Being a Team Leader Means Being a Better Lawyer (Perspective)

Editor’s Note: The author of this post works in-house for Microsoft and is based in Chicago. 

By Dennis Garcia, Assistant General Counsel, Microsoft Corporation

While assets like software, cloud computing, devices and data can help law firms and corporate in-house legal departments digitally transform to provide more high-impact legal services to their clients, we can never lose sight that people are still the most important asset of any legal organization.

All lawyers need to be better leaders and people managers. Leadership and management are key competencies that are generally not taught in law school and if you do attend leadership/management trainings during your career they are still vital skills that are developed and refined over time.

Even if you are not technically a people manager in your legal organization, we are all leaders. Here are some guiding principles for lawyers to embrace as leaders:

Have an Eye for Great Talent

Lawyers must have the innate ability to identify and attract great talent for their organizations. Leverage your networks to find such talent, avoid constantly hiring from the same sources (e.g., Top 20 law schools) and do not rely solely upon your human resources team/recruiters. While hiring great talent is an inexact science, put a premium on the so-called “soft” skills and always go with your gut intuition.    

Invest in Your Team & Serve Them  

Leaders need to have a service-first mentality with their teammates. When you hire new legal talent be sure to invest the time to train them. Develop a thoughtful on-boarding plan, introduce them to key clients/members of your legal team and provide them with opportunities to shadow you and others. Over time offer your team growth opportunities via stretch projects, mentor them (and suggest other potential mentors), provide them with chances to gain visibility with senior leaders and always embrace an inclusivity mindset free from unconscious bias.

Feedback is Fabulous

Take the time to periodically provide meaningful and constructive feedback to your team so they can learn and grow. In addition, the best leaders always asks their team for specific feedback about them.

Be Clear, Transparent & Consistent

Lawyers can often be vague, verbose and ambiguous in their communications. As leaders, we need to drive greater clarity, consistency and transparency in our communications to build trust with our teams and to better enable them to provide impactful advice to our clients. Lack of clarity, ambiguity and inconsistency within legal teams can lead to confused and unsatisfied clients and legal team members.

Generate Positive Energy & Enthusiasm

Whether we realize it or not, the energy, passion and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) of senior legal team leaders is highly contagious.  Like CEOs and other senior business leaders, lawyers also need to be positive motivators, passionate and inspiring.

Provide Air Cover

While practicing law is not an easy profession, it can be easy to second-guess a lawyer’s advice on difficult issues. Be sure to have your team’s “back”, never rush to any judgment regarding your team’s performance without speaking directly with your team and having a clear understanding of the facts and constantly reinforce your support to your team.

Put the Right Lawyers in the Right Place at the Right Time

Like a head coach in sports, a legal team leader needs to be thoughtful as to how she assembles and deploys her team of legal professionals to have the maximum positive impact. Doing so requires a deep understanding of the strengths/growth opportunities of team members, the specific requirements of clients and the business needs of your legal organization.

Always Be Accessible & Responsive

While we all busy, lawyers need to make themselves readily available to their teams to set them up for success. Be sure to have periodic high-impact 1:1 meetings with your direct reports, let them know the best way to effectively communicate with you, and never ignore your teammates as leaders must be super responsive to their needs.

Learn from Others

Lawyers need to have a “learn it all” mentality versus a “know it all” mentality when it comes to leadership and management. Be sure to learn from the great, good, mediocre and poor leadership practices demonstrated by lawyers, clients and others that you observe over time.

It is always a shame when lawyers decide to leave organizations because of their managers/leaders. Work hard to continually develop your leadership skills so that you can build the next generation of great lawyers – and leaders – within your legal organization.