Striking a balance between daily work and management responsibility

In this article we look at some of the issues this presents – and, as importantly, at some possible answers.

Most lawyers are very well trained to be lawyers. If a Solicitor, until very recently you will have had to have a degree, probably in law. You will have had at least a year’s further training for professional exams, and a two-year period in a training contract. If you have entered the law by different routes - the Bar, CILEX or a legal apprenticeship, or as a registered foreign lawyer - similarly, you will have well-developed technical and professional skills.

In all likelihood, though, your development will have included limited management training. As your career progresses, you will find that you are taking on increasing supervisory and management responsibilities. Often, your legal duties remain unchanged, and the dilemma of striking a balance of daily work and management responsibility becomes a real challenge.

Some Issues

But I’m a lawyer - and I’m only managing other lawyers. At the point you take on management responsibility, the likelihood is that you will have some years’ professional experience – and that the people you are managing will themselves be lawyers, either in the internal team or through the purchase of external legal services. They still need to be managed, though – and managed well.

It’s my job. If I don’t do it, who will? It’s often a real worry – particularly in small teams or where there is a sole lawyer, that the entire burden of legal work falls to you.

The business expects it. One of the realities of a professional role within a business or organisation is that your business colleagues may have expectations of the role. Not uncommonly, there will be an unrealistic expectation – not always expressed – that having brought you on board they expect you to do (all) the legal work. It will not always be understood that law is increasingly the field of specialists.

I’ve got a budget to manage – and I’m being told to cut it. The legal role in an organisation is a complex mix of business and professional responsibilities, which might sometimes appear to be in conflict. In business, budgetary controls are inescapable, and from time to time the legal function will come under that pressure too. You will want to have the language and tools of business at your disposal to talk through the implications fully and openly.

Now we have a crisis too. In addition to the legal work and management aspects of your role, you will often find that in a crisis you are expected to drop everything to manage the crisis – which people may well expect to become your responsibility.

And I can’t talk to anyone… the legal role in an organisation is unique, even amongst the other professionals who may be employed. You can easily find that the role feels lonely and isolated.

And some possible answers

Scope your job. Management is part of your daily work, not separate from it. Often, lawyers taking on management responsibility will do so as a career progression, and will feel that they should continue with their previous legal workload almost unchanged. In almost every case this isn’t feasible, and both the legal caseload and the management responsibility will suffer if you try. Define what your job is, agree it with your organisation and your boss, communicate that, and be clear about what you should be reporting about both the legal workload and the management responsibility. See Creating a tool to prioritise workload and Defining your role and development objectives.

Remember management responsibility is important. As you build management experience, it will almost certainly become clear to you that you can’t do everything. This realisation can be a problem for lawyers – as a generalisation, lawyers can often feel that they need to do the work themselves, and that delegating it or developing others to do it is not the right answer. As you develop your own career you realise you can only deliver through others, and that taking your management responsibilities seriously is critical. See The Lawyer as Manager.

Identify and use other resources What other resources are available to you to carry out your role effectively? Can you delegate to others, outsource work, systemize and automate other parts of the role – or indeed stop doing part of the work altogether? Can you use other resources in the organisation – or your legal providers – to do elements of the reporting that your role requires? Reviewing a draft report is much less time-consuming than preparing one from scratch yourself. The fact that it has always been done – or always been part of the legal role – doesn’t mean that it should continue to be so. As well as scoping your own job, scope the roles which support you.

Learn from others. While the legal role may be unique in an organisation, the challenges presented by increasing workloads and new responsibilities are not. Your senior HR colleagues will have expertise in organisation design, and can help you define your role and those of your team members. Lawyers within your professional network may well have faced similar issues and be happy to help. Using a mentor or a business coach can allow you to think through the issues in a safe environment away from the pressures of your organisation. Finally, if you know someone who is in a similar role, forming a buddy relationship with them can be really valuable to sound out concerns in confidence.

Develop your management toolkit. You will be very familiar with keeping your legal skills up-to-date, meeting your continuing professional development requirements, and using the range of legal resources to ensure your knowledge is current. Management is now just as much part of your job as law, and you should apply the same disciplines to that part of the role. Your organisation may run in-house courses or have preferred external suppliers; you can use the excellent resources which CLL provides through its articles, its workshops and other opportunities, and you might be well served to develop your toolkit by considering a mini- or even a part-time MBA. As part of the management team of the organisation you will need to speak the same language – management and technical – as your colleagues. Keeping up-to-date with key management thinking through publications such as the Harvard Business Review can also be invaluable.

