How to Motivate a Legal Team to Success

By Bernard Knight
December 8, 2017

Being an effective law legal group leader whether in a corporation, a law firm or the Government, requires specific skills.   Leading teams to accomplish goals under stressful circumstances requires these skills and a team commitment.  I provide below some of the essential traits that I learned from USPTO leaders and Directors.

Is a legal group leader or general counsel similar to a conductor?

A practice group leader is like the conductor of an orchestra.   She has a team of people all with their own skill sets and individual goals and ambitions.  Somehow, these individuals need to be brought together to appreciate a common goal and be committed to its accomplishment.

I learned to be a leader from the people that I worked with whether it was the Directors of the USPTO or the General Counsels and the Secretaries of the Treasury.  Each of these leaders had to motivate a group of lawyers and other professionals to perform in demanding times.   This all needed to be done without the ability to provide significant compensation as a motivator.

When the AIA was enacted, the USPTO had only 1-year to design, publish regulations and implement most of the new provisions.   At Treasury, the team of lawyers and other professionals were required to respond to the financial markets crisis in real time and without much opportunity to plan.

Each of these leaders had common traits:

  • they established goals and a vision;
  • each of them put an oar in the water and was an active member of the team; and
  • they constantly showed appreciation for the work of their team members.

How did these leaders motivate their teams and accomplish these challenging goals?

Leadership is the same whether you are a corporate general counsel, a law firm practice group leader or a Government general counsel.   No matter the venue, you must be able to drive your team toward accomplishment of your mission and success.   In a law firm, the focus is on servicing the clients and generating new revenue.   In a corporation, the focus is on assisting the business units achieve their goals within the bounds of the law.   Similarly, in Government the focus is on making certain the agency complies with all laws while still driving forward the administration’s agenda.

The only major difference between the three roles is the rewards available.   In a law firm, compensation and helping clients are some of the key motivators.   In Government, the richness of the experience, the impact on national issues and the opportunity to have a balanced life are key.   In the corporate world, advancement in the organization, compensation and promoting the business model are some of the motivators.

Let’s take a look at some of the most important ingredients for a successful legal leader.

Have a Vision and Set Measurable Goals

It’s impossible to achieve anything if you don’t know where you’re aiming.   In other words, we must have a target.   Like the pilot of an airplane, we must know our destination.

Having a team vision and setting measurable goals is the hallmark of any successful business.   Simply stated, the vision is the overall arching aspirational image of what your team is going to accomplish.  A goal is the means to achieve the vision.   For example, a measurable goal might be to respond to requests from clients within 24 hours or sooner.   Take the time to set goals and get buy-in from the entire team, junior staff included.

As a practice group leader, you are responsible for running a portion of the organization’s business portfolio.

The USPTO, for example, has a strategic plan and the USPTO General Counsel develops her own strategic plan for the General Counsel’s Office.   Similarly, you can establish a strategic plan for your group that outlines the vision and goals.

Answer this question:  What do you want to achieve in the next year?  Examples for a law firm practice group leader might be: greater revenues from existing clients, obtaining new clients in a particular industry, handling a Supreme Court amicus brief, growing your brand or hiring 2 laterals with particular experience and diverse backgrounds.

Setting measurable goals is as important as defining them.   Set goals that are concrete, achievable and measurable.   For example, “growing your brand” is not a helpful goal.   Why?   Because you don’t know what you are supposed to do.   Instead, establish goals such as publish 3 articles in IPWatchdog, obtain 3 speaking engagements at national conferences and write one Supreme Court amicus brief.   See my prior IPWatchdog article on how to establish and enhance your IP brand.

A team vision is great to establish high-level operating principles.  Here you might define the basic traits that are the hallmark of your company or practice.   Hint:  It’s not just providing a high-quality work product.   It must be something that the team values and that is more aspirational.   Here is an example:

We team with our clients or business unit managers to provide creative solutions to their business challenges in a timely and ethical manner while appreciating the diverse backgrounds of our team members and clients.

Next, develop a strategic plan that lays out the incremental steps for achieving your measurable goals with the vision as your compass.   This is a living document and should be modified as circumstances change.

Expect roadblocks or obstacles to achieving your goals.   This is not a linear process.

Don’t be afraid to take risks here.   If you don’t achieve 100% of your goals, your group is not going to disintegrate.   Some “stretch goals” and some easier goals are a good way to show success in the short-term and reach for better performance in the long-term.

Promote Your People–Not Yourself

An excellent leader recognizes that they rise or fall with the team.   To be successful, we all need to have the best team working with us.   When we promote people, they feel valued and appreciated.   Making people feel appreciated is the #1 motivator and its free!

If something goes wrong, hold people accountable and be timely with your feedback.  See my prior IPWatchdog article on giving effective feedback.  That said, don’t throw the team member over the cliff unless you want to get rid of them.   It never pays to talk badly about one of your staff.  We all make mistakes.

