How to improve the management of legal teams (Part 3 of 4)

How to improve the management of legal teams (Part 3 of 4)

Rule # 4:  Evaluate the competition

"I don't believe in team motivation. I believe in getting a team prepared so it knows it will have the necessary confidence when it steps on a field and be prepared to play a good game." - Tom Landry

Evaluating the competition is second nature for litigators.  If opposing counsel have a reputation for scorched earth tactics, then litigators will be prepared to react accordingly.  But if the other side seems motivated to settle, litigation strategy will be quite different.

But some lawyers who are very good at evaluating the competition are very bad at communicating this knowledge to the rest of the team.  Providing legal services efficiently is a team sport, and everyone must be on the same page.

Understanding the competition is also important when a legal team bids for new work.  Late in 2009, I wrote in this blog about the price wars that were challenging many large firms.  According to the 2010 Law Firms in Transition survey, 89% of lawyers predict price competition will continue to increase in the future.   This will lead to some hard decisions about what work is worth bidding on, and what is not.  And it all begins with understanding your competition.

Rule #5:  Pick your players and adjust your team

"You put together the best team that you can with the players you've got, and replace those who aren't good enough." - Robert Crandall

In many law firms, assembling a team for a large matter can be an interesting exercise these days, especially if the firm is filled with lawyers who do not have enough billable work to meet their quotas.

In their hearts, lawyers often know which partners and associates are most likely to perform a particular task efficiently, and which ones will take their time.  As the pressure to control costs increases, the competition to get efficient people on each team is going up.  In the long run, this should lead to larger numbers of more efficient lawyers, but in the short run it can lead to some awkward situations and difficult choices.

In this environment, it has become increasingly important that team leaders pick the best available person for each role, without playing favorites.  Trust has also become more critical.  Team members must believe that working together efficiently is in their own best interest.

On large teams, it also helps to have a cheerleader or two.  They can help counteract the effects of the lawyers who are experts at seeing the glass as half empty, and at explaining why every task will take a very long time.

Rule # 6:  Identify and develop inner group leaders

"Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders."  - Tom Peters

Great leaders constantly think about training and developing their replacements. Who can cover for you if you're absent? Who can help you motivate and lead the rest of the team?  Who will the client trust?

Share your knowledge and spread it around to raise others up to your level. Remember, your goal is to make yourself obsolete.

As Dinsmore put it in his AMA Handbook of Project Management (p. 154):  "Delegating, mentoring and coaching must become part of your daily habit."

Rule #7:  Get the team in shape

"The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say 'I.' And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say 'I.' They don't think 'I.' They think 'we'; they think 'team.' They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don't sidestep it, but 'we' gets the credit.... This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done." - Peter Drucker

Effective leaders do not do all the work; they delegate. They don't micromanage, and they don't try to do it all themselves or have others perform tasks exactly as they would.

They apply active listening and communicate regularly with team members.  They also focus on unifying the team to work towards shared goals, and don't allow egos to get in the way of teamwork.  This means learning to deal with conflict more effectively, whether it is between two members, or the leader and someone else.  It all comes back to listening. 

In some cases, it may be useful to formally coach junior team members at the outset.  Ask them what they feel they need training in.  Compare the skills your team has with the skills they need to become more efficient.

If the learning curve looks steep, and the team is working on large matters, you might even consider formal training programs.  In large firms, the professional development department can provide quick guidance on what is available, and what has worked for other lawyers in the past.

Do you think training is particularly important for your team?  Are you looking for ideas that might apply in your situation?  If so, take a look at The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, Peter Senge's popular workbook on tactics to foster and support team learning.  It was not written for lawyers, but it may well give you ideas to help make your team more effective.

Read more on the Legal Business Development Blog.