Ten Things: How to Manage People… and Lawyers

There are several things that I rarely, if ever, expect to hear in-house lawyers utter.  These include, “Hey, I’m really excited about that new ‘Rocky’ movie!” and “Is $1,500 an hour enough for that Big Law third-year associate?” or, my favorite, “This suit from Sears fits perfectly!” Right up there on the Mount Rushmore of “No One Said Ever” is this, “I really love managing people – it’s the best part of my day!”  Okay,  that may be stretching things a bit, but, in all seriousness, managing people in an in-house legal department (like anywhere) can be a… umm, taxing job (yeah, that’s the right word, taxing).  For sure, there are days when managing people – even lawyers – can be very rewarding and enjoyable.  The challenging part is figuring out how to make days like that the majority versus the minority.  This is difficult because – like many things I discovered post-law school – no one teaches or prepares in-house lawyers for managing people. There seems to be an assumption that if you are a good lawyer, you are automatically a good manager.  As you probably know by experience, that is not true.  Many great lawyers suck at managing people.  It is just not the way their brains are wired.  And when you put bad people managers in charge of people, it can be a disaster.  I have had the benefit of having many terrific managers, both in-house and in private practice.  And I have had a few duds.  I learned important lessons from both types in terms of how to manage people, i.e., things to do and things not to do. Regardless, if you want to get ahead in the in-house world, especially if you aspire to sit in the general counsel chair, then it’s something you will need to learn to do and do well.  This edition of “Ten Things” shares my experience with what works best when it comes to managing people in an in-house legal department:

1.  What have I gotten myself into?  For most first-time people managers, the myriad of issues that come with the job can be overwhelming.  Especially, if no one has trained you on things like having hard conversations, dealing with conflict, massaging egos, retaining talent, or motivating low performers.  These issues are only multiplied if you are promoted and now are managing people who were your peers yesterday, i.e., will they treat me differently now that I am the boss and should I treat them differently as well?  As you will see below, the answer is “yes.”  That doesn’t mean it will be bad, but it will be different, and you must expect this new dynamic and understand the changes necessary when you are the manager and no longer the “managee.”  Meaning, the very first question you must ask yourself is this, “Why do I want to manage people?”  If the reason is to get ahead or I think I would be good at it, that’s great.  You can pass Go and collect $200.   If your answer is because I want a raise or a change in title, then think again (and do not pass Go, go directly to Jail).  If these are your reasons, then this may not be something you truly want to do, and you will be asking yourself “My God!  What have I done?”  Probably once an hour every day.  So, before accepting or volunteering to become a people manager, think about (a) the reasons why you want the job and (b) how you will get trained for the new role. The answers matter.

2.  Get trained!  If you are not properly trained in how to manage people, you will almost certainly fail and/or be miserable in the role (or both).  The good news is that most companies have manager training programs (for new and experienced managers).  The bad news is that they usually forget about including managers from the legal department in that training. Before you accept a manager role, ask what resources are available to you to help you learn and/or hone your managerial skills.  While this may be a blow to your ego, i.e., you don’t naturally know how to manage people, put your ego to the side and go learn the basics of people management (or, if you are already a manager, go get a refresher).  You will be surprised at how much you don’t know and be grateful for gaining skills that will serve you well in the role, e.g., how to tell someone they will not be getting a raise, a promotion, or a bonus.  Hint: this is not an easy conversation, but it is one you will frequently have.  If the company doesn’t provide training, look online for courses.  For example:

And don’t forget YouTube or good old-fashioned books!

3.  Hire the right people (and make changes when you must).  If you think about it, each chair in the legal department is an incredibly precious commodity.  Make sure you are filling each seat on your team with the best people possible.  There are a number of things that go into finding the “best” people, but in my experience it comes down to three things: a) skill, b) attitude, and c) drive.  If I can find an in-house lawyer with the skills I need, the attitude I want, and the drive necessary to overcome the obstacles that pop up every day in-house, then I have found the golden ticket in my Wonka bar and am headed to the chocolate factory.  If I miss on any one of these, I am probably going to have a problem, e.g., skill cannot overcome a bad attitude, and drive cannot overcome the inability to do the job.  Consequently, your ability to manage well depends in part on the people you have underneath you. If you don’t have the best people possible, the biggest mistake a manager can make is to let it ride.  To be blunt, they are either worth keeping (and worth the investment of time, effort, and treasure to make them better) or they are not.  If not, you must manage them out and find someone who better fits the bill (see my “Ten Things” post on how to fire someone).  The hiring process is critical to your success as a manager and worth the extra effort to ensure the job description (heavily customized), interview process (and questions you ask),[1] and reference checks (a necessity) are top notch.  A professional recruiter can be incredibly helpful in locating the right person even though they do not come cheap.  One great resource I found is the Princeton Legal Search Group’s General Counsel Guide to Hiring the Best Legal Talent.

