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How To Create An Adaptive Legal Practice Without Abandoning Convention

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

By Parul Patel with special guest Vanessa Challess

Have you ever felt infuriated by a boss who failed to make the most of your skills and talents and instead tried to squeeze you into a mould?

As you know, I’m on a mission to create a work culture that doesn’t come at huge personal and professional cost to us lawyers! It’s quite the crusade considering the legal industry is steeped in convention, but if we open our eyes wide enough there are plenty of trailblazers out there!

Founder of Tiger Law, Vanessa Challess is one of those amazing people who decided to rip up the rule book (probably burnt it too) and build an adaptive legal practice her way.

In this blog we’re going to look at five ways you can create an adaptive legal practice without dismissing (or dissing) all convention. This includes: 1) Redefining leadership (in contrast to the past).

2) Recognising the benefits of conventional leadership.

3) How to recruit the best of the best for your practice.

4) The benefits of remote training.

5) Questions you must answer before dismissing conventional legal culture.

You can hear our full conversation on the Water+Air podcast.

What is an adaptive legal practice?

An adaptive legal practice breaks the conditioning that says “This is how we do things around here,” (there’s a brilliant monkey analogy around resistance to change in my earlier blog). As a result the practice is likely to be more productive, resilient, and attract and retain forward-thinking lawyers.

What would Vanessa say to being forced into a mould?

1) Redefining leadership (in contrast to the past)

Vanessa:I remember bosses who seemed to mistake making people miserable for “management”. It involved breathing down our necks, taking credit for our ideas, letting the crap roll downhill, performance managing everything, six minute units, defining your entire life until you’re dreaming in six minute units, and managing through fear.

I don't tolerate a certain style of management very well; there's a certain way I think it should be done and that's how I'm trying to do it now.

It’s hard because human beings are all different. We have different idiosyncrasies that don’t fit into neat little boxes. There are some people who will never get into marketing or business development so what’s the point of forcing them? They’ll become stressed and do a bad job! You just find a different way to utilise that person’s skills. It’s more adaptive, not just physically, but in terms of how you’re planning the next stages in the business.”

The key to running an adaptive practice is to “keep adapting!”

While there is huge generational dissonance around how the legal industry operates, even the most “antiquated” management styles have some good qualities.

2) Recognising the benefits of conventional leadership

Vanessa: “I’ve gone way off into the distance with my form of management and I am starting to come back a little bit. Although I will never replicate the thing that I left behind, there are parts of it that make sense.

For example, people need to know where their boundaries are. They need to know in the clearest of terms what’s expected of them. They need to receive good and bad feedback. Their performance does need to be managed.

Being a manager is a bit like being a parent. I’ve just done what feels right at the time and I’ve been much less than strategic. This is now coming home to roost because when I do get annoyed it comes as quite a surprise to people because they think I’m really easy-going. I’m not: I’m just being nice!”

From what Vanessa shared it’s evident that she’s open to creating a blended leadership style where she takes the best of what’s out there, and comes up with her own methodology to suit the needs of her team, which is exactly what being “adaptive'' is all about!

3) How to recruit the best of the best for your legal practice

Vanessa: “Team culture is so important that when I’m recruiting we prefer word of mouth recommendations. Assessment days tend to preclude different characters, abilities and backgrounds; they’re geared for a certain type of person. If you’re human, and a bit more humane, you’ll find hidden gems that you wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

The life experience that people from different backgrounds bring is incredible. It informs their practice and approach to their clients. If they’ve been juggling family around their legal studies or another career you don’t have to teach them how to be an adult!”

Doesn’t it feel good to be done with all those stiff upper lip interviews? And that’s not all Vanessa has been up to. Have you ever heard your boss say…

Remote training will never work” ?

4) The benefits of remote training

Vanessa has made a compelling case for remote training and working.

Vanessa: “I’ve started what we believe to be the first remote trainee solicitor in jurisdiction. She’s now in her third-year of practice. Remote training works and the geographical location of where people are based is a red herring.

I remember being trained along the corridor from someone who had his door shut most of the time. There was no benefit to being in the same building as him.

At Tiger-Law we are very hands on. We always have instant chat available to sense check, or quickly approve shorter bits of writing, or check out research. We use email, phone calls, WhatsApp; we use whatever we need to keep communication and morale going.

The access that the juniors have got to the senior partner is worlds apart from the access I had as a trainee solicitor. I expose trainees to responsibility which makes them more capable and independent; they're certainly not photocopying for two years!”

You don’t have to be the lawyer that simply repeats behaviours because they’ve been handed down, but nor do you need to throw out all conventional ways of working just for the sake of it.

5) Questions you must answer before dismissing

conventional legal culture

If you want to create your own microculture within your team, Vanessa suggests you answer the following questions.

  • What am I currently doing?

  • Why am I doing that?

  • Why do I want to create change?

  • How might I do it better without losing any wisdom from the conventional system?

  • What do I need to get rid of?

  • What do I need to put in place?

  • What needs to happen for the whole team to get behind it?

Tiger Law is a brilliant example of what’s possible when we break free from our conditioned ways of thinking, like any good jigsaw puzzle the needs of the manager and the team need to interlock and complement each other to create a vibrant picture, and sometimes that means retaining just the right amount of convention.

I’m looking forward to seeing you pick up the gauntlet of change and run with it.

If you’d love to be surrounded by “just do it” people who share the vision of a legal career free from burnout, fear and rigidity come and say hi, and why not check out the FM: Catalyse Leadership Mastermind where we help you stay true to you AND reach your leadership aspirations!

P.S. – You might also enjoy my earlier blog with former Olympian Howard Stupp, who shares his top tips on leadership, or if you’re in the mood for listening, hop over to the podcast.

Vanessa Challess

Vanessa is the Founder of Tiger Law, Electra HR & Tiger Bytez.

Vanessa Challess can be found here:

Parul Patel

Parul is an experienced international lawyer, demanding client, disruptive consultant and thought-provoking non-executive director and board advisor.

She's advised law firms and big global brands like Nike, Speedo and Manchester United, as well as supporting inner-city social change programmes, startups and scale-ups. Fuel+Move is born of her passion to improve interaction with the legal sector and achieve a better experience with better outcomes for its stakeholders.

Parul Patel can be found here:

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