23 July 2007

Managing Junior Staff

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

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 go.

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 great one!

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 become.

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 encouraged."

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 heartfelt dislikes!

Keep Communicating

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 flowing

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 conflicts:

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 include:

  • 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 answer!!

And how do you figure out how to do this people-managing thing better?

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. Good luck!

Other Views?

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 to us.


© Professionelle Ltd 2007

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