Law Practice Management: Building High-Performance Legal Teams

By Charles A. Volkert III, Esq.

The cornerstone of any effective law practice is a high-performance legal team. Managers at the helm need to assemble a diverse group of innovative individuals with specific expertise, complementary skill sets and a collaborative attitude. But building a team does not stop after recruiting and hiring. After having the right people in place, your role as a leader is to set expectations, empower employees and strengthen relationships. Here are six tips for building a high-performing legal team:

1. Set ambitious goals for the group. A legal team hungry for success thrives on concrete objectives and savors its dessert when a case is accomplished and acknowledged. So early on, establish common, ambitious goals, which help each member feel part of an effective whole. Instead of fuzzy or feel-good ideals, make the target tangible, measurable and, above all, achievable.

As a primer, take on an in-house conundrum: client response time. If internal marketing surveys reveal that clients are dissatisfied with how long it takes for their emails and phone calls to be returned, the goal is not simply to “do better” or “reply faster.” Rather, establish a firm-wide standard to respond to every client query within a certain time frame and improve rankings in client satisfaction in the next survey.

2. Divvy up roles and tasks by strengths and skill set. Evaluate your team’s strengths and position them for success. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming your employees already know what to do. Team makeup and internal responsibilities shift with each case. Good law practice management calls for a leader to detail roles and responsibilities. Clear and concise delegation of the workload will help you avoid duplicating efforts or, worse, inadvertently allowing assignments to slip through the cracks.

Assign roles, such as who will interface with the client and outside service provider. Then divvy up the load equitably, taking into consideration each employee’s strengths and skill set. This exercise will also help you determine if there’s too much work for the team you’ve assembled. If so, it’s best to know that at the outset of a legal project, when you have time to pull in another legal professional from within the firm or from a staffing agency.

3. Cultivate leaders. Identify a high-performance leader for each case. Look for individuals who are organized, respected by their colleagues and who will motivate others to do their best work. Telltale qualities to look for in a leader include a history of: exercising good judgment, collaborative skills, high ethical standards, tact and diplomacy. By naming a capable captain, you’re not only improving the odds for a successful outcome to the case, but you’re affording yourself an opportunity to vet potential candidates as future firm leaders. Succession planning is a critical element of law practice management.

But even the most promising leaders need a helping hand every so often, so offer support in the form of management and organizational training. Offer professional development opportunities and partner them with in-house mentors. Demonstrate your commitment to help them flourish in their career.

4. Delineate tasks and deadlines. For any project to be successful, each member of the team must have clearly designated duties. After you have roles assigned, you must chart a clear course of action. Establish a timeline and assign deadlines for deliverables. The better understood the expectations, the less the chance of unpleasant surprises. And with confidence in your team, you won’t be called upon to micromanage.

5. Hold regular check-ins. To solidify team cohesion and ensure that everyone is on track, hold regular debriefings to update one another, share challenges and devise solutions. Effective communication is imperative throughout. With regular check-ins, the legal team can catch and address small issues before they become unmanageable.

6. Build team relationships. Law practice management is as much about meeting and exceeding client expectations as it is about strengthening team relationships, so make time for informal outings, milestone celebrations and fun activities. Help your team get acquainted outside of the office. Lay the groundwork for an office milieu that is collegial — one in which coworkers grow to know, trust and appreciate one another — and you will have another leg up over the competition.

High-performance legal teams don’t coalesce by themselves. It takes a deliberate effort on your part as a manager to coach your team to work together effectively and at a consistently high level. When you invest in this effort, your firm will profit by having a group of talented professionals who work better together than on their own.