The Accidental Manager

This sounds like a title of a book on management. It’s not, but could be! The article below comes from my observations in practice and since, working as a management consultant working with over 400 law firms.

You start your career as a newly qualified solicitor or other professional. You’re keen and work hard. You learn your trade – how to service your clients’ needs, how to ensure you keep up with regulatory compliance, how to earn good fees for the firm. Perhaps you develop other skills to set you apart from your colleagues of a similar level of experience. Perhaps that is the ability to generate more work, or you consistently smash billing targets, out-performing your colleagues. So, you’re offered a promotion. Well done! First of all, it might be a pay rise and the different title which moves you up the career ladder. If you continue to perform this might happen again. Well done again!

At some stage the promotion might come with the expectation that you start managing staff who are more junior to you. In days gone by, managing staff might have come much earlier on, as you managed your own support staff member or secretary. (I remember back in the 1990s starting as a trainee, then called an articled clerk, and having to dictate for and give instructions to my secretary. Terrifying, as I knew that they knew the job far better than me at that stage!) However, nowadays I think that is much less likely, as technology has enabled people to produce their own work and so having a dedicated secretary is becoming less and less common.

Now this is the crucial part – what does the firm do when they want you to start managing staff. This is a completely different skill set to legal research, advising clients, advocacy & billing. Do they train you? Do they provide a mentor? My experience is that this seldom happens. Indeed, it is not covered in the competencies for QWE for qualifying as a solicitor. Speaking with professionals in other non-legal professions and people supplying HR services, I hear the same there as well. You are just asked to manage the people and left to get on with it. Many firms do not even have a monthly 121 meeting with a supervisor. They just have an annual appraisal, which focuses lust on the hard financials.

As I have said, managing staff is a different skill set. You cannot expect that people just naturally are born with this or naturally acquire these skills. Being honest, lawyers can be quite difficult and strong characters. I would suggest that training your managers on how to manage is vitally important for the health of your organisation. Their impact is multiplied and it will be reflected in the performance in other people as well as themselves. That’s a point of opportunity, but also risk for your business. If they do well it can turbo-boost your business. If they struggle it can have a negative impact on that part of your business, depressing the performance of those they are managing and also the person who was performing so well that you promoted them into this position. I’m sure we have all experienced poor management. Not fun.

Another point on training of new managers is that one cannot assume that they know how to read and understand the reports they will need in order to manage. That may not have been a skill set required for their fee-earning role. Similarly, their understanding of the SRA Accounts Rules and of the financial ledgers may need additional training.

On a similar vein, they may need additional training on what is expected with regard to compliance, as now they might be relied upon in this aspect to assist the firm’s Compliance Officers. The same goes for handling Complaints – as they might be the first point of escalation from the fee-earner.

Can you avoid putting people in a management position? Not really if you want your business to grow. You need managers in as you, as the founder, can’t do everything. Time is a finite resource. Eventually you will inhibit the growth of your firm unless you appoint managers.

So, what should you be doing? Here are some suggestions from my experience.

  • Assess clearly what the organisation needs and what you want the manager to do
  • Clearly define those in writing
  • Visualise, define and write down what success looks like
  • Communicate this to the person you are appointing as the manager
  • Get their buy-in (if they don’t want to do this consider other strategies: is this crucial to the business, is it crucial to the person, are they crucial to the business, can you ease them into the role)
  • What training will they need?
  • Make sure the training includes soft skills, coping strategies and some training on some aspects of HR & employment law and anything required regarding reports, finances, the SRA Accounts Rules & compliance
  • What else should be done to make this have the best prospect for success?
  • How will you measure progress (regular meetings etc)?
  • Who will mentor them?
  • Adjust their targets to give them time to manage properly
  • Measure performance, including that they are indeed dedicating enough time to the managing (their comfort zone may be fee-earning and so they might think that if they continue to smash their target they’ll be OK – but you’ve asked them to manage as well; if they don’t then what’s the point?
  • Put in place contingency plans in case they struggle as a manager.

I am sure that there are other bullet points that could be added. Please feel free to comment to add them and share your experience (probably without naming people!).

Ultimately, being appointed as a manager can be hugely rewarding. It can teach you skills that are transferable into other areas in life and help you grow as a person. You can have the joy of developing other people and helping them achieve their potential. I always took great joy in seeing people rise from lowly positions to qualified solicitor or even to partner and running their own businesses. It’s not always easy and can cause you sleepless nights. Sometimes you have to take tough decisions. I had to walk one solicitor out of the office for gross mis-conduct. However, for someone else I used to send over a breakfast bar each morning for a fortnight to make the point that she needed some energy to start the day – as discussed in our monthly 121 meetings the previous two months. She was junior paralegal in my team with low self-esteem. She’s now a qualified solicitor with a national law firm. Obviously, the action you take should be appropriate. The action I took was within the context of my relationship with this staff member and received in the manner it was intended.

And that’s the thing – lawyers are used to dealing with the law, which is the application of legal principles to scenarios. People are messy and unpredictable, irrational and infuriating sometimes. I know I am. However, they also can be surprising, a delight and have huge potential which can benefit the organisation and enrich your life. Ultimately how this is all done, to a large extent defines the culture of the organisation.

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