Of 4 Manager Types, Only 1 is Good for Your Law Firm: Which Type Are You?

Harrison Barnes

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  • Strong leadership is necessary in a law firm, but so is the right type of leadership
  • The legal profession faces high rates of attrition and this comes at a law firm’s great expense
  • Good management engages attorneys and legal staff: When they are engaged, they are more productive and effective
  • Good management reduces attrition; attrition is costly
  • What does a good legal manager need to know? How can you make a good law firm manager better? This article will tell you how

Why Bad Law Firm Management is the Worst News

A bad attorney is bad enough. But a bad manager in a law firm results in a downpour of bad. Their faults infect the legal team in many ways, not the least of which is disengagement.

Does your law firm have talented attorneys? Want them to leave? Give them a bad manager.

Across the workforce, this is what affect you can expect bad managers to have:

  • 50% of employees leave their jobs because of bad managers. This is also true of attorneys. As is often said: people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.
  • 45% of managers claim to lack the confidence for developing skills for employees; 70% of employees say they haven’t mastered the necessary skills for their current job titles.
  • They cause employee disengagement—accounting for at least 70% of their ups and downs at work. Employee engagement has remained steady at a discouraging 30%. (See here for a breakdown of how costly disengagement can be.) Consider this: wherever you work, 7 of 10 people in the room don’t want to be there.
  • Managers tend to get promoted to management based on their individual contributions; a good path to management this does not necessarily make. In law firms, managers are expected to continue to produce their individual billable work as attorneys as well as manage others—this often causes them to fall behind in both.

Lawyers are notoriously bad managers.

As a class of people, lawyers may be the least suited to be managers. This includes managing partners: Research suggests that one of the top five issues for law firms was managing partner communication and staff management skills.

What is it about lawyers in particular? They’re highly skeptical, autonomous, antisocial, and resistant to new ideas. Their high sense of urgency makes them easily discouraged when it comes to setbacks. You can see how this could be a disadvantage when it comes to leadership and managerial tasks; it’s not in their wiring.

When lawyers assume management roles they tend not to have prior management experience, formal training or mentoring. They’re most often chosen on the basis of seniority or success in building a client base. These untrained, inexperienced and often incompetent managers have consequences on the firm, often translating into a high staff turnover and poor attorney-client relationships. They can be overwhelmed by the new tasks. These new tasks added to their day-to-day operations with the additional requisite stress can lead to poor service quality and a lack of strategic direction. At worst it can affect the performance of the firm’s legal practice.

Correct or die

Over time these problems may self-correct or, as often happens, leadership will have to intervene. During this time of adjustment, business and clients can be lost to more competent competitors. The firm’s reputation, brand, and profits can all suffer. Legal reputations that take years to build can too quickly be lost.


Bad management can also come at the expense of good associates. And while there’s always an available pool of attorneys on the market to choose from, as is true with any industry, there’s always a shortage when it comes to the best talent. But it’s the replacement costs that are the killers: According to a previous study by The NALP Foundation, the average costs of losing a legal associate can be between $200,000 and $500,000. Also, for every 25 lawyers hired, 17 left. And as always, attrition hits diversity hires and women hardest. According to the New York City Bar, their attrition comes at a rate 50% higher than white men.

The 4 Types of Managers: Thumbs Down, 3; Thumbs Up, 1

First, a little respect for the job: The management positions at law firms are generally not easy ones. They may get more in the way of compensation and perks than their underling attorneys but so will be the pressures and demands that go with it. They’re often the first ones in the office and the last ones out. They can be in a good position to influence and lead change in their firm. They’re also in a position to create a toxic atmosphere—an unhappy manager makes for an unhappy everybody else. Their influence also comes with an accountability that extends to those above and below their paygrade—they get expectations from both sides, young associates and managing partners. And still, they may struggle with the same challenges their legal team faces—ambiguity in their role and the stress and conflicts that go with it. And overwork—with the added title of management on their door, their job just got bigger.

When your office management is overstressed, they can create an atmosphere that leads to attorney disengagement; it costs the firm in both productivity and attrition: The stakes are high.

