Managing expectations

Management for those of us who never knew we’d need to do it

Miles B. Cooper
2023 March

The lawyer thought back to law school. Socratic method. Rule against perpetuities. Outlines. Interesting stuff. Nothing, however, about managing people. Interesting, the lawyer pondered, because whether one works with a single assistant, runs a trial team, or oversees multitudes as managing partner, management becomes a core lawyering component. Thus, absent additional training or schooling in management techniques, lawyers learn to manage by doing. This sometimes works. Usually, however, as the lawyer thought back on past experiences at various firms and the lawyer’s own significant mistakes, it does not.

Laying the foundation

One cannot capture management in 800 words. There are entire management consulting industries, schools, and library sections devoted to the issue. Consider this a primer on where to look and what to develop to increase one’s success with people at a firm. Initially this requires taking a step back and looking at a firm’s core values. Without defining values, it is very challenging to determine whether the right people are in the right seats. Defining values is not difficult, and one of the best returns on time investments one can make. Follow the process outlined in September 2021’s column, Value Proposition. [link: https://www.plaintiffmagazine.com/recent-issues/item/value-proposition]

With values defined, one can then create the framework to measure success. This requires crafting specific job descriptions with measurable goals. Don’t have time to take this on yourself? Ask the person doing the job to create bullet points for all the work done in that role. Then use that draft for the job description. At the same time, develop measurable goals for the role. As an example, for an attorney, one might make a goal that the average case resolution value for cases is 1.5 times the projected case value. Without a job description and measurable performance goals it is hard to determine whether an individual is below, at, or exceeding performance. It also leaves job ambiguity, which can lead to arguments over whether something is (or is not) that person’s job. When calendaring statutes of limitation or missing them can have devastating consequences, one doesn’t want any ambiguity.

The final foundational piece is setting the firm’s employment philosophy. Many small firms describe everyone as family. Unfortunately, this usually translates to dysfunctional family. Consider taking a page from Netflix’s management system: The firm operates like a professional sports team. Some folks may get opportunities or be recruited to go elsewhere. One congratulates them. Others may not make the cut. Those receive severance and well wishes. Why a severance if the person isn’t making the cut? To ease that transition while the person finds new work. In this model, everyone plays for their position every day, and it is on the supervisor and the supervised to routinely update each other on how it is working.

Finger on the pulse

Use weekly check-ins with each direct report. These are informal “how ya’ doin’” and “do you need anything” sessions. These check-ins help maintain connection and direction. While informal, schedule them as recurring events. Without a specific time block, they’ll get forgotten in litigation’s thrum. A more formal engagement occurs through quarterly check-ins. These are one-hour sessions, also recurring, to discuss strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and whether folks are on track. A great habit here is for the employee to ask, “If I told you I had an opportunity elsewhere, would you fight to keep me?” An answer other than, “I’d absolutely fight for you,” is an opportunity to talk about what areas need improvement. Finally, set an annual recurring review. This is an opportunity to provide feedback on how they are doing in relation to the firm’s core values, job duties, and measurable goals. Reward excellent performance. Acknowledge effort, even if performance goals aren’t met. Maintain documentation so one has a reference point going forward.

Time for everyone

As one manages people, try not to fall into one of two patterns. The first is ignoring top performers. “Pat’s a self-starter. It won’t matter if we skip this week’s check-in …” is how this starts. Top performers need just as much attention. The second is committing too much time to under-performers. If one is regularly spending significant management time talking about or to the same person, it’s time to make a change. Put another way, if there is doubt, there is no doubt. Transition the person out quickly, humanely, and so they land on their feet rather than trying to bludgeon a square peg into the firm’s round hole. Unfortunately, those that one cares greatly about and doesn’t want to give up on tend to be the same folks who receive the most bludgeoning. That’s not healthy for anyone, and if one truly cares about the person, transitioning the person quickly is best.

Outro

Back to our lawyer. As the lawyer thought about the firm’s path, the lawyer recognized just how much effort had gone into improving management techniques. And yet, like law itself, there was always room for more learning and improvement.

Miles B. Cooper Miles B. Cooper

Miles B. Cooper is a partner at Coopers LLP, where they help the seriously injured, people grieving the loss of loved ones, preventable disaster victims, and all bicyclists. Miles also consults on trial matters and associates in as trial counsel. He has served as lead counsel, co-counsel, second seat, and schlepper over his career, and is an American Board of Trial Advocates member.

 

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