4.  Listen to them.  If I had to pick one soft skill that makes managing in-house lawyers easier it would be listening, or active listening as it’s often defined.  Lawyers like to be heard and generally have something to say.  When managing them, it is important to put your own lawyer hat aside and learn to listen.  Simply put, active listening is a skill you can hone over time and involves the following steps: a) truly listen and hear the other person (don’t interrupt or cut them off), b) no matter what your employee is telling you, keep an open mind and suspend judgment (just listen), c) think and then paraphrase back – don’t assume you understand.  Think about what they are saying and summarize it back to them to make sure you truly understand what they are telling you (empathy can be critical here), d) ask open-ended and clarifying questions – help your employee think through the answer for themselves (vs. just defending what they told you, which is the natural inclination of most lawyers), and e) share your own insights and ideas with them to think about the things neither of you have tried yet.[2]  When your lawyers feel listened to (critical for employee job satisfaction) they will perform better – and you will be able to nip most employee issues in the bud, before they become bigger issues.  For more on honing your listening skills, check out 11 Active Listening Skills to Practice.

5.  Celebrate… everything! There is one simple truism that has served me well as manager – everyone likes to feel special (including the most jaded in-house lawyer).  As a manager, your job is to make this come to life.  The best part is that it generally costs you little to nothing to accomplish this goal.  Start with the most basic way to make someone feel special, say “thank you.” It is literally that easy.  If someone has done a good job or handled a task or whatever the case may be, a simple “thank you, nice job” is the easiest way to make someone feel special.  From there, it only takes a bit more effort to dramatically up the game on making people feel good about working for you and being part of your team.  Celebrate their wins.  Give them recognition for their efforts and contributions no matter how small they may be.  Why?  Because even if their contribution was small, it was still part of getting the job done.  No one succeeds only by their own efforts.  Someone has helped you somehow.  Recognize them for it.  The same goes for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, babies, graduations, and all of the other wonderful things that happen in people’s lives every day.  Telling someone “happy birthday” or recognizing they have been with the team for three years is an easy way to let them know you care about them as a person and that you appreciate having them on your team.  If they have a big win or accomplishment, even better.  Celebrate that as well.  If they have busted their ass for four straight weekends (or even one), don’t let that pass as just “part of the job.”  It may be, but letting them know that you know they gave above and beyond effort is what makes a good manager and will more often than not, make them continue to give that type of effort because they know you recognize it and appreciate it.  Tout your team to your manager and/or senior management at the company.  Don’t be shy about telling the business about the successes of your employees.  Marketing the legal department is critical to showing value.  Lastly, one of the most effective things I ever did as a manager was create a simple traveling award that we handed out at department meetings to recognize someone’s achievements.  It cost practically nothing to create, but to this day I hear from people who worked for me how much getting that award and recognition meant to them.  In other words, take no one for granted and consistently let them know you appreciate them and their efforts.  It will pay you back a hundredfold.

6.  Be a coach.  Think back on the most effective managers you have had over the course of your career (or even in a job you had before you became a lawyer).  I am betting right now that you are thinking of someone who pointed out something you did not do well and then spent time with you showing how to do it correctly and why it matters.  It’s the second part that distinguishes great managers from the rest.  No one, no matter how experienced, comes to any job 100% prepared to do everything perfectly.  It just doesn’t happen, even with lawyers.  As you manage, look for opportunities to coach.  Most lawyers can take criticism very well, in fact, they almost ache for it because they know it is the only way they can get better.[3]  Don’t be afraid to give it.  But it must be constructive criticism (not destructive), as no one appreciates being berated or belittled.  If that is your management style you are not cut out for the role. Period.[4]  The only thing worse than giving unhelpful criticism is not giving any at all and then blindsiding someone with it months later, e.g., “I wasn’t satisfied with the presentation on the Jones litigation you put together back in January, so I am not giving you a bonus this year.”  My rule as general counsel was this, “If I am unhappy about something you will know it in real time.  I will not blindside you during reviews at the end of the year.”  If you have criticism, give it as soon as practicable so the employee can learn from it and improve.  Yes, it will take more of your time to sit down and explain what needs to be fixed and why, but doing so is incredibly helpful to the employee and you will get better work product the next go around.  Isn’t that really what you’re after?  The perfect time to do this is during your regular 1-on-1 meetings (but, if necessary) simply schedule some time to go over the assignment and coach them up!

