managers, particularly those in the most senior roles, is providing clarity of purpose. This drives the work of the team as a whole and establishes the agenda for the work and development of the individual team members.

The purpose of the legal team may seem obvious but there’s real merit in setting down what you’re there to do and the team’s priorities (which should align with those of your key clients and the organisation generally). However you say it, and to what degree, you’ll want to clarify that you’re supporting your key ‘clients’ and the organisation generally in meeting its business and other objectives and protecting its assets and interests through contracts, compliance and promoting high standards. Consider therefore the benefits of a statement of purpose, role and vision that clearly demonstrates what the legal team does and why it does it. This can be quite short but can then form the basis of a more detailed strategic plan for the team and for your work for particular business units or departments.