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March 23, 2011

How to improve the management of legal teams (Part 2 of 4)

Legal teams come in so many shapes and sizes that it is impossible to come up with a short list of rules that apply to every case.  But if you review all the ideas discussed in this series, you are sure to come up with a few action items that could help manage your legal team more efficiently.

Part 1 of this series listed Paul Dinsmore’s “Ten Rules of Team Building” from his chapter “Studies in Project Human Resources Management” (pages 154-5) in the AMA Handbook of Project Management.  Today, in Part 2, we will continue our 50,000 foot view of leadership with Dinsmore’s Rules number 2 and 3.


Rule # 2: Get your own act together

“You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people.” - Admiral Grace Hopper

Being an effective leader starts with setting a good work example. Act like someone you would want to work for. I am sorry to report that there are lawyers out there – present company excluded, of course – who could benefit from brushing up on basic social skills. 

Mood is contagious. Avoid negativity. Act happy and positive even if you don’t feel that way. The people around you will definitely feel better, and you may too.

Don’t treat your team members as serfs or minions. Talk to them in the same way you would talk to your most important client or your managing partner.

Be proactive in identifying problems, and in solving them. Handle problems with respect, tact and common sense. Try to be rational about disagreements, and avoid emotion.

Challenge your team, but don’t work against them.


Rule # 3:  Understand the game

“With talent, we win games. With teamwork and intelligence we win championships.” -  Michael Jordan

Rule #3 is a hard one for lawyers, because the game is changing and no one is quite sure what the new rules are.  (For a series of thought provoking articles on how things are changing, see the ABA Journal’s “The New Normal” by Paul Lippe and Partick Lamb).

At this time of transition, legal team leaders must define the rules of the game for each engagement, and make them crystal clear to team members.  The rules may vary from one matter to another, even when team membership remains the same.  Associates working on a fixed price project must understand that the highest quality must be delivered within a limited number of hours.  Where possible, they must also be shown how they will personally benefit from this behavior.

(If your compensation system rewards putting in more hours, and this matter requires putting in fewer hours, you’ve got a problem. In the short-term, management can address this by adjusting hours on matters managed for efficiency.  However, longer-term adjustments to the compensation system may be called for, and changing compensation is never easy.)

In any case, efficient management begins with your personal understanding of the goals of each matter, and the players.  And this starts with getting the statement of work (SOW) right.  Then you have to think through the implications of the SOW for each member of your team.  And it wouldn’t hurt to talk to them about it.

The simple fact is that people work better when they understand the goals of a project.

I know from my own 25 years of experience leading projects how hard it can be to find time to communicate goals and expectations to the team. When you are trying to put out fires, it is easy to postpone talking to team members about their roles and responsibilities.  After all, they work for you, so they can wait. 

But I also know that if you skip this step, you may be sorry.

Next week’s post will discuss more rules from Dinsmore’s list.

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