7.  Delegate properly.  Unfortunately, there is a long list of things that lawyers don’t do very well (myself included).  High on that list is a reluctance to delegate properly.  Yet, delegating tasks properly is critical to being a good manager.  Why are we so bad at this critical skill?  Primarily because lawyers tend to think that no one can do the work correctly other than themselves (false), or they view it only as a way to get work off their desk and onto someone else’s desk (bad).  Smart managers understand the true value of delegation and how to delegate properly. In short, delegation is about teaching someone to do work that you have already mastered when there is little value to you (or the legal department) in you continuing to do it.  Delegating properly frees you up to do higher value projects and allows the delegee to learn a new skill and enhance their value to the legal department.  Here are the core steps to proper delegation:

  • Determine what you want to (and can) delegate (it must be work you have likely mastered).
  • Invest the necessary time to train the person on the task.
  • Give clear instructions on what needs to be done and when it is due.
  • Set-up check-in points so you can monitor progress and work quality.
  • Review what they give you and give them constructive feedback (this may mean redlining their document and walking them through your redlines).
  • Let them do it their way (they may not do it the same way you would and that’s okay.  Learn to let go).

Proper delegation requires commitment, communication, and coaching.  Be ready to provide all three knowing that if done correctly, you have a much happier employee and you no longer have to worry about the delegated task being on your plate.  For more see my “Ten Things” blog on the basics of delegation or one of my favorite books on the topic, The Busy Manager’s Guide to Delegation.

8.  Motivate them.  A big part of your job as a manager is to motivate the people who work for you.  In a perfect world, everyone would be self-motivated and a self-starter.  Unfortunately, that world doesn’t exist – even when managing lawyers, who are known generally as being self-starters.  Meaning, it is up to you to determine how to get the people who work for you excited about the day ahead, the project you have just handed them, or the company in general.  Here are five things I believe are key to motivating people:

  • Have a vision – all leaders need to know where they are leading to.  It’s no different if you are the general counsel of a 200 person legal department or if you manage two people.  Everyone needs to know where you are going, why they should go along for the ride, and how what they do helps accomplish the vision, i.e., where do they fit in?
  • Manage like you would like to be managed – we have all had good and bad experiences as employees.  Think about the things that your managers did that you really liked, that motivated you to do more or better work.  Then think about the things that you hated, that made you feel disgruntled or uninspired to try your best.  Manage the way that motivated you the best and avoid the things that made you want to quit.  Similarly, be enthusiastic and positive about the department and the work it does.  If you’re not, why should those who work for you be any different?
  • Figure out the cats and dogs – not everyone responds in the same way.  As manager, you need to figure out what type of employees you have and what are the things you can say or do that get each of them to perform at their highest level.  Some like to be left alone and only come around if they have a specific need or question.  They are happy with autonomy and responsibility.  I call these people “cats.”  Others need a lot of attention and reinforcement that they are doing a good job, that you are paying attention to them, that you are willing to spend time with them.  I call these people “dogs.”  Figure out your cats and dogs and manage with that in mind.  Hopefully, you have more cats than dogs but, in the end, if they are good lawyers adopt the right style to get the best out of them.
  • Be transparent –  cats or dogs (or hamsters or platypuses), it doesn’t matter – everyone wants to be “in the know” as much as possible, especially lawyers.  Unless there is a reason secrecy or discretion is needed, be open with your team about what’s going on at the company and in the department, how what they are working on fits into the bigger picture, and what (individually) they are doing well and what needs improvement.  In other words, be as transparent and honest with them as you can be.   This is how you build real trust.
  • Be fair and consistent – it’s a basic human need, but lawyers in particular want to know that they are being treated fairly and the same as others.  As a manager this means you do not play favorites, and you are consistent with recognition and with criticism. You may have a favorite or two, but you cannot let that color your judgment or how you manage.

9.  Friendly vs. friend.  This is a tough one.  Especially if you have been promoted from among your peers and now you are their boss.  It is certainly okay to be friendly and cordial with your team, to ask them how their weekend was, wish them a happy birthday, and take them to lunch. But you cannot be an effective manager if you are overly friendly.  Friends are equal.  In the workplace, you are the boss.  There is a big difference.  Everyone likes to be the good guy, but being manager means sometimes you have to be the bad guy (just like being a parent).  It’s easier to do when you have some distance between you and your team.  I am not talking about a chasm, but even just trying to treat everyone fairly and consistently will drive a change in how you interact with the people you like best.  And regardless of what you do, your team will start to treat you differently no matter what.  Why?  Because you are the boss and that title changes things no matter how much you wish that it didn’t.  It’s not personal.  It’s just what happens when titles change.  Embrace it.

