For lawyers managing their own firm, being successful involves more than ordering people around. In this episode of On Balance, hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent talk to Andrew Elowitt about the qualities of a successful law firm manager such as handling employee frustration and communicating goals and expectations well. They also discuss the challenges involved in managing superstar employees and how this differs from other employees.
Andrew Elowitt, JD, MBA, PCC, brings over 25 year’s experience as both an executive and business lawyer to New Actions.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Managing your Firm like a Champion
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice, with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away ladies.
JoAnn Hathaway: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And we are very pleased to have Andrew Elowitt join us today as our podcast guest to talk about lawyers as managers and how to be a champion for your firm and employees.
So, Andrew, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Andrew Elowitt: I’d be happy to. I started out as a lawyer in 1979, I practiced for 15 years. Before I started to get the itch to get out of the law and do something different, I had worked in private firms, had my own transactional boutique, and I had just started to make the transition to being in-house counsel.
Well, when I was in law school I also got my master’s degree in Business Administration and I have done a lot of coursework in organizational behavior, so it was kind of a natural for me to get interested in the people side of management consulting, and that’s what I’ve made the transition towards.
I’m an executive coach, I work with businesses anywhere from startups to Fortune 500s and I work still with law firms not only law firms, the lawyers in law firms, but lawyers in corporate legal departments and in government agencies, and I’ve been doing that for the last 20-plus years.
Tish Vincent: Excellent! Well, can you share a little bit with our listeners what the importance of people management is in a law firm? That drew my attention when I looked at your Table of Contents in your most recent book. I imagine you could talk for a long time about that, but I’d like to hear and share with our listeners your thoughts on that.
Andrew Elowitt: Well, people management is important, and I think a little more important when it comes to law firms. The genesis of the book came from a conversation between me and my co-author Marcia Wasserman. We were looking for resources to help new partners become better managers and we found that there was very little out there. Part of the reason why, is because historically lawyers haven’t given as much emphasis on law practice management and particularly the people side of management.
Some aspects of being a good lawyer really don’t help when you’re a manager. There are two different mindsets that certainly overlaps, but there are also qualities that are very different between being a manager and being a lawyer and knowing when to shift between the two is something that takes practice, so that’s why we wrote the book.
Lawyers have a tendency to be very cerebral, if we use an old metaphor, they’re very left-brained. We’ve found that they were very good at the technical side of management. If it’s a matter of managing receivables, managing technology, managing other things that are subject to objective criteria and measurement, lawyers generally are pretty darn good, but on the people side, lots of problems. Part of that is, they try to manage their people as though they were clients as opposed to employees and peers, so that’s why we wrote the book.
And what we’ve found is that there is a mindset, we call it the Champion Manager Mindset, and those are the qualities that the best managers show in law firms and in other legal organizations.
JoAnn Hathaway: Can you point out some of the qualities of what you are referring to as a champion manager?
Andrew Elowitt: Of course, well, champion manager, the reason we settled on the word “champion”, and believe me, we went through many, many other words. We like the word “champion” for a number of reasons. First of all, champion managers are champions, in that they show the highest quality, highest expertise in how they manage their people. Their people skills and their people smarts are exemplary, so they are champions in that regard.
They are also champions in the sense that they champion the people in their firm, they support them, they want to develop them, they want to promote them. They really have the people in their firm both lawyers and non-lawyers in mind, and that becomes their focus, so they champion the people in their firm.
And last, because they are champions themselves and the people that are in their firm they are championing, they end up with a firm of champions, and our hope is, and I think you’ll see that this happens that champion management will cascade down through an organization, it’s not just something that is isolated to the head of the firm, it will exist in all levels, both legal staff as well as attorneys themselves. So that’s why we came up with the word “champion”.
Now, when we look at what champion managers do, we really break it down into a number of different basic skill-sets. We start with the mindset, and reason we go to mindset first is because there are a lot of books that are self-help, how to do books, and you can get a recipe for what you should be doing but if you haven’t done the internal shifts, change some of the mindsets about what it means to be a manager, what it means to really champion your people, then you’re just going to be going through the steps without much depth to them.
So, with the right mindset and we move to communication basics, there’s ways that managers speak and listen. Listening being I think the fundamental and most important thing with their employees, that becomes the really the foundation for everything else. We talk about hiring and on-boarding, it’s often overlooked but it’s really a lot easier to manage the right people than to hire the wrong people and try and change them once they have come to a firm. So, it’s important to start there.
As a manager you are obviously going to be delegating and assigning work, and there is a lot of skill that can be developed in that. A lot of problems that can be prevented, another companion to delegating and assigning work is giving and also receiving feedback, and there are ways to do that to get the most out of your employees.
