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June 26, 2019

How to Improve the Management of Legal Teams (Part 1 of 3)

By Jim Hassett and Tim Batdorf

What should you do with the associate who insists on turning over every rock? Or with the partner who consistently fails to meet deadlines? How often should teams meet? How much supervision can and should the relationship partner provide?

There is a vast amount of literature on how to manage teams in other professions. Business schools offer entire courses with names like Authentic Leadership Development (Harvard MBA) and Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership (Wharton MBA).

The literature on managing legal teams is much thinner, especially when you concentrate, as we do, on the kinds of teams that large law firms juggle to meet clients’ ever-shifting needs. Until recently, many partners have given little thought to managing these teams more efficiently, in part because the billable hour model provided little incentive for efficiency.

But these days legal clients are demanding efficiency, and so lawyers have become more interested in improving the way they manage teams.

In the AMA Handbook of Project Management (Fourth Edition), Paul Dinsmore outlines on p. 411 “Ten Rules of Team Building”:

  1. Identify what drives your team
  2. Get your own act together
  3. Understand the game
  4. Evaluate the competition
  5. Pick your players and adjust your team
  6. Identify and develop inner group leaders
  7. Get the team in shape
  8. Motivate the players
  9. Develop plans
  10. Control, evaluate, and improve

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 the ideas behind Dinsmore’s list, you are sure to come up with a few action items that could help manage your legal team more efficiently.

Rule #1: Identify what drives your team

What motivates your team to work together? Is it:

  • A deadline
  • The inherent challenge of the legal matter
  • The relationship partner’s inspiration
  • The rewarding feeling of collaborating with people you enjoy working with
  • A chance to set a new legal precedent
  • The desire to beat a competitor
  • Insecurities about one’s job
  • The prospect of piling up billable hours to meet an annual quota

Or is it some other factor or a combination of some or all of the above? Knowing what drives your team can help you manage its members. If you talk to people about this, you may be surprised to learn what is driving different team members.

Ultimately, team members must motivate and empower themselves—the leader can inspire, but not motivate them. Your job is to create an environment to help team members motivate and empower themselves.

In the planning stages, brainstorm with your team members to come up with common goals to build a sense of community and ownership in the project. Set up ground rules for your team and for meetings, and try to get buy-in to the common goals from all members.

In the project scoping document, you (and others) should specify the scope and the constraints of the project as clearly as possible. This will help team members track milestones and check-ins along the way.

Encourage team members to share their ideas and opinions. When you use people’s ideas, give them credit. Remember, the best ideas usually arise from diverse teams interacting and brainstorming together. Conversely, few new slants or approaches arise from leaders who fail to harvest the richness of different personalities and perspectives.

It is very important for your team to know that you are listening to them.

Rule #2: Get your own act together

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.

We will discuss Dinsmore's Rules of Team Building #3 through #6 in our next blog post.

This series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

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