Addressing the challenge of growing management time within law firms

Addressing the challenge of growing management time within law firms

A new LexisNexis report suggests some senior lawyers are leaving law firms to become legal consultants as a result of rising management responsibilities. This guest post by Sally Sanderson, veteran law firm consultant and author of Leading Lawyers, has some useful insights on how law firms can identify, empower and inspire leaders at modern law firms.   


In the legal profession, we need to value management and what it enables the modern law firm to do. Many are now sophisticated business that service demanding clients across the globe, using advanced solutions to deliver efficiently. Putting in place the strategies, resources, processes and know-how to do this requires both effective management and talented teams. In the war for talent, people need direction, support and recognition which also takes time. Many leaders in law firms complain this is time they don’t have.

Sadly, the profession doesn’t sufficiently value management time because it is non-billable and the output is often not immediate. For many lawyers, their first experience of supervising trainees is seen as a drain on their time. This negative experience can create a bias against managing.

Find out more about why lawyers are leaving traditional law firms

However, lawyers can’t deliver on their own, so they need to build a team on which they can rely. The best do this well, but it takes time and skill. The lack of investment in developing management skills in many firms means that managing and leading can be more difficult and time-consuming than it needs to be. What can help?

Put the right people in management roles

First, we need to put those in management roles who want to do it, have an aptitude for it and want to develop their skills. In my coaching work, I come across those who really enjoy it. I also come across those who resent every moment stolen away from their clients; those who refer to management as ‘admin’, revealing how they undervalue it; and those who are inefficient micro-managers or too hands off to be effective.

Those who refer to management as ‘admin’, revealing how they undervalue it

Aptitude can be assessed and developed but we also need different career paths and reward systems which respect the different ways people contribute to a firm’s success. This means we need to start managing the right things – output not input. The paradox is that you need to be a more skilled manager to do this – it’s easy to look at billable hours and make assumptions about performance; it is more difficult to assess output such as the impact someone has on developing others or on team morale, the contribution they made in a pitch team or on a firm committee.  

Empowering rather than controlling

Partners who want to spend less time managing need to step back, empower and trust those who do – this includes ‘non lawyers’, from Chief Executive downwards. Firms can employ a wide range of specialists to save lawyers time such as work allocation managers, project managers, client account managers and tech development experts. The specialists need to collaborate with the lawyers, but they also need the power to make decisions and to challenge, for example a lone partner who tries to derail a process or project if it doesn’t’ suit them personally. Overall, they need to be respected and not labelled as ‘non-fee earners’. Diversity can be an issue here as they are likely to have different backgrounds to many lawyers.

Establish a collaborative culture

Collaboration is increasingly at the heart of successful law firms. However, it is tough and there are significant barriers in addition to the time it takes. These need to be addressed: the ‘not invented here’ attitude; the hoarding of information or contacts; the structures that encourage silo working. Firms need to set objectives for collaboration, reward it, include it in their competency frameworks, develop the skills for project management and for working together with a wide range of people who have diverse personalities, specialisms and backgrounds.

Firms also need to ensure that those in senior roles have the right personality, focus and skills to role model collaboration. The traits which enable progress to partnership are often at odds with collaborative leadership: the competitive superhero who brings in the client alone, the self-confident expert who is sure they know best. We need leaders with a broad perspective rather than narrowly focused on their own practice; who are consultative – involving others, bringing people together, listening; and who inspire and empower teams to deliver for the good of the firm.

Many law firms are now such big businesses that they need leaders not partners, they need to be managed professionally and not by amateurs who resent the time they spend on it.

Download: Rise of the legal consultants

Find out more about Sally Sanderson's Leading Lawyers book here

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About the author:
Sally Sanderson is a multi-award-winning consultant to law firms and author of ‘Leading Lawyers’. For over 25 years she has developed and coached lawyers using personality profiling to increase self-awareness and speed up behavioural change.