Blog/Podcast: 6 Habits That Turn Lawyers into Champion Managers

If you’ve always thought that lawyers have different brains, you’re right: research shows that lawyers are skeptical and independent, two traits that make for great attorneys. They’re also often sensitive to criticism and resistant to change and risk — both of which happen to be hallmark characteristics of not so great managers.

The good news is that, even if managing doesn’t come naturally, all lawyers can improve their managerial skills, which is critical for a successful and happy professional life. Throughout their careers, attorneys have to mentor, guide, diffuse conflict and communicate with the people they work with. Management skills are essential, even for lawyers who aren’t in formal leadership positions.

Marcia Watson Wasserman, President of Comprehensive Management Solutions, Inc., and Andrew Elowitt, Managing Director and Founder of New Actions, both based in Los Angeles, joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast and explained how lawyers can become “champion managers.” Here are the top six characteristics of champion managers:


  1. They make managing a priority.

Recognizing the importance of management, much like other non-billable business activities, can be difficult for lawyers. Many think it’s a necessary evil that prevents client work from getting done. But the best lawyers know that a law firm is a business and management has real consequences for the bottom line. Good management turns revenue into profits; without it the firm just floats by, like a ship with no one at the helm.

Part of what makes management so important for law firms is its impact on retention. A well-managed workplace has high levels of trust, collaboration, communication and engagement — positive qualities in any office. A successful manager removes barriers to allow everyone to work at their highest level, which helps retain and attract top talent. Champion managers use their skills to create a sought-after workplace and build an effective team.

  1. They embrace the scope of their job.

No one ever said management was easy and it’s particularly difficult in an industry where 99% of people don’t like to be managed. Yet champion managers don’t let that deter them and they find creative ways to fulfill their duties. They actively participate in all aspects of people management, from hiring and onboarding of new firm members, through training, supervision and development. They’re willing to resolve conflicts when they occur and they get into the nitty gritty issues that come up in any workplace. It’s no easy task, but champion managers embrace it.

One challenge unique to law firms is that attorneys may have to manage peers who are equal to them. In some instances, they may even manage lawyers with more equity in the firm, more experience or a bigger book of business. Attorneys who find themselves in this situation can’t shrink or go into control mode; they have to find the right balance and be mindful of the relationships in the firm. Champion managers understand this.

  1. They’re emotionally intelligent.

The most successful lawyers aren’t just book smart — they have emotional, social and conversational intelligence, too. They’re able to navigate tricky situations, sympathize with their peers and build genuine relationships. However, many people, especially analytical people like lawyers, don’t naturally have these qualities. What’s an attorney to do?

Luckily, social and emotional intelligence can be developed through self-awareness and practice. Attorneys who aren’t interested or fully invested in making a change will never improve, but the champion managers who make a commitment to cultivating their skills can see massive change. They use tools like peer feedback and career coaches to identify areas of improvement. This skill is critical for all attorneys, whether they have a formal leadership role within their firm or not.

  1. They lead by example.

It doesn’t do any good to ask others to work hard, act with integrity and treat others with respect if you aren’t setting the example. Champion managers truly walk the talk. They know there can’t be a disconnect between what they preach and what they actually do.

The heart of this comes down to vulnerability and authenticity. Lawyers who are willing to openly talk about their mistakes, apologize when necessary and share their struggles, create trust between them and other firm members. These attorneys make the most effective managers because their reports feel accepted and have a better understanding of the motivations behind what’s asked of them. Being a closed-off authoritarian won’t cut it anymore, especially when working with millennials, who prefer a more egalitarian, open management style.

  1. They’re patient.

Lawyers generally aren’t known for their patience. A sense of urgency is a good thing when a client has an important issue on the line. In a managerial context, however, a nagging taskmaster doesn’t do much for firm morale.

Despite lawyers’ natural tendency to push forward, champion managers know when to sit on their hands, zip their lips and let others figure things out. In a rushed environment, attorneys might be tempted to just hand the solution over and get on with it. But a champion manager recognizes that swooping in with the answer isn’t healthy in the long run because it creates an over-dependent team. Lawyers need to be challenged, and champion managers allow their peers and reports to flex their problem-solving capabilities.

  1. They never stop improving their skills.

Anyone can read a management book or go to a leadership conference. A champion manager, however, puts their learning into action. They practice their skills and have the wisdom to know which skills to use, with which people and in which situations. They recognize that there are infinite ways they can improve. For example, law firms are doing more virtual work than ever before. Today, lawyers should be comfortable leading virtual meetings; in a couple years, they should be virtual-meeting masters — and they should be learning about the next big development in law.

One interesting thing to note is that hardly any champion managers think they were born leaders. Instead, they attribute their success to a growth mindset. They learn through hard work, practice over and over and embrace their mistakes. They seek out feedback and self-correct as they go along. This desire to learn is what sets a champion manager apart from the rest.

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