Promoting our team members makes us look good.   Say great things about your team members and you will be highly regarded as a leader.    Say negative things about your team members and you will be seen as an ineffective leader and one not to be trusted.

Don’t Treat Your Favorites Differently

Rate people on performance and be impartial.   Picking favorites may be the result of unconscious bias because we may feel more comfortable with people who are more like us.   This hurts the other team members with different backgrounds.

For example, a practice group leader may be known throughout a law firm for protecting her favorite attorneys in his office.    This creates resentment.

As a practice group leader, you are a manager of a business.   Reward people based on their contributions to firm profitability.   Do not reward people just because they are loyal to you.    Loyalty is earned by your management style not by rewarding an unproductive employee who kisses up to you.

Be Friendly, But Discreet

Be careful not to talk critically about others in your organization behind their backs.   If you do this, the recipient of your comments about another will never trust you.   Instead, she will think that you will talk critically about her when she is not around.    Bite your tongue when you have the urge to talk critically about another person in your organization.

If you have something to say about another’s performance, be upfront and courageous and talk to him or her directly.   You can deliver critical feedback effectively and constructively if you use your emotional intelligence skills.   See my prior IPWatchdog article on the importance of emotional intelligence and how to improve it.

Set Standards for Attorney Performance

Expect the best, do the best and you’ll get the best.   Set an example of excellence as the practice group leader.   Establish regular staff meetings and talk about actual experiences and what went right and wrong.   Use these staff meetings as learning vehicles for your team and for you to direct performance in a positive environment.

Making your team feel involved and keeping them up to date, will get buy-in from them toward achievement of the goals.   They will be invested.

We all make mistakes and that’s okay.   It’s repeating mistakes that’s the problem.   Give feedback right away when a concern arises and hear what the team member has to say.   Approach it as a learning point rather than a scolding session.   This requires a huge amount of emotional intelligence.

Focus on ethics and what’s appropriate behavior.   Nothing will make a firm, company or Government agency look worse than an ethics violation.   It’s tougher to recover from an ethics issue than losing a big case.   People understand that a case will be lost occasionally.   People don’t readily forgive unethical conduct.

We have seen this recently in the news with the many allegations of harassment.

This is where it’s important for the leader to have and show strong and ethical core values.   Strong leaders lead with integrity, which requires telling the truth and treating people fairly and with respect.   See my prior IPWatchdog article on the importance of strong core values to ethical decision-making.

Idle Staff Hurts Morale

Take an interest in what your team members are doing at work.   Make certain that they are busy and that each of them is receiving a mix of interesting and routine work.   The worst mistake is to have attorneys with nothing to do.   I have found this to be a morale buster.

This cautions against not hiring too many attorneys.   Between the two problems, it’s better to have too few staff members than too many.   It also helps to work with your attorneys and provide insights to help them get to the right result and faster.

Along the same vein, make certain that you integrate laterals and that they have an integration plan and that you review it frequently with them.   Introduce them to the other partners or managers and explain how they can add value to the organization and its clients.

This Will Be Difficult

We all get stressed and forget to include the team from time-to-time.   It’s easy when there are emergencies to fix and people demanding quick answers.   Yet, peak performance requires us to include the team and keep them focused on the goals that we have set.

We all want to have a motivated and focused team helping us.

This can be challenging to accomplish well.   For example, success at a law firm is built on individual success and billings.  Compensation is based on individual, not team performance. There may be little, if any, incentive at a law firm for an individual partner to help another partner’s team.

Unlike a law firm, team performance is a big focus in corporations and Government.   The performance of the team, rather than individuals, is the most important measure.   Yet, pressures can take us away from the team approach if we don’t consciously focus on it.

This requires dedication to the process and that involves spending time with the team to explain the vision and the goals and also making every member feel like they are valuable and making a contribution.

If you would like more information on developing teams, motivating top performance and working to achieve success, see Bernie’s coaching website.

The Author

Bernard Knight

Bernard Knight is a career coach and counselor, and is a licensed professional mental health counselor in Washington, D.C. Bernie was a partner practicing complex patent litigation in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP from 2013-2017. Prior to joining McDermott, Bernie served as General Counsel for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) from 2010 to 2013. As General Counsel of the USPTO, he led the development and legal review of the regulations implementing the new Inter Partes review, post grant review, business method review and derivation proceedings, as well as the regulations changing the United States to a first-inventor-to-file system. Bernie previously served as Acting General Counsel of the U.S. Treasury at the height of the financial crisis. From 2001 to 2006, he was Deputy General Counsel for the USPTO. Bernie began his government career in 1991 at the Department of Justice, Tax Division, where he served for 10 years.

For more information or to contact Bernie, check out his Coaching Website.

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