Grooming Future Leaders for a Legal Career in Management
by Charles Volkert, Esq.
Finding and grooming the potential leaders in your law firm or corporate legal department is not just a matter of promoting young associates based on their education or legal career experience. It takes work to identify, develop and nurture the legal career of promising leaders among your staff. And given the onset of baby boomer retirements, discovering and developing the next generation of legal managers is more important than ever.
But which characteristics separate the best potential leaders from the rest? And what can you do today to help up-and-coming stars become great legal managers? Here are some answers and strategies:
Look for certain qualities
Certainly, legal managers must have a strong command of the law. But soft skills are crucial, as well. In a recent Robert Half Legal survey, 45 percent of attorneys said that good judgment was the most important attribute for leaders, aside from legal knowledge. Those surveyed also noted collaboration skills (22 percent), high ethical standards (14 percent) and diplomacy (14 percent) as vital to good leadership.
Be on the lookout for young attorneys who excel in those areas, as well as those who are strong communicators. Legal managers must have good communication skills to motivate employees, build morale and loyalty, solve problems with personnel, workflow and vendors, and resolve conflicts with employees and clients.
Hire with leadership in mind
You don’t have to limit your search for the next generation of legal managers to your current staff, though. You should keep your eye out potential leaders whenever you’re hiring, even when the job opening is for an entry-level attorney or a summer intern.
When sifting through applications, look for candidates who’ve held leadership positions in legal and other environments; someone who served on the board of a college student organization or took a position in a volunteer group is likely to have some solid leadership experience. Then, during interviews, ask behavioral questions that point to candidates’ leadership skills, such as “Tell me about a time you took the lead on a challenging project” or “Describe a time when you coached or mentored someone to a successful outcome.” The answers should help you spot candidates who have the potential to become legal managers.
Invest in training
Once you’ve identified future leaders, encourage them to attend continuing legal education (CLE) conferences and courses. Managerial candidates should go to CLE seminars focusing on professional ethics, conflict resolution and growth management. In addition, they should polish and strengthen their knowledge of legal trends like eDiscovery, cloud-based legal research, cyber security, predictive coding, and artificial intelligence through classes and other training.
Also, make sure you’re giving young attorneys a chance to shore up their weaknesses through targeted training. Some people are brilliant with processes and workflows, but do not have a healthy relationship with their coworkers. Others are motivational and inspirational, yet falter when it comes to time management, deadlines and follow-up. If candidates for management aren’t equally strong in both project and people skills, recommend the appropriate professional development.
Build a mentoring program
So many of the soft skills required for a thriving legal career — good judgment, decision making, teamwork, collaboration, conflict resolution, adaptability and client relations — are not taught in a classroom. They’re learned on the job, and one effective way to make sure potential legal managers are developing these skills is to match them with an experienced mentor.
Formal mentoring programs for junior and mid-level employees can be one-time meetings during which a tenured attorney passes on knowledge or advice (otherwise known as flash mentoring) or long-term relationships, depending on the mentor and mentee’s goals.
If your company doesn’t have an in-house mentoring program, you should strongly consider starting one. Besides the obvious benefit of guiding a young professional’s legal career, mentoring often has other positive effects: for example, reverse mentoring, where knowledge percolates up the hierarchy; and better intergenerational dynamics, particularly between baby boomers and Generation Z.
Identifying and developing future legal managers in your firm or company can be a challenge. But if you invest the time and energy into succession planning today, you’ll reap the benefits of your efforts for years to come.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal®, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company also offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets.
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Question & Answer
After a decade of working in a traditional law firm paralegal role, I’d like to take my career in a new direction, or work in a legal job that incorporates more of my personal interests. Any advice on how I can transition?
Here’s the scoop: Today’s experienced legal assistants have many professional opportunities to choose from. The knowledge and expertise you’ve developed during your paralegal career at a law firm provide a solid foundation for a variety of employment opportunities. Here are five legal job paths that would make good use of your in-demand skills and experience:
Flexing your research muscle. Are you the type of paralegal who enjoys researching legal precedents or rulings? If you are a leave-no-stone-unturned workhorse who relishes staying abreast of the latest legal fact-finding trends, you might excel as a research specialist for a library, media company, diplomatic agency or think tank.
Skills needed: For this role, you need to have a keen ability to orchestrate your own research and analyses on topics, and coordinate data from multiple databases. As you often have to conduct interviews or present your findings, you’ll also need to have strong public speaking skills.
Finding your niche in real estate. Paralegals who have a background in real estate law may be able to transition into a role as a foreclosure specialist. In this legal job, you would likely work at a real estate company, bank or lending institution. Your responsibilities would include reviewing documents — liens, appraisals, inspection reports and such — to determine if homeowners facing foreclosure have any options to save their property.
Skills needed: Outstanding interpersonal skills are a must in this specialty, as you’ll be working with people during a sensitive time in their lives. In addition, you’ll have to communicate effectively with outside court representatives, lenders and insurance companies.
Finding employment in government. Our local, state and federal governments deal with laws, ordinances, regulations and standards on a daily basis. This means there are many paralegal career opportunities in government jobs.
Skills needed: To land a position as a government paralegal, you’ll need a firm grasp of the law a particular departments or agency specializes in. For example, to work in a city planning department, you would need to be familiar with local building codes, community zoning laws and state-wide environmental regulations.
The nonprofit path. Nonprofit organizations rely on legal professionals to navigate government regulations and advise them about compliance requirements that affect their operations. If you’re passionate about a cause, a paralegal career with a nonprofit organization may give you tremendous satisfaction.
Skills needed: The requirements for this type of legal job will vary depending on the agency’s mission. For example, if you wanted to apply to a nonprofit with a global focus, experience in international law might be preferred, along with proficiency in a minimum of two languages. There are also many domestic nonprofits hiring paralegals with concerns ranging from arts and education to immigration services and the environment.
The healthcare professional. As the Affordable Care Act gains traction, legal jobs in the medical field have skyrocketed. There are many paralegal career options in a hospital or insurance setting.
Skills needed: You might provide support in a legal department and help write contracts, manage workflows, research regulations, analyze and interpret data or draft policies and procedures.
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