Lawyer, Manager, Leader

In this article we summarise some of the key themes in relation to managing yourself; managing others; getting the balance right; doing a good job; overcoming setbacks and; the differences between management and leadership.

Managing Yourself

Whether or not you are in a management role, you will need to manage your role as a lawyer to provide a good service to your clients. This is familiar territory and you will know the importance of getting the law right and advising promptly in a way that your clients can understand and act on. This requires good organisation, an understanding of the law relevant to your organisation and of the organisation itself, effective communication skills and a client-service orientation

In an in-house role you understand also the importance of developing good relationships with your legal colleagues, with clients and across the organisation. A good place to start is the relationship with your line manager, which can be key to your progress. A strong, supportive relationship can provide you with the guidance and confidence to develop as a lawyer and more widely. You may need to work at the relationship and it helps to understand the pressures that your manager is under to help them give you what you need. So, be clear, be respectful of their time and look for potential solutions where possible, rather than bringing them problems.

It’s important not to forget your own wellbeing and support this in ways that work for you. Be alert also to signs of stress and burnout. Are you taking breaks and holidays or routinely overworking? And if you have concerns, speak to your manager or to someone else in the organisation that you trust.

Managing other people

Becoming responsible for managing a team can seem like a big change. Each member of the team is an individual with their own strengths, weaknesses, challenges and personality. As their manager you want them to give their best and for the team, as a whole, to be effective and well regarded.

Delegation and trust are an important part of management. It can seem like a steep learning curve. Delegation requires you to ‘let go’ of doing everything yourself and, more particularly, doing it ‘your way’. Of course, you should expect high standards and be critical of poor work but being too dogmatic about how something is done or expressed can become a burden on you and undermine your relationship with team members. Sometimes people need to learn by doing it their way (provided it’s right), even if your way is better. 

When you trust someone, you know they are reliable and you are confident of their ability to get something done in their own way, accepting that there are different ways of solving problems and that others may have a different, or even better, approach than yours. Trust is not about not making mistakes. Yes, you should expect good legal analysis and judgement but what builds trust is the ability and commitment of a person to admit their mistakes, work hard to put things right and to learn from the situation and improve. As such, it’s as much about attitude as ability. 

Becoming a good manager requires you to get better at building relationships. Teams rarely comprise people of the same level of experience or ability. Supporting the team often means understanding what motivates the person and using that to get the best out of them. For example, you may need to provide a clear direction of what’s required to a less confident, less experienced colleague whilst providing more scope for initiative and self-expression for a more senior person. It also means being able to celebrate success and to be supportive of someone who may be going through a tough, challenging period. Self-awareness and empathy are more than ‘nice to haves’ for good managers, they’re a requirement. 

Getting the balance right

It can seem difficult to strike the right balance between your legal role and your management responsibilities. You have your own legal practice and managing others can take up a lot more of your time than you envisaged and there are only so many hours in the day!

A good lesson to learn here is about doing only what you need to, both in your legal role and in management. Are you getting involved in legal work appropriate to your grade and experience or are you taking on work that could be done by others, either because it’s familiar or because you don’t trust others to do it? The surest way to burn yourself out is to take on too much. You may need to be brutally honest about where you really add value and that may mean being involved much less in certain areas so as to devote more of your time and energy to what really matters, be that bigger ticket legal matters, supervising and supporting others and spending more time on looking at (and acting on) the bigger picture. 

As well as being honest with yourself, you will also need to be clear with others about how you can help them. The temptation may be to try and help your clients with every problem they direct your way. But you may end up handling a whole raft of matters that should be delegated, or perhaps not even be dealt with by the legal team at all, either because they are, essentially, not legal issues, or because they are matters that could be taken on by less experienced lawyers.   

Doing a good job

For individual lawyers and for the legal team as a whole, the fundamental part of the job is to get the law right and to provide legal advice that is clear, accessible and supports the best interests and objectives of the organisation. In-house lawyers will always be aware that their ultimate client is the organisation and not its managers and that (correct) legal advice is at the core of the lawyers’ role.  

So, how do you know that you and your team are performing well? Here are five basic requirements: -

  1. You need standards to measure the quality of your legal work. This is a matter for the lawyers themselves and it requires having processes in place that review advice at an appropriate level to ensure that it is right and consistent.
  2. As well as being right, legal advice needs to be high quality by being usable – clear, understandable and communicated in a way that supports good decision making by clients.
  3. Legal advice needs to be prompt as clients are rarely happy to wait. But not everything is equally urgent, so you’ll need ways of prioritising.
  4. You need to manage clients’ expectations. As well as timescales, this usually means balancing the need for a full legal analysis with providing something succinct that identifies risks appropriately and signposts the best option(s). This is where building strong relationships is so valuable as it allows you to understand the real issues in play for the client and it allows them to understand what you’re looking at in analysing the relevant legal issues and risks.
  5. You’ll need feedback from your clients to ensure that your advice and service is effective and efficient. Importantly, you’ll need to respond to feedback and ensure that you look for ways to improve the service you provide. 

Overcoming setbacks

In the work context, things do not always go to plan. You will inevitably suffer setbacks from time to time and it’s important to have coping mechanisms. Firstly, it’s important to recognise that everyone makes mistakes and it’s how you respond that is key. 

Secondly, you can only manage what is in your control and there will always be factors outside of your control in any organisation. You cannot afford to worry about those things that you cannot influence. 

Thirdly, if you or your team has not performed to your usual high standards in some respect, take an early opportunity to overperform. People will know that you are trustworthy and competent and going the extra mile will help reinforce what others already know and help rebuild your own confidence (and that of the team).

Fourthly, your team can be a great source of help and ideas. It is not the job of the manager alone to come up with all the initiatives and plans. When there’s a setback, involve team members in finding a solution.

Finally, use your network and mentors to get the support you need in challenging times. There is no merit in struggling on alone. Start with your line manager and/or others that you trust. Asking for help or support is an important part of managing well.

Leadership and Management

Are they the same thing, so that leadership is just a question of managing well? Certainly, you would hope that your managers are also leaders. But this would mean that only managers can lead. We suggest that leadership goes beyond job titles and positions of authority. Rather, to lead is to influence or inspire others in the achievement of a goal or goals. 

In the context of the in-house legal team, two identical teams may perform in quite different ways. For example, team A tends to be reactive, is slow to adopt new and better methods and rarely looks to do things differently to the way they have always been done. Team members are competent but with low motivation and staff turnover is high. Team B adopts a more proactive, strategic approach. It delivers an excellent, effective legal service by providing high quality legal advice, optimising its resources and performing at a consistently high level, meeting its targets and objectives and engaging with its clients to improve what it does. It is highly regarded in the organisation and its lawyers are motivated and trusted.  

What makes the difference? You can be sure that team B has more leaders than team A. Not just the person heading the team but throughout the team. Leadership is about having a clear direction, goals and standards and the ability to take others with you in order to achieve these. 

Leaders are developed. A few are gifted in leadership skills but most of us learn through working with leaders, observing what they do to be effective and taking opportunities to build and develop our leadership skills. And the beauty of it is that leaders encourage and develop other leaders – it’s a fundamental aspect of leadership.