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People Management

3 Keys to Building Accountable Legal Teams That Get Things Done

By Debbie Foster

Truly effective teams work efficiently to get things done — and not just any things, but the right things.

Most law firm leaders know this to be true, whether we like it or not: Simply doing things — engaging in work-related activities and ticking off checkboxes on a list — is not the same as actually getting things done. Most of our days are spent either putting out fires or talking to team members and colleagues about the same old problems. Rarely is progress made, and rarely do we feel that we’re providing a significant contribution toward our firm’s success.

So where’s the problem? Often, it lies in our team structures. In most law firms, the word “team” means “a group of people working in the same space on the same types of tasks.” But a team can actually be so much more. Truly effective teams have complementary skill sets and are focused on a shared, common goal. They work efficiently and get things done — and not just any things, but the right things.

Doesn’t that sound nice? Does it also sound unattainable? It’s not. Any firm can build a cohesive, accountable and highly productive team, but it takes sustained, committed effort to develop the foundations needed to support effective teams. This is work that must be done together, with the dual goals of optimizing your team to better serve your clients and improve the work lives of everyone in the group.

Here are three keys to building an accountable team that gets things done for your firm.

1. Defining Roles

Don’t let people suffer in roles in which they can’t succeed. Take the time to look first at what your firm needs to be done. Package that insight into reasonable roles, thinking of only the “what,” not the “who.” Once you know which seats you need to fill, set out to find the folks on your team best suited to filling them, regardless of their current job descriptions or titles. This process, which sets each employee up for daily success, leads to confidence within each of your team members as well as confidence in each other.

2. Managing Teams for Effectiveness

No two tasks, two people or two days are the same. Our business is constantly changing. We need to provide our people and our teams with intentional paths for growth and adaptation. There are a couple of ways to accomplish that:

The right meetings, the right way

None of us wants to experience — or inflict — the dreaded “death by meeting,” but providing regular avenues for your teams to work on your business, not just in your business, is critical. Meetings that are well run, on time and highly focused can be vital catalysts to innovation. Demonstrating confidence in your team’s ability to meet new challenges within these meetings feeds their own confidence and accountability.

Intentional Leadership

Invest in your people through one-on-one quick meetings to proactively find and solve issues before they become big problems. Explore what people are and aren’t doing well, what they need and how to improve your employees’ experience and your team’s productivity.

3. Focusing on Your Firm’s Culture

A firm’s culture is the secret sauce that elevates a good team to an incredible team. Your culture coalesces your team around a single mindset and mission. It defines what matters in your organization and provides a framework for individual and group accountability.

Start building a culture of accountability by defining your core values. What are the two to five things that set you apart from your competitors and determine success at your firm? Find ways to weave them into your everyday internal communications, your marketing materials, your employee performance reviews and your team meetings.

Further refine your organizational culture by defining some basic “rules of engagement” for your firm. These might, for example, include expectations for giving and receiving feedback. Go even further by adopting a specific communication style model for your firm — like DiSC, Galen’s four temperaments or even Myers-Briggs.

Whatever method you choose, be sure to apply it consistently across groups, employees and settings.

Shifting your focus from the daily running of your firm to team structure, leadership and culture may not come easily to you — it’s not intuitive to everyone. But the more effort you invest in building an effective and accountable team, the less time you’ll spend focusing on barriers to achieving the productivity and profitability you want for your firm.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Debbie Foster Debbie Foster

Debbie Foster is a nationally recognized thought leader on efficiency and innovation in professional legal organizations. Having worked with law firms and legal departments since 1995, she combines her mix of strategic management and strong leadership skills to help them navigate the ever-changing legal services delivery landscape. Foster has earned her Lean Six Sigma Certification and is active in legal industry associations including the Association of Legal Administrators and the ABA Law Practice Division. Follow her on LinkedIn and on Twitter @DebbieFoster @AffinityLegal.

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