Managing People in a Law Firm

The complete guide to managing people in a law firm from leadership styles to featuring some of the best thinking on planning, methods, and roadmaps to success.

Traditionally, law firm management meant that junior attorneys reported to senior attorneys, and a partner committee managed all aspects of the firm. This is an ineffective way to run a law firm. People management isn’t a skill that all of us are born with, but it is a skill that can be learned and should be cultivated to help make you a more effective lawyer manager and leader. 

We want to help you run and manage a modern firm where each person has only one lawyer manager and responsibilities and roles are clear. We’ll go into the basics of people management, the skills you need to develop to foster an employee-first work culture, and a crash course in human resources to help you create a positive and productive work environment. 

The Difference Between Leadership Skills and Managing People 

Being a lawyer manager today means knowing how to be a business person, a people person, and an expert in the law. This means if you’re managing a law firm with people other than you working there, you’ll need to learn and develop leadership skills and management skills. While these are complementary skills, the difference between the two is subtle and important. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want to be done because he wants to do it.” Breaking this down, an effective leader is someone who can inspire, motivate, and delegate tasks to move people towards a common goal. To be an effective leader, you’ll need to learn how to communicate and listen actively, know how to motivate people, learn to cultivate trust with others, and take responsibility for the bigger picture in moving towards your goals. 

Being an effective lawyer manager requires a lot of the same skills, but goes beyond just leading people. Leadership skills are part of the arsenal of a great manager. In Julie Zhuo’s book, The Making of a Manager, she lays out the three qualities of effective management: people, purpose, and process. We’ve added a fourth that we think is important: path. 

People. People want to be treated and cared for as human beings in their jobs. Your responsibility as a lawyer manager is to take care of your people. Make sure you’re engaging with them and spending time with them to help each of your employees define their purpose in their job and career. Be ready to coach them if they come to you with any problems. 

Purpose. People want to see and feel a connection between their work and a larger vision and purpose in your firm and the world. People also want recognition and gratitude for the work they do. Make sure you have a system in place to recognize and show gratitude to people for the work they do and how it connects to your firm’s values

Process. People want to know they’re doing their job well and correctly. They also want to be able to measure their success. Give every team member their own set of KPIs and set out their expectations in writing. Be clear about their role, their responsibility, and how they’ll be measured. 

Path. Your staff should know how their work fits in their career path. If they’re a junior associate, show them a clear path to becoming a partner. These sorts of things shouldn’t be kept secret. Be transparent around what it means to advance in your firm and give people an opportunity to be their best self and excel in your firm. You don’t have to be an open book, just be deliberate and strategic about what you’re teaching your lawyer and what you expect their work to look like. 

What being an effective law firm manager comes down to is improving your interpersonal skills, being clear on where you want your firm to go, and implementing strategic planning on how to get there. But how do you start inspiring others to move in that direction together?

Training for People Management  

Most lawyers have never been trained to manage others. In fact, traditional law firm management simply had senior attorneys managing junior attorneys. Often, there was a culture of “paying your dues” rather than any sort of functional management structure, after all, senior attorneys shouldn’t be responsible for managing everyone. Today, many firms continue the horrible cycle of a “pay your dues” attitude when managing others. 

Just because you had to endure horrible management conditions doesn’t mean your employees have to as well. A law firm leader and lawyer manager with this attitude cannot run a healthy or growth-oriented company. The happier and healthier your employees, the better they treat your clients, and the more money you make. 

While how you manage will depend on your personality, for example, the way people approach conflict and resolution can be different, the skills you need are universal across all management styles. 

The skills needed to be an effective lawyer manager, including learning how to manage other people, are skills that can be actively learned and improved upon. As a small firm owner, it is part of your job to learn and continually develop these skills. To help you get started, you should: 

Learn how to think and practice in group terms. start thinking about what is best for the law firm as a whole rather than for you individually. This means thinking about and planning how your firm can encourage and support your staff in the professional and personal lives, how your compensation is structured, how you can develop and foster teamwork within the firm, as well as empowering and encouraging others to do their best work. 

Communicate at all levels. Communication is essential to being a good lawyer manager. Everyone on your team should know the important things going on at your firm and have the same information with no hidden data or information. Your firm should have a structure in place to keep everyone informed and so people will know where to find important documents and information, like the employee or HR manual. Consider having a firm-wide chat or Slack channel for more on-demand communication.

Effective communication also means that you’ll have to attend and lead meetings, but these meetings should be intentional. Don’t hold meetings for meeting’s sake. Have well-structured and deliberate meetings to communicate important news, needs, and requests in the least amount of time. 

Delegate to lawyers or self-directed workgroups. Delegation can be one of the more difficult skills to develop, but it is an important one. Delegation shouldn’t be used as a way to avoid responsibility or avoid tasks you don’t want to do. As the lawyer manager, you have to know how to delegate certain projects to the right people or person but still guide them if they encounter difficulties. 

