Common Mistakes New Legal Managers Make — and How to Avoid Them

Mistakes New Legal Managers Make

When you take on any different legal work assignment, it’s natural to experience a bit of anxiety about your new responsibilities. Initial excitement about being offered the job can often give way to concerns about whether you’ll be able to successfully perform in the new role.

And if your new legal position involves supervising other employees for the first time, you may encounter even more anxiety about your ability to effectively lead, motivate and engage a team of legal professionals.

As a new manager, it’s inevitable that you’ll make some missteps. There’s no play-by-play manual that can offer guidance for every supervisory dilemma you may face — no two situations are the same, and no two people are alike. However, a number of blunders that new legal managers commonly make are easily avoidable.

Here are five tips you can use to circumvent many of the mistakes that new legal managers make:

Don’t make any assumptions.

When I first stepped into a management role, I made a couple of assumptions -- one of the most significant mistakes new managers can make. In my case, I assumed that members of my team responded to the same motivations. That’s a pretty big assumption, but as a new manager, I quickly learned that one size does not fit all regarding how you motivate people or what factors encourage people to give their strongest performance.

I understood early on that it was my job to get the most out of my team, to encourage them to perform effectively and produce the highest quality work product possible. So I assumed that if I could give them a salary increase or tempt them with a possible project bonus, I’d inspire them -- right?  Wrong. I’ve learned over the years that compensation is fairly far down the list of motivational incentives. Factors such as recognition, flexibility within work environments, empowerment, and developmental opportunities often rank much higher on the list of performance drivers.

Don’t blur the boundaries between personal and professional relationships.

As you take on a leadership role, you’ll obviously be working closely with your team members, some of whom may have been peers, colleagues or even close friends if you’ve been promoted from an existing team. But it’s important to establish and maintain clear boundaries between your professional and personal relationships. Explain from the start that you will be treating all team members fairly and equally. If you socialize with some employees outside of work, keep any related personal conversations out of the workplace. And don’t allow emotions to cloud your judgment or decisions -- remain professional and unbiased with all of your legal team members.

Continue work that led you to the new position.

I’ve seen too many times that when a legal professional takes on a leadership role, they take on a new, authoritative persona. And they stop performing the work that earned them the promotion in the first place. I always counsel new legal managers to play to their strengths; to think about their new leadership responsibilities as an addition to -- not a subtraction from -- what they were doing previously.

Lead by example.

If you’re going to have moral authority to lead other people, it’s essential that you lead from the front. You need to carry the same weight or more than others on the team to keep the respect of staff members. Many new managers make the mistake of thinking that by nature of the new position, they can now tell everyone what to do. But that’s not real leadership, nor will it likely serve to motivate others to perform their best. Real leadership is taking an active role in what you’re directing your team members to do.

Don’t be uneasy about asking what employees want.

I always encourage new legal leaders to sit down with each individual on their new team and ask them to describe what they want from their manager, the culture they desire and the work environment expectations they have. And also to have the tried-and-true “stop, start, continue” dialogue -- namely, ask team members what, as a manager, you should stop doing, start doing or continue doing to help everyone feel empowered and satisfied with their jobs and motivated to perform their best.  

Do you have suggestions for newly appointed legal managers? Please share your comments below.