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Guiding hands

20 June 11

How to strike the right balance in providing leadership in a law firm where professionals often work best when allowed to self-manage

by Fiona Westwood

Most managing partners agree that lawyers are not easy to manage. Trained to think independently and to defend their clients’ interests, they prefer to decide how they allocate their time. Left to their own devices, good professionals will self-manage to a much higher standard than can be imposed on them through internal processes and checklists. They care about the quality of their work and seek ways to adjust what they do to meet the needs of individual clients.

Yet with ever increasing pressures on resources and external compliance, firms need to adopt internal systems and procedures that streamline work and encourage people to work efficiently. Their leaders have the job of getting people to work collaboratively towards a common goal and business plan, while responding positively to client demands for a new approach to service delivery.

So how do they go about doing that, at the same time as allowing their professionals to self-manage as much as possible?

Element 1: Direction/frame of reference

Most professionals, facing a heavy workload, have limited time and energy to read strategic reports and complex market analysis. So, managing partners and senior management teams must be able to identify and develop strategies that set the future direction of the firm, and persuade their partners to adopt them.

Having an agreed and articulated statement of what is important helps understanding, allows healthy debate and avoids misunderstandings. Having a clear plan allows people to see the context of what they do and the role they need to play to achieve its success. It also provides senior people with a frame of reference to decide how work is handled, which they can communicate to staff and clients. It improves consistency across the firm so that in making choices between work priorities, people know what is important to the firm as a whole. It allows standards to be set at a high level, providing individual professionals the freedom to interpret how to apply these in relation to their own work.

Element 2: Building resilience

Given the amount of changes that are likely to occur in the provision of legal services, firms must accept the need for continuous readjustment of the services they provide and how they provide them. Yet, most people are resistant to change, so it is important to recognise this at the same time as making sure that they and the firm develop confidence and resilience (see also Journal, May 2010, 36). There are a number of specific actions that will help achieve that.

(a) Encourage self-management

Professionals inherently want to take responsibility for themselves, the quality of their output and their work priorities. However, if leaders attempt to constrain their work patterns, ask them to fit into defined job descriptions and impose quality processes on them, they may use their energy, intelligence and abilities to undermine these. As a result, leaders have to show people that they are trusted to do a good job and then let them get on with it. They can do this by tapping into individual commitment to high quality work and to tailoring services to particular clients.

Excellence should be the main driver of the culture of professional service organisations: “adequate” or “competent” are not motivators for highly skilled people. It must include being fair and equitable so that people feel everyone is treated the same, there is open communication, and no one group is given preferential treatment. These communications must be honest, with both good news and bad sent out to everyone.

(b) Valued, work-based learning

Work-based learning (see also Journal, March 2011, 40) is the most common source of development of skills and abilities, and individual career progression. Having a formal statement of the importance of learning from doing client work, capturing improvements and bringing on young people is therefore essential. Ironically, this is the driver behind most quality improvement programmes, yet many of these make people cynical of learning and the raft of checklists that seem to stifle people’s ability to talk about genuine problems or develop potential enhancements. It is the role of leadership to actively encourage people to share experiences and work well together.

The investment in on-the-job training must be monitored and publicised internally at least. It is also useful to have this information collated, as clients often demand evidence of this in formal bids and tenders. In-house training should be formalised and made “routine” rather than left to the happenstance of particular departments. It is important to include in the job descriptions and reward mechanisms of more senior people, responsibility for bringing on trainees and helping people become more expert. 

(c) Open minded, change orientated

Again it is the responsibility of leadership to encourage professionals to look beyond the file or project in hand and do something that takes them out of their comfort zone. They should be asked to suspend their critical faculties and become more open to new ways of working.

One way to do this is to set up pilot projects where innovation and pushing out the boundaries of existing practice are encouraged. Professionals do not like to appear foolish, so leaders will have to work with key individuals who have the self-confidence to be willing to try out changes. It is important to label them as “innovative” and “exciting” to ensure that people volunteer for them on the overt understanding that they will be challenging and establish new ways of working. Stating that “a high level of mastery” will be required is a good way to motivate the most difficult people to want to be included!

