QI have been working as a lawyer
for nearly four years and am increasingly supervising and
supporting more junior staff. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding
this really difficult. "Big firms" don't seem to put much of an
effort into training you in these skills (which personally I think
are much more complicated than the actual legal work!) and it seems
like you are just supposed to magically work it out. - I'm far from
being the "boss" but I think these skills should develop as you
How do you know if you are doing a good job and how you do
figure out how to learn to do it better?
AThank you for your question: it's a
Like you, I've worked in a professional services environment,
and I know how the drive to produce the best advice for the client,
often in a limited timeframe, can shift focus away from the people
actually delivering the content. The "human resource stuff" can
look like an optional extra that will eat into the too-few hours
available. Of course, in the longer term, the more technically
competent the staff you have working with you, and the more
effectively you can interact with them, the easier your job will
Law Firm Life
I've gathered from you and other lawyers I've spoken to, that
law firms have their own particular ways of working. You all
mentioned delegation. For others reading this who, like
me, are unfamiliar with law, this is the process by which pieces of
client of work are passed to more junior people. Because the work
can vary in complexity, those who delegate need to make a call on
who the most appropriate person is to handle the work.
I understand from one of my follow-up questions to you that the
group of younger lawyers you work with doesn't shift around too
much. That sounds as if it should help you get to know the levels
of experience and the strengths and weaknesses in your team and
thus make the delegation decisions more accurately.
However, you also said that you yourself are delegated to by a
few different people, and other lawyers reported that this is also
the case for the people below them. In other words, it seems your
team might receive work from delegators other than you. These
overlapping team structures must occasionally mean conflicting
deadlines and struggles over resources. And in those situations I'm
guessing it's often the most senior delegator who 'wins'…
Lastly, another lawyer admitted to me that when things get very
busy, she finds it tempting to take back work from her delegatees
and do it herself to ensure it's done to standard and on time. "The
time pressure is pervasive. Feedback and questions aren't really
It certainly sounds like a very challenging environment.
So, without much support and training in managing people, how do
you know if you're doing a good job? Frankly, if you can do a
quarter of what follows, you ought to have younger members of the
firm beating a path to your door!
Do Unto Others
Let me start with some motherhood and apple pie. Your past good
experiences with the partners and others who delegate to you are
probably a pretty good indicator of what you should be delivering
to others. Put another way, don't do things to your team that
you've hated having done to you.
My pet peeves are managers who wait till well after the end of a
current piece of work to tell me about something I need to improve,
and who never say "well done". I'm sure you have your own list of
When you're working through others, under time pressure and with
uncertainty, communicating is really essential. Yes, it takes time,
but it's a vital investment. It's probably the one thing I've seen
separate the good from the ho-hum managers. Ask yourself if you
could communicate more.
If your firm hasn't many formal communication and feedback
occasions to ensure you think about your team's needs and
development - and your comments suggested this was the case - then
a lot of it will be up to you. That's a challenge. You'll need to
work out a structure or routine. I'd recommend you think of
communicating broadly - beyond the immediate piece of work - as
well as specifically about the work at hand.
Broad communication: make the time to talk to
the more junior people you work with. It can help to take time out
regularly to have a coffee away from the office and to talk about
what's happening in their lives as well as their work. By staying
connected to them, you not only gain insights into them which can
help both of you in your work, but they will (hopefully) also come
to see you if things ever go awry. Problems are a pain but surprise
problems are worse!
On the job: when you make a decision about who
to delegate work to, take the extra time to try to ensure he or she
has fully understood the brief and that you know where he/she would
like extra guidance and support. It's probably a good idea to use
written as well as spoken instructions - when you get tired it's
great to have black and white words to refer back to! Although
you're dealing with very bright and independent people, don't
assume they have got your brief fully first time, either. Try to
keep your door open for queries. However, I'd suggest you actively
check in with them on a regular basis to keep the communication
In consulting, we often schedule brief end-of-day team catch-ups
every 1-2 days in the most time-pressured cases. Knowing there's a
check-up coming means the team members really focus on making
progress! It's also a time when the senior person can listen for
problems and schedule one-on-one sessions to step through possible
solutions and act as a coach.
Also on the job, try to give credit where it's due. Professional
service firms seem to hire a disproportionate number of insecure
overachievers and then play on their foibles. If you say "well
done" whenever it's warranted, your team will likely follow you
into the valley of death.
Upward feedback: If your firm doesn't have
regular, systematic two-way reviews, this will also be up to you.
If a team member comes back with sub-standard work tell them then
and there what needs to change, but also ask if you could have
expressed things more clearly, or taken a different approach.
Taking the broad perspective once more, can you see yourself over
an end-of-case drink asking for their suggestions of things you
could do to help them more next time round?
Pass on Your Experience
As you gain ever more experience at work, you need to think
about passing it on to your 'apprentices'. Even if your superiors
haven't done this very well for you in the past, do think about how
you can coach your team.
For example, what have you found, or seen, works best for
dealing with those conflicts of delegation? How have you addressed
the competing demands? I'm hoping that the temptation to hand out
stockwhips or assault rifles is only fleeting…
Blending my consulting experience with words of advice from
lawyers, I can suggest the following ideas for managing delegation
For Delegatees: your objective is to manage
delegators' expectations constructively. Yes, it can be really hard
to do this when someone very senior places demands on you, but the
WORST thing you can do is to say nothing. (By a short whisker, the
second worst thing is to say "no" to the delegator).
Tips for handling new and conflicting job assignments
- Getting as much clarity on the task and on the time frame as
possible, Sometimes, delegators will name a short term deadline
because they simply haven't thought about what's really needed.
Polite questions can help nudge them to a reassessment.
- Informing the delegator of what else you have on. Don't whine,
just state the facts.
- If it seems that the new assignment (and the seniority of its
instigator) will present an impossible workload with everything
else you have on, then say, "Will you talk to XYZ [other
delegators] to clarify my new priorities with them?" Some things
you have to push back up the line!
- Asking if there are other people you can work with to get
through the various assignments
For Delegators: when you assign a piece of
work, ask the delegatee what else she has on. And LISTEN to the
And how do you figure out how to do this people-managing
Ask for Training
This may not be easy if your firm's training policies have a
distinct "sink or swim" flavour. However, if you pick your timing
carefully, for example after a strong piece of work, or a positive
review, you may find they're more willing to agree. I'm sure you're
very well aware that in a partnership, as most law firms are, some
partners will see expenditure on items like training as a direct
assault on their annual profit. After all, they made it to the top
without this sort of development expense, so why can't you?
If you can position your request as a way to keep promising
young lawyers in the firm longer and bring them along with a higher
level of skill, that might help your case!
Find a Mentor
The challenges you face as a 4-year-in lawyer are not unique.
Can you find yourself a more senior lawyer, perhaps even one who
has left your firm to move into a non-competing environment (an
inhouse counsel for example), who can advise you on strategies to
cope with the inevitable problems? It's helpful to have someone who
knows "how things work round here".
I hope you feel that some of these ideas will apply to your
situation and that you can try one or two out in the near future.
I know we have many lawyers among Professionelle's members. Can
any of you contribute more advice or fresh perspectives? We'd love
to hear from you. Please send in your comments
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