Management expectations

When asked what they most want from a manager, subordinates most often say training. Training not only elevates the skills and competency of the individual’s value to their organization, but also their value on the job market. According to a Gartner survey of 7,000 respondents, on a scale of 1-7—1 being least and 7 being highest—70% assessed their proficiency in their current jobs as a 5 or less. But if managers are going to address this need—probably not a high priority on their to-do list—they’re going to have to squeeze it from in between their other productivity goals. In this paradigm, onboarding isn’t enough—teams want to be upskilled too.

One survey of HR leaders found that employees expect managers to spend 36% of their time on their skill development but a survey of managers showed that the actual amount averages just 9%—and according to many analysts, even that number sounds unrealistically high.

Young lawyers may expect their managers to be advisors, teachers, coaches, and mentors. From their firm they may want to grow in their practice areas, learn new skills and try new things. They want opportunities to lead and advance. For managers of legal teams, all of those things take time.

How to Lead: The 4 Types of Management Styles:

  • Teachers: They are delegators but presented as the softer form of authoritarian leadership. They develop attorneys’ skills based on their own expertise. Teachers were often star performers themselves elevated to law firm management so that they can bring associates up to their same standard.
  • Cheerleaders: This is leading with more carrots and fewer sticks: This style takes a mostly hands-off, laissez-faire approach while offering very supportive feedback. They’re delegators but allow subordinates to make their own decisions. Along with their praise, Cheerleaders will also support through affirmations like “You can do better” or “This is good but not up to your standard of work. Let’s have you try some other things.”
  • Always-on: This is the opposite of hands off. This type of manager will provide feedback and coaching constantly. The positive spin: they share an intense focus on and commitment to helping their legal team grow; the negative spin: they’ve a tendency to micromanage. This style actually degrades performance by 8%.
  • Connectors: This is the ideal management style for developing legal talent. They’ll target their feedback and if their legal team members have skills and expertise that exceed their own, they shine brightest when it comes to leveraging their team for peer-to-peer development and building a team trust that can generate more skill-sharing opportunities. They stand out in their ability to connect people and create synergy. They build stronger teams from both the inside and out—and when needed, they can reach out to the broader organization or even outside to match people who may have needed complementary skills.

Which managing type is best for your legal team?

Here they are, quantified:

  • Always-on managers degrade attorney performance; in their research, Gartner also found this methodology to most likely bring out toxic behaviors
  • Teachers and Cheerleaders can have a 7%-9% positive impact on employee performance
  • Connectors can boost performance by 26%.

Suggestions for using the Connectors style along with some of the best of the others:

  • Get to know your associates and their strengths
  • Coach people, not problems
  • By creating trust in your legal team, you create solutions—a team together elevates all associate performance
  • Identify the skills to be shared by the team members
  • Put the right team members together to share those skills—from practice management to all legal matters

As famed business guru Peter Drucker said: “The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager.”

Great legal managers make great teams

Now that you’ve identified the best type of legal manager, here’s how to build on that methodology to win: But first, start with the right people.

While it’s rare to find the ideal leadership candidate within your legal staff, there are some attributes that can better equip a lawyer for a leadership role. Beyond their style of management, look for an attorney with a proven track record of:

  • Keeping objectives of the firm in proper perspective
  • Making sure the good of the firm is put above personal goals
  • Making and implementing strong decisions
  • Getting along with others
  • Driving and motivating a team
  • Communicating and delegating effectively

Other ways to build effective firm leadership:

  • Hire a non-lawyer CEO: In doing this you can drive the business forward by leaving partners free to focus on what they do best. This tactic is becoming an increasingly popular choice for mid to large-sized firms.
  • Address skill deficiencies: Identify where your managers’ skills could be improved and developed and arrange formal training programs to address them.
  • The firm can also hire an external coach to work with the managing partner to assess and enhance their strengths, weaknesses, and leadership style. In both cases, the investment will pay dividends.
  • Establish accountability: In circumstances where the managing partner is balancing leadership responsibilities with existing lawyering work, this can be very important. This may require: 1) a detailed description of expectations and duties of the managing partner’s role, and 2) a system of regular performance reviews.
  • Define performance indicators as well as duties and responsibilities.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company, LawCrossing, has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

About HiringPartner

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There are many job boards, applicant tracking systems, and ways to recruit law firm attorneys out there—but there is only one Hiring Partner. Hiring Partner is the most powerful legal recruiting tool ever for law firms. In other words, Hiring Partner is not just an organizational tool, but also a talent magnet. For more information, please visit https://www.hiringpartner.com/