The practice of law often entails working with other professionals on legal teams. During my legal career, I have had opportunities to speak with attorneys about the practices that distinguish successful lead attorneys. In essence: what is the secret sauce that makes the really good lead attorneys so effective? The following five practices were mentioned most frequently as key to the success of team leaders and why we want to work with them again and again:
Positive tone; and
Notably, subject matter expertise was mentioned infrequently compared to other practices. Although considered critical, subject matter expertise is seen as a threshold requirement for leading cases. One cannot serve effectively as a lead attorney without it, but mastery of the subject matter does not distinguish the really good lead attorneys. A second notable take-away from my conversations was the importance of consistency. When these practices are implemented consistently, teams perform better because they are able to focus on the work, with fewer bottlenecks and distractions.
The transition from attorney to a lead attorney role can be challenging because an attorney shifts from doing the work to facilitating the work of others. The lead attorney’s success depends in large part on his/her ability to delegate effectively. Delegation done well can increase the overall performance and productivity of the team, accelerate attorney development, and even improve morale.
Not surprisingly, a second practice of successful lead attorneys is communication. Three important areas – case development updates, next steps, and roles and responsibilities – were mentioned as key to better outcomes. Routine updates about case developments and next steps help team members understand the bigger picture and the context for their work. Discussing everyone’s roles and responsibilities with members of the team reduces duplication and facilitates coordination of efforts.
In addition to delegating effectively and keeping everyone informed, successful lead attorneys routinely include the team in developing the case. This not only improves the work product by subjecting it to “stress tests”, but it also accelerates the development of team members by helping them to see how evidence and theories are developed.
Another practice of successful lead attorneys is positive tone. This catchall category refers to a basic understanding that the lead attorney sets the tone for the team. Effective lead attorneys understand that their attitudes, emotions, and behaviors affect their colleagues’ performance, and they are able to manage themselves in a way that reduces distractions for the team and promotes engagement.
The last practice demonstrated by successful lead attorneys is organization. Most of us understand that organization tends to improve the team’s performance by avoiding last minute rush jobs. We tend to appreciate less the connection between organization on the one hand and delegation, communication, and inclusiveness on the other. A well-organized case allows the lead attorney to assign “stretch” work to less experienced colleagues who may need more time to complete the task, and to hold regular discussions with the team.
These five practices help explain why some attorneys are able to improve the overall performance of their legal teams and why so many of us seek them out.