(d) Professional

Senior people need to ensure that the culture of the firm is professional and that its core elements, such as acting with integrity, are mirrored by the behaviour of the organisation. They have to avoid giving mixed messages, for example, by people being asked to behave professionally while some partners are allowed to abuse their position by behaving in a bullying or aggressive manner. It is important to have discussions around ethical choices and encourage people to raise areas of concern on a confidential basis with senior people.

Element 3: Resources and systems

Particularly with the arrival of increased external regulation and client complaints, firms must ensure that work is done at a profitable level and that any risks associated with the type of work and/or client are managed well. This may result in tensions between the individual professional (and their way of working) and office processes and procedures. Leaders must ensure that any formal processes support both self-management and quality of service so that they allow people to take personal responsibility for their work and output. The problem often caused by formalisation is that it leads to people “switching off”, simply completing forms and checklists without thinking through whether they apply to the circumstances or make sense in the context of the client situation.

Given that the whole essence of good professionals lies in their ability to use their knowledge, skills and judgment to come up with particular solutions for particular clients, it seems more than likely that many professionals will always resist any formalisation of their work. It is therefore essential that leaders and managers ensure that the introduction of processes will help everyone do their job better and not adversely affect quality of service. It is important to emphasise that real savings in time and improvements in risk management can be made by adopting them. One underlying aim should therefore be to improve delegation and consistency of service. Another is that people should feel there is added value in completing the processes, rather than merely adding to their list of chores.

Element 4: Adaptable, flexible structure

Leaders should ensure that there is a formal structure to the firm but which, at the same time, is flexible and adaptable. Professionals like to choose how they work, so when particular client demands arise, the firm should be able to accommodate that without resentment and difficulty. This flexibility requires that not everyone can be project leader all of the time – a challenge for highly skilled professionals who like to be in charge, so leaders have an important role in smoothing down ruffled feathers!

Reward mechanisms, particularly the use of personal bonuses, can cause division and rivalry. Often the people who are modest and self-aware make less fuss about their achievements than people who like a lot of attention. Senior people need to know which individuals are performing well and meeting all the firm’s aspirations, and reward them.

Element 5: Address underperformance

One of the most important jobs of leaders is to deal with the “bad guys”, in other words those people who exhibit the downside of professional behaviour.

All professionals have the capacity to dig in their heels to protect their clients’ best interests and refuse to compromise when they think they have right on their side. Under stress, the extremes of such behaviour come to the fore, resulting in high-handedness in their interactions with other people. Good professionals should be able to rely on their leaders to tackle this, as otherwise their time and energy will be taken up dealing with disruptive and dysfunctional behaviour.

Being a leader of a successful professional firm is not easy and not a task for the faint-hearted. Lawyers do not respond well to being told what to do, and if they feel that their independence is being challenged will put all their energy and skills to finding ways to work around what they are being asked to do.

However, they become much easier to manage if left to manage themselves, as they will impose high standards on the quality of their own work. Leaders should therefore concentrate on providing a clear direction and frame of reference for people to work to, and make sure that the culture of the firm builds resilience by recognising the value of learning and ensuring that it is outward-looking and positive about change. They should also ensure that the firm has the resources it needs to work effectively and that any formalisation of procedures makes sense. Its structure should be flexible and reward people who work collaboratively. Finally, they should deal with people who do not perform or behave well, so as to allow their good professionals to get on with what they are good at – providing a high quality service tailored to the needs of individual clients.

Fiona Westwood runs her own management and training consultancy, specialising in working with the professional sector. A solicitor with 20 years’ experience of private practice, she established Westwood Associates in 1994. This article is based on excerpts from her new book, “Developing resilience – the key to professional success”. For more information and to purchase at a discount price of £15 contact her on faw@westwood-associates.com .

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