Coaching and mentoring our styles and activities that we think are essential to a champion manager. It’s not just a matter of giving commands and trying to control the people in the firm, that may have worked long ago, it certainly doesn’t work anymore, it doesn’t work with Millennials at all. So, the coaching and mentoring styles are very important.
Using all this you can foster coordination, collaboration and teamwork within your firm and also extending out into work with your clients. We also think that another part of being a champion manager is learning how to manage conflicts. Now by that I don’t mean checking to make sure that there are no conflicts in representation of your clients, but rather in firms, you will have conflicts. Any organization you will have conflicts. They may be as benign as I want to go out for Chinese food for lunch today, you want to go out for Italian food, that’s actually a conflict. Okay, that’s a very lightweight one.
There are greater ones, frequent ones that exist in law firms. So, the best managers know how to manage those conflicts to make that tension end up being productive.
JoAnn Hathaway: Now, Andrew, I know in your book when you are talking about managing conflicts you indicate just as you just stated that it’s a normal part of everyone’s work in personal lives, but you also indicate that people often ignore, defer and avoid conflicts. Can you expound upon that a little bit and why you think that occurs?
Andrew Elowitt: Oh sure. People try to avoid emotional discomfort, both their own and creating that in others. There are times when it’s easier to just take a pass on a conflict, of their different ways of dealing with conflict, different modes if you will, you need to be very proactive and be competitive or you can be more cooperative and be collaborative. You can also avoid conflicts, you can acquiesce. So, there is a wide range of styles in dealing with conflict. No one style is the best fit, it’s definitely not a matter of one-size-fits-all.
So part of the skill in being a manager or just being a productive member of any organization is knowing what your default ways of dealing with conflict are and questioning whether it’s the right style for a given situation or working with a given person.
Tish Vincent: Interesting I think that conflict is inevitable as you have said in times that’s quite extreme and other times it’s rather mild, and probably there isn’t a simple recipe for dealing with it, but it’s more complicated than that. The manager has to have different awareness of their styles and their direct reports, is that an accurate assumption on my part?
Andrew Elowitt: I think it’s a very good assumption. I mentioned earlier that listening is the fundamental communication skill. The best managers have a sense of what’s going on within their organizations and conflicts can be extreme. If you are a really good manager, you should be on top of it and you should be aware that conflicts are growing, and that they are going to — they may be at kind of a latent stage and you want to intervene at that point.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you can solve all conflicts but you can bring people together, you can work to understand what the conflict is and you can find healthy ways for people to express their disagreements.
One of the things that I have found is that, and this is not unique to the legal profession. A lot of people have difficulty with conflict because conflict is closely associated with anger and many people try to ignore their anger, we use nicer words for like impatience or frustration but underneath it, those are forms of anger.
Well, anger is a healthy emotion, it’s a normal emotion. If you think of a world where there was no anger, we would probably be a world where there was no progress, no change. So, the challenge is, in working with people as a — with a consultant and a coach is letting them knowledge their anger, figure out what their anger is about, and figuring out the most productive way to express their anger, if it needs to be expressed at all. And that goes back to communication skills. There are ways that we can use our communication skills so that we can get our point across, our discontent, our frustration without escalating a conflict.
Tish Vincent: It’s the question I have about an emotion that is common in the law firm or for a manager managing a number of lawyers is the issue of competition that lawyers are very competitive in their professional life and often in their personal life and how can you best manage an environment where there’s competition and someone comes out ahead of others and there are feelings about that?
Andrew Elowitt: I am pausing because that’s a great question and it’s not an easy one to answer, and it varies so much from one firm to the next.
There certainly is competition. When we make decisions it can be something as simple as who is assigned to a particular litigation matter, which is high-profile and likelihood of high success, and it is left out, okay, we use that example. Well, any decision is going to carry trade-offs with it.
Now, what you can do in a situation like that is help people understand why the decision was made, what factors went into it, but that may help, it may in some cases exacerbate it. A lot of it goes back to a fundamental question that all firms face, which is what are our values and what is our culture, and to what degree are we collaborative and a community and we are working towards a mutual good and a common goal and intention to that are we just a collection of individuals, who are in possession of our own agendas, our own goals and we are kind of co-occupying space and using the firm because we feel — that’s the best way we can go forward in our careers.
Now, I am pretty agnostic about that, I used to feel, I don’t know — it all has to be one big tight community and those are the best firms, and in a lot of ways they are. They are certainly in many cases the easiest firms to practice in, but as I have done this for so many years, I have found, there are some firms none of them are really large where the lawyers have a great deal of autonomy and it’s kind of a 12:54 system, but for the people in the firm it works.
Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily the most economically productive. I think there can be a lot of waste in a system like that, but if it fits the emotional and career needs of the individual attorneys, fine, then that’s okay. But in that kind of environment, yeah, there probably is going to be more competition.
