In-house counsel are trained to avoid risk, review all possible angles of a case or matter, conduct thorough research, look for precedents and take time for deliberation before deciding on an approach. While these skills and methods are essential in the successful practice of law, they can actually become challenges when assuming managerial roles.
The job of supervising teams and managing a legal department often requires making decisions on the spot, and sometimes with limited or incomplete information or enough time to consider different scenarios. When your team is on deadline and awaiting your direction, for example, you must come up with a plan of action immediately.
These demands may be especially unnerving for those who have experience in an in-demand practice area but might be relatively new to supervisory positions. One of the easiest ways to acquire the traits and skills that distinguish great managers is to study what not to do. Here are five of the most frequent mistakes rookie managers make, and suggestions about how to avoid them:
#1: Holding on too tightly to authority
When you first take on a managerial or supervisory role, it’s tempting to keep close, careful tabs on every activity your team engages in and to try to be involved in all decision chains and discussions. After all, how can you make sure work is proceeding smoothly if you’re out of the loop? You may also hesitate to delegate tasks to your staff because it seems more efficient to take care of matters yourself than to waste time explaining processes to others.
It’s important to inform your team about your expectations as well as the requirements of the client and the scope of the project, but you need to teach yourself to then step out of the way. You need to trust your team to determine the most effective way to distribute and complete the work. If you provide them with the information and resources they need, they’ll be better able to do their jobs without you attempting to manage their every move.
In addition, your role as manager requires you to focus on the larger picture and address concerns that are broader in scope than day-to-day minutiae. If you are too caught up in procedural details related to the way others work, you won’t be able to do your own job effectively. Naturally, there are certain responsibilities that can only be handled by a licensed attorney. But the more tasks that you can appropriately delegate, the better able you will be to serve as a valuable member of your legal department’s management team.
#2: Failing to define roles and describe the big picture
As a supervisor, you will likely be responsible for overseeing the work of a team, including associates, paralegals and legal support professionals. These individuals may have many years’ experience in their positions, but this does not mean you should adopt a laissez-faire approach to managing them. They will still need adequate direction, ongoing feedback and motivation. Clearly delineate roles and responsibilities as well as changes in direction. This ensures that your team’s understanding of their duties are in sync with your own.
Many managers take this step, but neglect to give their staff a sense of the big picture. It’s a big mistake to assume that your team is familiar with the organization’s objectives, or how their efforts support those goals. By helping employees see the significance of their work in context, you’ll encourage them to feel greater ownership in the results of their efforts.
#3: Failing to listen
Some managers are great at giving direction and providing feedback, but they forget to ask for their staff’s input in return. Even junior staff under your supervision can be a source of innovative ideas and new perspectives, but you’ll never find out unless you listen to them. You can access and leverage the collective knowledge resident in your staff by holding group brainstorming sessions when launching new projects or considering new processes within the firm. This may seem like an inefficient use of scarce time, but failure to listen to your staff can stifle enthusiasm and creativity.
#4: Poor decision making
Indecisiveness or hesitation can significantly impede productivity in a business environment.It’s important to gather all the information you can, but avoid procrastinating in reaching a decision. You may want to research strategies for making responsible choices or use one of the many tools available for evaluating whether or not to take a specific course of action. These tools range from simple cost/benefit analyses to behavioral algorithms and ethical assessments, which are especially relevant in today’s business climate.
#5: Forgetting to recognize and praise staff
Carefully delivered critical assessment is necessary to bring out the best in your people, but don’t make it all negative. If you never utter a word of praise when your staff does something right, they will start to feel undervalued or unappreciated. At a time when the best employees have increasing options, this could eventually lead to unwanted turnover.
Recognition does not have to be lavish to be effective. Simple gestures such as publicly offering praise during a group meeting can go a long way in making staff feel appreciated. In addition to commending outstanding performance, don’t forget to acknowledge those who frequently accept added responsibilities or increased workloads. Their contributions are also critical to the team’s success.
Just as you sharpened your initial job skills by applying what you learned in school to real-world situations when you began your career, so, too, can you build and refine your managerial skills by supervising real employees. There’s bound to be a period of trial and error as you try various methods and determine which are most effective. Be willing to learn from mistakes – yours and others’ – and you’ll soon feel more comfortable and confident in the role of manager.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.