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3 Steps To Help You Rock Your First Management Role In Law

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

As lawyers, we’ve been conditioned to compete and be the best, but our dedicated training and single-minded focus don’t prime us to make a safe and secure transition into management.

In this blog, I’m going to share with you a simple three-step traffic-light system that will help give you the best start in management and stop you from falling hard and fast. As per the theme of my Water+Air podcast, these are ordinary ideas that create extraordinary impact

Red: stop

Stop. Take a moment to consider what you need to do differently to manage in law. It’s time to let go of any deadweight and drop the naive assumption that “working hard” like you did as a junior will help you shine as a manager.

"It's time to let go of any deadweight..."

As lawyers, we are robust, self-reliant, independent workers. We don’t rely on others unless we have to. On the flip side of this aptitude for just getting on with it is a waned sense of “togetherness”. We tend to work with a high level of autonomy and are programmed to be responsible for our own performance rather than help set anyone else up for success; this can create challenges when you need to manage a legal team.

If we simply follow the footsteps of the bosses who have gone before us (some of them potentially horrible!), we fail to consider how expectations and requirements have changed over time. It’s no longer acceptable to bark instructions to juniors or expect a “that’s how I learned, now it’s your turn” approach (just like it’s no longer acceptable to provide clients with academic assessments without practical guidance).

Clients need you to give them expert advice and recommendations that will help them make smarter, easier and better decisions, and do it in a way that’s easy for them to respond to.

As a manager, it’s your job to keep your team moving with the times, if not ahead of it. The legal landscape has moved on, and so must we.

Ditch what doesn’t work; outdated approaches and the comfort of historical behaviours that don’t fit the management role and purpose will not carry you forward. Ditch what holds you back to create room for what will set you and your team or project up for success and get you ready for what’s ahead.

Amber: get ready

Once you have dumped the unnecessary beliefs and strategies, you can assess exactly what you are managing. Are you responsible for multiple projects, a team of people or a budget? Are you clear on what is expected of you? Clarity will set you up to shine and thrive.

"Clarity will set you up to shine and thrive."

Your line managers might not have considered your role in fine detail, so use this as an opportunity to build a relationship with them, develop objectives and deliver in a way that achieves great results (and makes you, your team and your boss look good in the process).

Find out the necessary performance indicators and make sure you have the resources you need to deliver at a high level. Irrespective of what the amber phase reveals, your progress will be impacted by how you manage people and their requests. Discerning and practicing how to use your “yes” and “no” is key to doing this well.

Green: know when to say “yes” and when to say “no”

“No” is a small, unassuming word, but it’s a power tool for your new role.

Saying “no” demonstrates you can be trusted with scarce resources and that you aren’t a soft touch; but if you say it too frequently, you’ll be considered an unwanted handbrake to business because people might perceive you as unhelpful or unsupportive. You need to strike the right balance.

"You need to strike the right balance."

For example, Peter, one of our coaching clients at Fuel+Move, was providing client holiday cover for his colleague Jane. Early one morning, he accepted an impromptu call from one of Jane’s clients, but because he was unprepared he was ineffective and unproductive. He also wasted valuable time that he needed in order to prepare for his own client’s court case at 9am that morning; he was stressed and failed to show up at his best.

If Peter had found the courage to say “no” to that unexpected call and re-arranged a better time to speak to Jane’s client, everyone would have benefited. It would have been far more productive for Peter and his own client, and for Jane (on her return from holiday) and for Jane’s client.

Saying “no” to an unrealistic last-minute request sends a clear message that you won’t be pushed around, and that you know how to prioritise and look after your clients (while offering any additional colleague support in an appropriate time frame).

In short, to succeed in management, avoid being railroaded; know when to say “yes” and when to deliver a carefully considered and well-framed “no”. Use them to create clarity, confidence and build relationships of mutual respect.

"Saying “no” demonstrates you can be trusted with scarce resources and that you aren’t a soft touch; but if you say it too frequently, you’ll be considered an unwanted handbrake to business

Avoid the hard and fast fall

Whether you are a lawyer or a more senior manager looking to set lawyers up in management, following the traffic-light system will set you (or them) up for a good managerial start instead of a hard and fast fall.

Remember, some past behaviours won’t help you progress your career forward. Ditch the behaviours, strategies or philosophies that no longer fit (red traffic light), clarify your role and what’s expected of you (amber), and know when to or say “yes” or “no” (green). You’ll discover your real power when you start to experience the benefits of the traffic-light system in your new role.

If you’re feeling brave, I’d love to hear your real-life stories about your first management role in law. Pop a message into the box below and, if you haven’t already, subscribe to the Water+Air podcast; it helps you build personal and professional success on your terms, without sacrificing your wellbeing.


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