Start by delegating tasks to attorneys or groups of attorneys with timelines on when the project should be completed and for each milestone within the project. Much more work can be accomplished more quickly when this approach is used. 

Identify and use concrete goals. A boat moving towards a destination moves more quickly and efficiently when everyone is rowing in the same direction. When everyone at your firm knows the goals their moving towards and what their role is in achieving that goal, things move more smoothly. You’ll also be able to measure success by measuring each person’s KPIs and seeing how much closer you are towards those goals.

Take time to listen to your firm’s staff. Feedback is important. Take time to listen to suggestions, complaints, or to just have conversations with your staff. Be present in these moments and take their opinions seriously. There’s no quicker way to alienate your staff than by making them feel they’re not heard. 

These are the basics to help you get started towards becoming an effective people manager, but this isn’t a one-and-done skill. You can always work on improving these skills to push your firm and team to grow.

Functional Management, Overseeing Teamwork, and Decision Making 

Just like senior attorneys managed junior attorneys, traditional law firms managed through a partnership committee. But like this management model is outdated and often does more harm than good.  When everyone is in charge of everything, nobody is actually in charge of anything. 

Plus, management by committee is an inefficient process. Among other issues, more time is spent poking holes in options rather than making a decision which could mean that decisions come late, potentially resulting in lost opportunities. Committees are also designed to promote compromise, so you may end up playing it too safe under this management structure. Playing it safe usually results in the lowest-common-denominator decision for your firm which is the path to stagnation

Instead of using a partnership by committee management structure, you may want to consider a functional management structure. 

Functional Management

Implementing a functional management structure into your law firm simply means that your law firm is organized into departments based on the type of work being done. For example, there could be an accounting and billing department, marketing department, office management, or HR department. Your firm could also be divided into practice areas, so having an insurance defense department, litigation department, or more, with a single person overseeing all these departments. 

The point is that your law firm will be divided into functional areas with a single person in charge of each area. This also means that each employee only has one lawyer manager, so they’ll know who to go to with any questions, issues, or concerns. If you need help visualizing this sort of structure, you can create an organizational and accountability chart to help you get a clearer picture. 

Overseeing Teamwork 

Now that you have a clearer idea of who manages who, you’ll be able to better delegate tasks and oversee teams assigned to those tasks. In order to foster collaboration and build a great team, there are a couple of steps you can take:

Give your team focus and goals. Whether you’re putting together a team for help with litigation, or to put together a marketing campaign for your firm, you have to give your team purpose and goals to move towards. Make sure the goals are SMART and linked to why the team was formed. 

Give roles for each team member. Just as the team has a goal and purpose, each person on the team should have a role a purpose. This way, each person knows what they’re supposed to be doing and how they help towards achieving the team’s goals. 

Communicate. Stay in the loop on how the project is going, and check-in to make sure there aren’t any questions or uncertainties about anything. You should encourage feedback and make your team feel comfortable about coming to you with any issues. Actively listen to what your team has to say. You should also take this time to acknowledge the good work they’re doing. 

Address conflict immediately. With any project, tensions may rise. Don’t assume that these will work themselves out on their own. It’s your responsibility as leader and manager to address conflicts as they arise so they don’t fester into a negative work environment. 

Be a good leader. Set a good example for your team to follow. Don’t be a “do as I say not as I do” sort of person. Practice what you expect out of your team. 

Decision Making

We’ve touched on this briefly, but decision making by committee is not a good way to make decisions for your firm. Only one person should have the ultimate and final decision-making responsibility for the firm. While each department head is in charge of making decisions for their department, only one person should have the final decision-making authority. This doesn’t mean that decisions are made in a vacuum, input from others is important, it just means that when it’s time to make a decision, only one person does it. 

Essential Management and Role Modeling 

People management isn’t easy. It takes time to do well, and to learn to do it well may come at the cost of other work being neglected. We’ve talked about the necessary skills for people management. As you’re starting out in developing this skill, here’s where you should be putting your focus:

Leadership. Develop your leadership skills. A strong leader can drive the firm forward, bring focus to strategic goals, and facilitate better relations between your staff. 

Interpersonal relations. Learn how to be a people person. This doesn’t mean suddenly becoming a warm extrovert, but it means learning how to build trust, give compassionate honesty, and how to motivate and inspire others. 

Give praise and recognition. Sure, there’s a mindset of, “it’s your job, of course, you’ll do it well,” but knowing when and how to give credit is important and fosters a more positive work environment. Make sure your staff feels seen and appreciated for their work and understanding who enjoys public praise and who enjoys private appreciation. Formal recognition is great when someone deserves it, just be mindful you aren’t putting someone on the spot or embarrassing them.

