5 Principles To Manage A Law Firm: From One Lawyer to Another

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is from guest writer and personal injury attorney at Bighorn Law, Ryan Anderson on 5 principles to manage a law firm successfully. Ryan is also the co-founder of Filevine, one of the most innovative case management software’s available today.

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I use the word ‘manage’ all the time. And I never thought to wonder where it came from.

But one day I stumbled onto the history of the word. And that moment has changed my perspective on the way I manage my life, my staff, and my practice.

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Manage. This word we use every day has a bizarre history. But when I tell you where it comes from, don’t stop reading. I promise this is relevant to law firm managers.

It’s about horses. ‘Manage’ is from ‘manège’, which was used in 16th century France to describe some new forms of training and handling a horse.

Why should you care about arcane equestrians? Because they had a revolutionary philosophy which balanced discipline and freedom. This metaphor is more relevant than ever. I hope that resurrecting the roots of the word will reign in some bad behavior in law firm management — and open new sources of growth and power.

Here are 5 principles law firm managers can learn from these old manège horse-trainers:

Management Principle #1: Expect more from your practice

The horses of medieval France were often treated as dumb brutes. The revolution of the manège was in recognizing the intelligence and capacity of horses — not as tools to be used, but as partners.

As a result, trainers asked horses to do far more intricate and nuanced movements. And the animals rose to the challenge. You can see the results in modern forms of dressage (or, for the less high-brow: that horse that dances to Achy-Breaky Heart).

Apply the manège to managing your law firm. Begin with yourself. Don’t sink into robotic task-fulfillment. Figure out your real aspirations, and set aside time to reach them.

Don’t ask staff to work longer hours, like beasts of burden. Do ask them to learn new skills, stretch into new roles, develop creative solutions to your firm’s problems. This even works for team members who are happiest when they remain in a stable position. Without radically changing their work, they can master new aspects, deepen their understanding, and build your practice.

While you’re at it, ask more of your software. Your case management system isn’t a simple filing-cabinet-in-the-cloud. It should be able to give you targeted data with advanced reporting to guide your decisions. It should open up new spaces to engage with clients. It should grow and develop with your firm.

Management Principle #2: Hold tight to goals, metrics, and routines

The paces of the manège are elaborate and specific. Similarly, good managers need to establish good routines and hold to them. And this is even more important in a law firm, where one sloppy mistake could lead to a malpractice suit.

Your case management routines should be the framework of your workday. This is especially true for communicating and storing information. Our motto is “if it’s not in Filevine, it didn’t happen,” which means our routine includes moving all information into the digital file. But whatever your case management system is, ensure a tight routine that’s well-known to each team member.

Another part of your routine should include objective evaluation. Regularly gather metrics on finances and performance. Understand where you need improvement, and move forward from there.

Management Principle #3: Cultivate patience

The trainers of the manège understood that no horse was trained overnight. Manage your practice with patience. Show patience to your staff. Show patience to yourself.

Yes, you’re expecting a lot from your team members. But keep a realistic sense of the time needed to develop this deeper progress.

Management Principle #4: Understand motivations

The manège was born from the natural movements of a horse. A good manager understands their own natural motivations, as well as those of their team members. They accentuate them to fulfill group needs.

In the great book Radical Candor, Kim Malone Scott explains that “to build a great team, you need to understand how each person’s job fits into their life goals.” That means “you must let go of your judgments and your own ambitions, forget for a while what you need from people, and focus on getting to know each person as a human being.”

Some team members feel constant ambition to grow and change. Others are happiest with a stable role that they can master. Some find a deep passion and inherent meaning in their work. Others are doing it for the paycheck.

All of these can be great team members. All of them can do stellar work. You, as the manager, just have to keep their motivations in sight.

Does your receptionist secretly want to go to law school and become a managing partner one day? Then find frequent opportunities for challenge, education, and growth. Reward her with promotions. Is your paralegal’s only work-related ambition to be a great paralegal? You can still expect growth: you can challenge her to master her craft and to engage better with clients. But, as Kim Malone Scott explains, you may want to recognize and reward her progress without giving promotions, which would force her into a position of unwanted responsibility.

Management Principle #5: Manage… Don’t Bully

Perhaps the most revolutionary idea of the manège is that horses and riders respond best not to coercion, but out of love for the shared activity.

Are you coercing, threatening, or demeaning your staff members? Are you making them hate their jobs? Keep in mind that you can bully staff members without even meaning to. When you have power over someone, they may hear your words as cutting and cruel, though you think you’re just joking around. Over a third of the American workforce report bullying in the workplace. And most of those bullies are bosses.

So how can you manage in a way that engages excitement rather than fear?

As often as possible, manage through collaboration. Allow for group decision-making processes. As Kim Malone Scott puts it:

Kick-ass bosses often do not decide themselves, but rather create a clear decision-making process that empowers people closest to the facts to make as many decisions as possible. Not only does that result in better decisions, it results in better morale.

This is probably the true core of this word ‘management.’ From the 16th century to now, it’s not about commands or compulsion. True management means building a team that can create something beautiful together.

About Ryan Anderson from Big Horn Law and Filevine:

As a personal injury attorney with Bighorn Law, Ryan Anderson has tried and resolved cases totaling millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements. As the co-founder of Filevine, he creates case management solutions that rock.

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