Now, let’s say you have somebody whose feelings are hurt because they weren’t selected for a certain litigation project. Again, the main thing the manager can do is be accessible, listen to the concerns, is this a matter of the person feeling like they never get good work, there may be a reason why their skill-set may not be at a level that was commensurate with the challenges in that case, or they may feel that they are being left out, they are being excluded because of other factors. That should be discussable.
The very fact that a member of the firm can talk to a manager about that will go far in increasing motivation and engagement. Absent those conversations you are leaving that person who feels left out to come up with their own narratives about why they were left out, possibly to brood and ultimately perhaps to leave the firm.
JoAnn Hathaway: Andrew, you have spoken — you have used a couple of different terms when speaking about managing a law firm specifically leaders and managers, can you speak to the difference between the two?
Andrew Elowitt: When it comes to people management it gets awfully close to leadership. I find that when you talk about leadership to lawyers, they often think about leadership in Bar Association’s or community organizations, but not within their phone, and that was a conscious choice on Marcia’s and my part to use management rather than leadership.
Now, you can think of management and leadership as a spectrum of different sides of that spectrum or maybe continuum is the better word. Management is more tactical, more short-term typically dealing with more objective measurable sorts of activity.
Leadership is a bigger picture. Leadership in comparison to management is more social, more emotional. Leadership is inspiring people, motivating people as well as providing a broader vision for the future of a firm.
I am probably going to mangle the quote, but Warren Bennis said, managing people is getting people to do things right. Leadership is getting people to do the right things.
Tish Vincent: I like that.
JoAnn Hathaway: I like that too, thought-provoking.
Andrew Elowitt: As I say that, now I am plagued by feeling that maybe that wasn’t Warren Bennis, it might have been Peter Drucker. Everybody has used it, so it’s still great. It’s the difference between, the metaphor that I use in the book is the manager is the person who is steering the ship, they are at the helm. They have to make sure that the crew is fed, the crew is doing their jobs, the sails are trimmed and they are staying on course.
The leader is the one who has set the course and explained to the crew why they are sailing on their voyage and what the ultimate rewards are going to be for that voyage.
JoAnn Hathaway: A topic in the book that I found interesting and have not had the time to read it yet is Managing Superstars. Could you speak a little bit about that?
Andrew Elowitt: Sure. It seems kind of counterintuitive to have a chapter on Managing Superstars, because the first place we go when we think about it is, well, if they are superstars, they are doing great, let’s just kind of back away, let them do their thing, they are making money for the firm, why bother managing them. They are the people who need the least management. Well, in a lot of cases that is certainly true, but we make a distinction, there are superstars that are secure and there are superstars that are insecure.
Now, the insecure ones can be a different matter. They may be narcissistic. They may be driven to perform or to outperform or over-perform. It could be something from childhood traumas, to deep psychological needs, feelings of inadequacy, the list goes on.
Now, I am not a psychologist, I don’t pretend to be, I have too much respect for the profession, but you do have some superstars that are very needy and managing them is a different ballgame.
If you give a superstar generic praise, just hey, great job, or oh wow, you knocked it out of the park. Okay, insecure people in general like to feel secure, they like to receive praise, but for a superstar in a law firm giving them generic praise, tired clichés, that doesn’t work, they don’t feel recognized.
So it’s really important to recognize superstars and to appreciate them in a very specific way. Don’t say you did a great job; say that was a great job and because of that great job this is what happened and then be very specific about the impact on the client, the impact on the firm. That’s going to register with a superstar.
The other thing with superstars is many of them, especially the insecure ones, super-hard workers which leads to a greater chance of burn out. So sometimes you have to watch your superstars and make sure they are not overdoing it.
That can happen in a couple of ways. One, they can just work too hard and burn themselves out. You have to be attuned to that and tell them when they have done enough or when they have done too much.
Some insecure perfectionist superstars may go the extra mile or 10, creates a problem when it’s taking too much time or when the client only wanted them to go that first mile and is unwilling to pay for the additional nine that the superstar has gone. I have certainly seen that. When I was practicing law I was probably guilty of that as well.
So there are all sorts of interesting problems that come up with superstars and champion managers are aware of them. Champion managers are also aware that when you are dealing with somebody who is a superstar, you may be kind of jealous of them. You have to be aware of your own feelings.
JoAnn Hathaway: I see that you recommend that managers help superstars learn how to cooperate and collaborate with other members of the law firm. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Andrew Elowitt: Superstars sometimes are loners. They see that they work at such a high level and they feel that they can do everything themselves, and they can do it themselves faster and better than other people. Now, when you are dealing with that kind of a superstar, they can be kind of isolated and not well integrated into the firm. So it’s important, now figure you have this person who is very capable, has a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, a lot of expertise, that’s an asset certainly for that individual, but also for the firm, you want that asset share, so that’s where collaborating with other people, working with them is important. It can raise the level of performance and expertise of the other people in the firm.
