Leadership Tips From 2500+ Attorneys

Over the past several years, we at Beard Strategies have been working on upward reviews for some of the nation’s most prestigious law firms. An upward review entails interviewing attorneys across a firm’s offices about the performance of those who supervise them, as well as soliciting their opinions on a variety of topics regarding the firm as a whole. From that mass of feedback, we create an in-depth review for each supervisor who received feedback, as well as a host of reports about themes of interest to the firm.

I love doing upward reviews because they produce so much value for our clients. They’re an incredible tool for improving vital aspects of a firm’s health:

  • promoting engagement and retention among attorneys
  • reinforcing leadership and cultural norms across firms spanning multiple locations
  • helping individual leaders to grow and improve
  • giving firms a big-picture view of the organization’s functioning with its talent
  • identifying key talent development priorities

The other thing I love about upward reviews is the opportunity to hear from hundreds of attorneys — including both associates and counsel — about the most effective qualities of their supervisors. A clear set of themes tends to emerge when such a large number of attorneys give their unvarnished views on where partners excel — and fall short — as leaders.

Based on the feedback of the more than 2500 attorneys we’ve talked with over the last several years, here are six things that make for a truly great leader of teams.

1. Great leaders are also great mentors

Time and again, attorneys say that the most effective supervisors are those who help them learn in the course of their day-to-day work. Attorneys see partners as the most valuable and fundamental source of learning and development, and those leaders who help them grow also inspire them to do their best work. When your team members believe you genuinely care about their development and careers, their trust in your leadership skyrockets.

2. Being kind goes a long way

For a variety of reasons, practicing law in a law firm environment has a reputation for being stressful and even at times rather cutthroat. But we’ve found that kindness, more than anything, is the hallmark of leaders who truly inspire their teams. Kindness doesn’t mean coddling. Rather, the best supervisors are those who hold their team members to high standards and expect hard work — while also respecting others as individuals, treating people fairly and compassionately, handling mistakes as learning opportunities and making a point to thank people for their hard work. Attorneys notice and appreciate such expressions of decency and find them to be highly motivating and trust-inducing.

3. Balancing autonomy with support is crucial

No one wants to be micromanaged; neither do attorneys want to be left adrift. Striking the right balance between extending autonomy to those you supervise while offering the support they need to do their best work is an indispensable leadership skill. This takes time and practice to get right, but those who do it best rely on two things: asking people what support they need and trusting their team members’ abilities. This doesn’t mean attorneys want or expect handholding — they know they need to do their homework, but want to trust that you’ll be there as a resource when truly needed.

4. Your teams work with you, not for you

Attorneys have deep respect for leaders who don’t stand on ceremony or hierarchy. Be approachable and willing to engage with even the most junior attorneys and staff. When there’s an emergency, roll up your sleeves and pitch in on even the most mundane tasks. Attorneys consistently say that they don’t mind pulling an all-nighter when their supervisor will work in the trenches with them.

5. Associates and counsel crave quality feedback

Attorneys want to know how they’re doing — especially those early in their careers. Crucially, it’s substantive feedback they’re eager for. As much as they love hearing “great job,” they’re more interested in knowing why their work product was great so they can learn from the experience. And they don’t shy away from criticism — in fact, leaders who regularly deliver constructive feedback in a thoughtful and helpful manner are highly appreciated. Striking the right tone is key. Leaders who are consistently respectful in their interactions with their teams are the ones most likely to deliver constructive feedback effectively, without inspiring defensiveness.

6. Managing stress makes a difference

There’s no avoiding it — law firm practice can be a stressful business. But how you manage that stress has a profound impact on your standing as a leader. Those who lose their tempers or panic discourage loyalty and camaraderie. On the other hand, managing your stress well — by keeping a cool head, reassuring others and taking a moment to collect yourself before (over)reacting — gives your team confidence in your leadership.

Whether you’re already in a top position or looking to develop the traits you need to grow into a partner, take advantage of the candid feedback from thousands of attorneys at the world’s top law firms and incorporate these traits of great leadership into your approach.