The task of creating and maintaining a collegiate, supportive and engaged team environment may end up being the most rewarding thing that one does as a legal professional, writes Stuart Barnett.
“Happy teams are all alike, every unhappy team is unhappy in its own way,” said Tolstoy, with more than a hint of poetic license.
Teams tend to be most noticeable in their dysfunction, not when they are running smoothly. You know that because the problems you are dealing with (or not dealing with because it is all a bit too hard) take up a disproportionate amount of your time.
You can look at this in a particularly utilitarian light: a high-performing team is the key to building and maintaining a sustainable practice. Leveraging associates can be very profitable. Therefore, you need to sort your people’s issues. You know, get better people to better serve you, so you can hit your budget and maintain this in perpetuity. After all, you have clients to serve.
It may be a little cynical, but the perfect junior lawyer knows what you want before you ask them, does the work at a higher standard than you could (but you’ll still manage to find a few corrections), and gives it to you ahead of deadline (taking the exact amount of time you expected). Not a question asked, clarification needed, or anything approaching a conversation.
The black box lawyer: work in, work out. The lawyer as a commodity.
You may have noticed that people do not tend to be like this. (Not to mention junior lawyers charging into the great resignation with particular enthusiasm.)
And until artificial intelligence takes most of our jobs, better managing your team is probably the thing you know you need to do but can’t quite get around to, or sometimes, if we are honest, don’t really know where to start.
Building and managing a high-performance team is always a challenge, but that is because the pay-off is far more than just a sustainable practice and metrics that soothe the bean counters; it could just be the thing to bring a little more purpose and meaning to the workplace.
And if there is anything we could all do with a hefty dose of in these tumultuous times is more meaning and purpose.
Team building can be a really rewarding aspect of your career
As part of gathering some feedback for a client, I was recently interviewing a senior partner in a global firm. Having worked through some of the standard questions seeking insights that my client might be able to put into action, I asked the question I always like to ask: what would you do if you were in my client’s position?
I would build a team around me.
The senior partner then went on to talk glowingly about some of the great work he’d done with his team, in the trenches together, hard work, long hours, great clients and long-term relationships built and maintained. Some are now partners, others moved to different careers, but still, the friendships remain. There is the bond built in the thick of action working towards the same goal.
For a different client, a similar conversation. The head of corporate shares with me that aiding a couple of his counsel to partner is the best thing he has done in his career. It is a familiar theme. Many of my clients, whilst enjoying the technical challenges of lawyering, and have built sustainable practices, find great pleasure in providing opportunities for career advancement for others and building a great team to work with.
It’s an aspect of human experience too easily overlooked in the corporate metrics-based, competitive world of the law firm.
Building a great team around you, however, doesn’t just happen, or if it does, it can be a fleeting experience very noticeable in its absence.
You could boil this down to leadership. The problem with leadership is that it can too easily become a buzzword; a world full of models and theories that make it almost impenetrable (not to mention the fact that now everyone between jobs is a leadership coach.)
The danger is leadership can seem to be another thing to have to do in an already hectic day, having little bearing on the reality the senior lawyer faces day to day.
So, here are three things to think about in building your team, which I’ve gleaned from working with partners either trying to fix a dysfunctional team, or helping their team perform at a higher level, or even actually finding a team to work with.
- It’s about you, it’s not about you
It can be quite easy working out what you want from your team, what they need to do to make you more effective. The challenge is that they are most likely not like you. And if they are completely like you, you are probably not getting the benefit of diversity.
The art here is understanding that while your needs are pressing, and the pressures on you are possibly acute, your team might not relate to this the same way you do. Put quite simply, they have different worldviews, different beliefs, and different motivations. And also, that not-so-minor point: they are not getting paid like you, particularly if you are a partner.
So, while building a team is about you, it’s not solely about you.
It can be useful to have some clarity about what you want from a leader, from the good senior lawyers you have worked for. But this is just a starting point, the key then is trying to decipher what your team wants from you, and then adapting your style accordingly.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to seek feedback. You can ask your team members directly, but depending on how psychologically safe your culture is, this may not produce useful results. Ideally, engage someone independent to seek the feedback for you. You can use 360-style tools, there are a plethora of them out there.
My preference is to do the 360-style interviews personally; that way, I can have a conversation and explore the feedback further, seeking examples and exploring context.
Armed with this, you have some direction and focus.
- Be great to work for
I quite like those firms that give mid-level lawyers a say in who they work for. Stories of SAs sourcing work overseas to avoid the prickly local partner speak volumes. On the flip side, it is also easy to see which partners SAs and juniors gravitate to.
It is much easier to build a team, to find good people, and to keep good people if you are simply good to work for and with.
You could say this is another aspect of your personal brand, or the user experience of working with you.
In practice, what does this mean? What makes you good to work with or for? Not necessarily an easy question to answer, but well worth having a go at it. Even reflecting on this question can be enlightening. It can shift your focus to thinking more about the user experience of you.
You can incorporate this into the feedback you seek, but you can also develop a strategy around what “great to work for” looks like for you.
- Seek opportunities for your team
Promotion is the obvious one. Creating career pathways for your team members and actively seeking out ways in which you can provide them with the right learning opportunities and exposure.
The challenge here is two-fold: understanding what your team members want from their careers and being in a position to create opportunities.
The first, goes to the first point above. It is easy here to assume a junior team member would want the same things you wanted at that stage of your career. As a result, I have seen clients with the greatest intent, create opportunities that simply are not wanted. The result is disappointment all round.
The only way around this is to have compelling career conversations with your team members, finding out what they are interested in and helping them work out what they want. Mentors can play a role here.
And then you need to be able to create opportunities. Part of this is being aware and, on the lookout, but part of this goes to simply how much influence you have in your firm.
The more influence you have, the more likely you are to be able to create opportunities. If you do this naturally, great; if not, you need to get a strategy in place. But seeking opportunity and opening for your team members can be a pretty good motivator for influence building – rather than something more self-seeking.
The key to team development or leadership, in general, is small actions often. Sure, the big picture perspective is vital, but incorporating some key actions into your daily routine can have a significant impact. Start small. Start with good quality conversations with your team members, incorporating some of the above and take it from there.
Stuart Barnett is a thought partner and coach, with clients including multiple BigLaw firms in Australia.