10.  Managing remote employees.  This may be its own ”Ten Things” blog topic one day soon, but the biggest challenge most managers face in 2023 is how to effectively manage people who you rarely see and who may rarely see you.  This is, of course, a result of Covid, which has changed the work environment forever in my opinion.  There may be some going back.  But there are few businesses that will go back to how things were in January of 2020.  In fact, post-Covid, many businesses have adopted a permanent hybrid schedule where employees work some in the office and some remotely (or even mostly or all remotely).  While there are some benefits to this type of flexibility, it can (and does) cause a lot of issues for managers.  Not because people aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing (though that can be an issue), but because it is ten times more difficult to build the connective tissue of a team that was a natural part of the legal department when everyone was in the office every day.  Fortunately, it’s not hopeless.  Here are a few things you can do as a manager to help keep your team connected even when they are not together:

  • Use technology to stay in touch and collaborate.
  • Communicate frequently.
  • Set clear expectations and goals
  • Find ways to engage with everyone. Use Teams or Slack to create a team channel to celebrate wins, birthdays, share news, pictures, etc.  Make it the new water cooler.
  • Emphasize work/life balance (we all know it’s harder to separate work time from family time when you work out of your home office).
  • Trust your team to do what they are supposed to be doing until they give you a reason to think otherwise.  But don’t spend your time “checking up” on people, especially lawyers.  They do not like it (would you?).
  • Ensure that people who are remote travel to spend time at the home office.  Meeting people in person will change everything for the better.
  • Host a yearly offsite.  Having people meet in person is the single best thing you can do to build a team.
  • Survey your team regularly to see what they think works best and would help them be more productive and engaged when working remotely.
  • Go above and beyond when it comes to mentoring your remote reports.
  • If you are traveling in a city where you have a remote worker, try to carve out time for coffee, lunch, dinner or whatever you can squeeze in.  Even 30 minutes will mean everything to them.
  • Make department meetings worthwhile and meaningful.
  • Ask other managers (in the department or outside of the department – or even outside the company) how they manage remote workers (what works and what doesn’t).
  • Remind your remote employees that they have a role in ensuring that working remotely works for them, i.e., it’s not all on you as the manager.

For more see my “Ten Things” blog on managing a dispersed legal team.  I have also found this e-book, 43 Remote Work Best Practices, Strategies, and Tips for Your Business to be really good.


Well, there you have it.  My tips on how to be a good (great?) manager in the legal department circa 2023.  You might also check out my “Ten Things” post on how to lead for even more ideas. Still, I don’t have all the answers, but I know that, for the most part, in-house lawyers are like any other employee and things that work generally should work for them as well.  Yet, your team of in-house lawyers is incredibly smart and perceptive (with a good dash of ego thrown in for good measure).  This can make managing them a challenge because you cannot dazzle them with manager gibberish, they will challenge what you say (it’s just their nature), and they will see clearly when you are trying to hide something from them or if something has “changed.”  So, yeah, there’s that.  But, if you want to move up the ladder in the in-house world, you will have to take on employee management, like it or not.  This will mean some tough days ahead, but it will also mean a lot of good days.  I have enjoyed managing people because I like the camaraderie that comes when a team is well-placed and firing on all cylinders.  I have learned to appreciate those rare times when everything is in sync and it’s a true pleasure to come into the office.  It doesn’t last forever (nothing does), but when you find it, it is magical.  If you are a manager, go for magical.  It’s much more interesting and fun.

Sterling Miller

April 29, 2023

My fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center is available right now, including as an eBook!  The first printing sold out, but the second printing is now back in stock and the ABA is banking on sales to help fund its Memorial Day Picnic.  So, go buy this book and help keep the ABA in hot dogs and potato chips!  You can buy it HERE.

Cover of Value Book

Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are also on sale on the ABA website (including as e-books).

I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.

If you have questions or comments, or ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net, or if you would like a CLE for your in-house legal team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com.

[1] See also https://resources.workable.com/legal-counsel-interview-questions, https://mcca.com/mcca-article/7-questions-to-ask-lawyer-candidates/, and https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/resources/how-to-hire-guides/lawyer/interview-questions for more tips on crafting great interview questions.

[2] This last part is the origin story of the “Ten Things” blog, i.e., a tactic I used frequently as general counsel when something came up that no one had dealt with or didn’t know how to proceed, i.e., “Let’s get in a room and whiteboard ten things we need to know about this topic.”  Not flashy, but effective.

[3] And if you have someone who is resistant to coaching, they may not be someone you want around for the long term.

[4] Seriously, quit now and give the job over to someone who can do it correctly and go write on the whiteboard “Being an asshole accomplishes nothing” 100 times.  Off you go.



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