The other reason why it’s important for superstars to collaborate is, well, figure if they are superstars probably their performance in the area of legal practice skills is very high. You don’t need to improve that, they are very aware of that, they are constantly striving, but that doesn’t equate with the idea that they are also good at management or working with the other people in the firm. If they are a perfectionist, they may actually be very difficult to work with. So it’s important to do that.
On top of that, let’s say you have a superstar and you are concerned about their motivation. They feel they are doing great. They are well compensated. They are compensated to the level that makes sense for the firm. So in a sense they are kind of maxed out there.
Well, what’s going to keep them motivated? One place you can go is hey, we want you to work more with other people. We want to develop your, and this is a time where I would say leadership rather than management, we want to develop your leadership skills. This is where we see you being more accomplished, more valuable. We know it’s a new challenge for you or an increased challenge, but this is where you are going to have the greatest value-add for the firm. So you get them moving into the leadership and management space and working with other people.
Often what we see is that the superstars will start to assemble their own team. We could say they are a team of superstars, but actually they are a team of champions, if that superstar is managing right. And then that becomes a very vital part of the firm.
JoAnn Hathaway: Andrew, you have talked about — I have heard you talk about in the past about champion managers designing effective coaching plans and I have heard you refer to their firm members that they are coaching, calling them their coachees and you referenced setting goals and you used an acronym SMART, can you speak to those goals?
Andrew Elowitt: Oh sure. SMART is an old acronym but it’s still a good one. The idea of setting goals is to help people have a tangible process and understanding of what they need to improve their performance.
Just having big goals like I want you to be a better attorney, I want you to do a better job of organizing files, it’s too big. So having actual specific goals is great. It also helps us to monitor progress, which in turn we can get better results and we can also improve the motivation and engagement of people.
Now, going back to the SMART acronym, S-M-A-R-T, S stands for Specific; as I said, you want detail, you don’t want vagueness. You want to let the person know what the goal is and more importantly they need to agree.
Setting goals should not be a top-down sort of activity, where the manager is just saying, okay, these are your goals. It should be a dialogue. The best goals, and by that I mean the ones that are going to have the most positive impact and are the most likely to be achieved, are the ones that are jointly developed by the coachee or the firm member, if you will, and the manager.
So we start with Specific, then we go to M, Measurable. We want to be able to know that the goal has been accomplished. Measurable, let’s say you have a staff member that is slow in getting work product back to attorneys. Okay, if you put specific measurable parameters on that, like turnaround will be 24 hours as opposed to what it is now, which is 36, and you would be able to know whether the goal was achieved.
A stands for Actionable. Actionable in that the person actually has the ability, the resources, the authority, the power to do that.
R stands for Realistic, kind of like Actionable, but Realistic is with everything else going on that this person is doing, does it make sense? Is it realistic for them to also take on this goal?
T stands for Time Constraint. We can set goals. The classic one of course is not in the legal profession, but weight loss. I can say I am going to lose 10 pounds. Well, that’s a very good sentiment and I do need to lose 10 pounds, but if I just leave it ephemeral, 10 pounds, it’s going to happen sometime in the future. Gee, I might not work very hard or very diligently on that, but if I know that I am saying I need to lose 10 pounds by Labor Day, okay, then that’s going to get my attention, I am going to be focused, and again, I am going to have a way of measuring my progress.
So that’s where SMART comes in. You want to look when you are setting goals with tangible behaviors. Certainly some of the things that we want to see in terms of changes in people are attitudinal, but attitudinal changes are harder to observe and to measure. And if you just — let’s say you want a person to have a more positive attitude at the firm, well, how are you going to know that? Are you going to ask them on Monday of every week, hey, how positive are you feeling about the firm? Okay, that’s self-report, that’s not going to be very good.
But if you look at examples of that positive attitude, they are helping other people, their attendance at the firm, yeah, those are the sorts of things you can key in on and are probably more reliable indicators.
Tish Vincent: Those are very helpful. Well Andrew, it looks like we have come close to the end of the show. We would like to thank you for a wonderful program.
JoAnn Hathaway: Also Andrew, during this program you have referenced your publication, as have we many times, could you share with our listeners where they can find that publication if they would like to learn more and possibly purchase it.
Andrew Elowitt: I am happy to and thank you for including that. The title of the book is, this won’t surprise you, ‘Lawyers as Managers’ and the subtitle is ‘How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees’. Now, this was written with law firms in mind, but it is equally applicable to corporate legal departments and lawyers working in government agencies. It’s available from the American Bar Association, from their online bookstore. You can also find it on Amazon.
Tish Vincent: Thank you. And Andrew, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how could they reach you?
Andrew Elowitt: Well, I am happy to answer any inquiries they may have. They can email me at HYPERLINK “[email protected]” [email protected].
Tish Vincent: Thank you Andrew. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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