Staff relations. Your firm should have a healthy work culture. Partners, junior attorneys, and staff should share a common vision and purpose, respect one another, and be ok with having difficult conversations when problems arise. 

Whatever you expect from your staff, make sure you’re demonstrating those qualities too. As you become a stronger manager and leader, become the role model your staff can follow. 

Encouraging Staff Wellness 

The traditional lawyer managers are known to make their employees sick and miserable. Lawyers and legal staff often suffer from higher rates of mental illnesses, stress, and substance abuse than those in other professions. Law firms also create competitive environments where team members might even work against each other to maximize their own personal gain. 

This is not the kind of environment you want to create for your law firm. You want to be a good manager and offer good career paths for the people in your law firm. You want to create a positive work culture where people trust each other and are happy to be at work. This isn’t just good for morale, it’s good for business too. When employees see employers that are invested in them, they will reward you in a number of ways.  

You want to create a healthy, employee-oriented culture that supports self-care and wellness. Have a healthy, employee-oriented culture. An easy way to foster staff wellness is to provide fair compensation. If people aren’t being paid fairly, they won’t feel appreciated, and their work product will suffer. 

Another way to foster staff wellness is to keep work hours in check. When you or your staff work too much, you’re not actually helping anyone. Lawyers who are pulling all-nighters or working all weekend aren’t doing good work by Sunday afternoon. 

You should encourage your staff to be making time to support their personal lives and goals. They don’t always have to be on. They should feel comfortable and empowered to make time for family, friends, hobbies, or travel, without feeling insecure about their work. 

Mentors, Peer Groups, and Coaches 

To foster an even more collaborative and employee-oriented culture, you can implement a mentor, peer group, or coaching system in your firm. Especially for junior attorneys, having a mentor to show them the ropes helps them feel more focused and excited about their work. People want to know they’re doing well at their job, and having a mentor helps facilitate that feeling. 

Having peer groups can help your staff feel connected with each other, to learn from each other, and to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships with each other. Peer groups can help keep each member accountable and provide support.

Coaches help motivate individuals towards their professional goals by focusing on values, mission, and strategy. A coach is different from a mentor in that a coach is usually around for only a short period of time, like for a project, and helps people focus towards a specific goal in the near future. A mentor provides guidance and helps people develop skills over a long period of time. 

As an effective lawyer manager, you want to be a mentor and coach to your staff. You want to mentor those that need more guidance and coach those that are encountering difficulties in the short-term. Facilitating peer groups is also a good option, especially for staff members who aren’t ready for more one-on-one attention. 

The purpose of mentors, peer groups, and coaches is to help your firm and staff become more confident, productive, and empowered in what they do. 

Human Resources

Human resources is a large and complicated topic that encompasses things from hiring and staffing to employee benefits to handling complaints against other employees or policies. HR is also a key tool in people management.  

HR has a huge effect on the culture and environment at your law firm, setting the tone on how people communicate, resolve conflicts, and work with each other. HR is also filled with laws and regulations, but that shouldn’t scare you away from tackling it. To cover your HR basics, you will need at least an HR or employee manual, employee files, and display any required posters. 

Employee Manual

Regardless of what you want your HR policies to be, you need to have an HR or employee manual. This document can be as simple or complex as you want but should include, at a minimum, anti-discrimination policies; non-disclosure agreements; safety and security policies; compensation and benefits; work schedules, vacation, and leave; standards of conduct, including dress code, computer, phone, and social media use, ethics, and other behavior you expect from your staff; and general employment information, like policies on employee reviews, hiring, terminations, referrals, etc.

Make sure each staff member receives a copy, reads it, and signs a statement acknowledging that they received, read, and understood the manual. 

Employee Files

That signed statement about the employee manual should be placed in their employee file. The employee file should also include an I-9, a general employee file that you create for your own benefit that could include resumes, training certifications, etc., and employee medical files. The medical files do not need to be nor should they be overly specific. You just want to make sure that you have any doctors’ notes, disability information, allergies, etc. in the case of an emergency or for legal reasons, like in a worker’s compensation matter. Make sure the medical files are kept separate and secure from other employee documentation because of their personal nature. 

Required Posters

Depending on your state, you may be required to post certain information in an easily accessible place. You will need to check the laws of your jurisdiction to figure out what you need to display, though there are packets of posters available for sale if you’d rather just put everything up. 

Human resources isn’t an easy thing to set up, but the sooner you have systems and policies in place the better you’ll be able to deal with any conflict or issues that arise. As you develop your policies, keep your people in mind. You want to create policies that support and empower your employees, not make them feel stifled.

If you want to learn more about people management or how to run a better law firm, take your practice to the next level by signing up to be a Lawyerist Insider, if you haven’t already. You’ll get access to our library of downloads and our private Facebook Group. If you’re really eager to build an efficient and future-oriented practice, check out Lawyerist Lab for hands-on, personalized training to help you build your dream law practice. 


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