Talk to people. Management responsibility can be said to be about four main things – structure, people, performance and reporting. Once you have dealt with structural aspects by scoping your job and those of your team, the remaining three might be seen as being about dealing with people. You may feel that you are speaking to your team, and your own managers, regularly, but scheduling informal catch-ups with each of them can be invaluable – not only to deal with routine matters, but to understand their own pressures, their concerns, their own career needs and to identify any problems. Ending those meetings with open questions such as ‘and what else?’ can often bring out problems which otherwise go unspoken until much later.

Communicate and report. Try not to treat legal as an island. As well as using informal meetings with people reporting to you and your own managers, consider who else needs to know what is going on and how - and who else you need on your side? Formal reporting can serve a purpose, particularly if it mirrors the processes of the rest of the organisation. Above all, though, tell people what you’re doing, and listen to what they’re saying to you. Don’t just interact vertically with your team and your managers; speak to your peers, your major clients in the organisation, your legal suppliers, and others who may in any way be influencers across your legal space. See The importance of managing up.

Clear the decks in a crisis. The emergence of a crisis in the organisation is likely to throw the need for balance between daily work and your management responsibility into clear focus. Your ability to analyze a problem and to devise and project-manage a solution may be just what is needed. What you can’t do, though, is absorb an all-consuming crisis at the same time as dealing with a full legal caseload, and your day-today management responsibilities. As soon as it becomes clear that you have a real crisis on your hands, agree how you will deal with the daily work and your management responsibilities. You may want to lay off work to your team, if you can, or to external suppliers – and to determine what can wait for now. You may have to defer your regular meetings with your team – but if you do, it is all the more important to catch up with them even if that means a short informal call or email, and to ensure they know that you are still available to talk about key problems and issues, even if that might have to be out-of-hours.

Look for problems. Your legal and management responsibilities will both require you to deal with problems as they arise – but you should also look out for topics that may impact your organisation in future. You will want to have a clear view on the legal risks impacting the organisation, and to have prepared a legal risk register of your own, with mitigation and monitoring measures - see Legal Risk in an Organisation. You will also want to understand the organisation’s risk profile and risk register. You can pick up on issues from your conversations with colleagues and contacts, and understand problems affecting your sector from your trade press and social media. All will help you to identify, and begin to plan, for the future.

Look for ethical issues. One particular category which can have immediate legal implications is that of ethics. You will want to have sight of possible ethical issues, for example by ensuring that issues picked up through your organisation’s whistle-blowing arrangements are highlighted and identified.

Recognise loneliness. It has been said that the more senior the legal role in an organisation, the lonelier it becomes. You may find that you do not have immediate peers – and if you do, they will not have the professional duties which you do – and that your organisation lacks the collegiality which you may have found in a professional service firm with peers at partner level. That can lead to a situation where you worry about the balance of your legal and management responsibilities to an extend where it creates an unacceptable level of stress. You may want to use the networking or mentoring arrangements suggested earlier in this article (see Learn from Others) or seek help from your professional body.

Look after your people - and they will look after you. To have management responsibility for someone is a critically important part of your role, and it must be taken seriously. You must understand not only what you want them to do and to manage them conscientiously, but also understand that you have pastoral responsibilities toward them. They need to know you are looking out for them and have their interests at heart.

Managing yourself

If one thing is clear from all these possible answers, it is that striking a balance between daily work and management responsibilities is something that only you can do. To achieve it, you must manage yourself – and be prepared to be open with your colleagues, your managers and your team about how the balance has been struck, taking account of their views too. It can be the hardest part of your role - much harder than managing others, as there is always the temptation to do that extra task, to spend a few more hours, to put off that personal commitment – but it is fundamental to your success.

Links: Further reading

CLL Articles:

Creating a tool to prioritise workload

Defining your role and development objectives

Legal Risk in an Organisation

The Importance of Managing Up

The Lawyer as Manager


David Allen Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity (Piatcus 2015)

Tracey Calvert In-house Ethics in Practice (Ark Group 2015)

Adrian Furnham and John Taylor Bad Apples (Palgrave MacMillan 2011)

Rob Goffee, Gareth Jones Why Should Anyone be Led by you? (Harvard Business School Press 2006)

David H Maister Why Should I Follow You? from True Professionalism (The Free Press 1997)

Richard Moorhead, Stephen Vaughan and Cristina Godinho In-House Lawyers’ Ethics (Hart 2019)

Richard Tapp The Future of the In-House Lawyer (The Law Society 2016)