Solicitors aren’t trained how to manage people. But common sense and pragmatism can help send the right message from senior lawyers.

Ask any senior lawyer what their biggest work challenges are and I imagine that leadership and people management rank highly. In fact, for many lawyers a particularly technical and lengthy contract drafting or negotiation might seem like a walk in the park in comparison to leading people.

It should be no surprise really when you consider that we lawyers aren’t taught how to lead teams of people but many of us now find ourselves in that position.

The link between strong leadership, staff retention and business success puzzles many but it needn’t be over-complicated. In my experience, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to all colleagues, regardless of their role, works just fine. Why make working life any harder?

Like many lawyers, I didn’t set out to lead a law firm but the opportunity presented itself and here I am. And again, like many, I have had no formal management training. However, I do have my common sense, I know how I like to be treated and who I respect and apply all three in my working life as a law firm leader.

Let’s first of all be clear. Respect does not come from having a law degree or going to Oxford, you earn it. It can be earned in many different ways. Leading by example is a good start. Endeavouring to act how you want your team to act sets a strong blueprint for what is and isn’t acceptable in the modern law firm environment.  

I’m sure we’ve all come across a fearsome leader in our time but getting people to act out of fear is a complete no-no. Not only does ruling by fear hinder creativity, it prevents people from achieving their true potential. Don’t make people too afraid to try new things and make mistakes. Things go wrong, it happens in every business.

Far better to encourage people to tell you when a mistake has been made and find out in advance of things going awry rather than when it’s too late and things have really hit the fan. Pragmatism should be a byword in these situations; my usual initial response is ‘OK, let’s put this right’ and then we move on and learn from it. What I know is that my team will continue to keep trying rather than just wait to do what they’re told.

That’s not to say it requires you to be a pushover, that won’t work either. It all comes down being a leader rather than a boss. It’s the difference between depending on goodwill, rather than authority; talking about ‘we’ rather than ‘I’; asking rather than commanding and giving credit rather than taking it.

Unfortunately, the partnership structure and the sense of entitlement that engenders doesn’t exactly form a great basis for strong leadership. It sends a clear message about what is and isn’t valued in a firm. A far better way to treat all law firm members – they all contribute after all – is to set a basic salary, along with a level of incentivised performance-based pay and then on top of that a firm-wide bonus to celebrate and share success.

We should all remember that the office manager, the mailroom man and the management board play a part in success. Quite simply, I can’t do my job if the post isn’t opened and scanned, or the light bulbs aren’t working. It might sound basic to some but it’s about recognising that everyone has a part to play and should be rewarded for their success in the firm.

Talk of ‘fee-earners v fee-drainers’ should be left in the past where it belongs and if people want to make such archaic comparisons, replace ‘drainers’ with ‘enablers’ and you may start to see things in a different light.

Rachel Stow is managing director of Thorneycroft Solicitors