The secret to successful lawyer leadership

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By Liam J. Montgomery

Did you miss the class on leadership in law school? There probably wasn’t one. And at most law schools, leadership lessons are, at best, an afterthought. Yet, from virtually the day we pass the bar exam, lawyers must lead teams: first staff, then younger lawyers, then case teams, and ultimately, perhaps, entire law firms or offices, large or small.

Feedback should be Rule No. 1 for any leader. Research consistently shows that the most powerful motivator in any organization is the opportunity to learn, to grow in responsibility, to contribute to a group effort or cause and to have their leaders recognize them for those contributions. Lawyer-leaders often are so caught up in billable hours, salaries and bonuses that they lose sight of these fundamental precepts: People who feel good about their work produce results and are hungry to learn from their leaders so they can continue to improve and grow.

So what does good feedback look like? You have to catch your people doing something right. You have to praise them immediately and publicly. You have to put your praise in context for how it helped some larger effort at your organization. For example, how it helped a case team win a summary judgment motion or how it improved the way the office delivers some critical service. And when your people fall short, you have to address it constructively with them: immediately, privately and in person.

Two contrasting scenarios illustrate these principles. The first is from my time flying F-14 Tomcats in the Navy. Just after 9/11, my air wing conducted a multiweek exercise to prepare for a deployment we knew would find us flying combat missions in Afghanistan. My commanding officer put me in charge of a crucial training exercise and, to put it mildly, I screwed it up.

When we were alone after the flight, my skipper let me know how far I had fallen short in specific, concrete terms. Then, we went over every detail of the flight: what went right, what went wrong and how we would fix it for next time. I never screwed up a flight like that again—at least not to that extent. And that was the last time I heard about this misstep from my CO.

Liam MontgomeryLiam J. Montgomery.

Contrast this with a scene that plays out in law firms—in fact, likely in all organizations, legal or otherwise—all the time. A mid-level associate walks into a partner’s office to receive her annual review. She feels great about the year, having heard nothing but positive feedback. The review largely reflects that, with positive reviews nearly across the board.

But there is one exception: A partner who had worked with the associate told the review committee that nine months earlier, she had not met his expectations on a case—expectations, by the way, that the partner had never communicated to her in the first place. The associate left stunned and angry. Without this essential feedback, she never had the chance to fix the problem and improve.

Embedded in these two contrasting anecdotes are everything a lawyer-leader needs to know about the power and pitfalls of feedback:

Praise in public, critique in private

My CO waited until we were alone before he looked me in the eye and told me I had fallen short of his expectations. During the debrief with the other aircrew, although he communicated learning points with brutal honesty, he was careful to praise me for what I had done right during the flight in front of everyone else, too. In contrast, the associate’s negative review went to the entire partnership before the associate ever heard about it.

State your expectations

Feedback must follow from clear, up-front expectations. You cannot give feedback based on expectations you never set. My CO had briefed our flight in detail before we took off, so when I screwed up, I knew I had not met the expectations he had set for me. The law firm partner assumed the associate knew his unstated expectations and held her responsible for not meeting them.

Be clear, direct and immediate

My CO gave me feedback as soon as we were safely on deck, so that I could do something about it from the moment it happened, and he stated it in clear terms. During our flight debrief, we derived concrete learning points that I could apply in every flight after that. The law firm feedback was secondhand and nine months after the fact.

Provide regular input

Feedback absolutely, positively must never wait until an annual review. Annual reviews can be valuable discussions of how someone is progressing toward promotion and advancement. But that person should never hear something in an annual review—whether positive or constructive—that he or she did not hear soon after it happened.

Constructive feedback is just as important as praise—perhaps more so. People thrive and grow when you give them the feedback necessary to course correct. But it must be in private, result from clear expectations, be immediate and be constructive.

Find the person as soon as you can and do it in person. Start by asking questions of the person to spark their own introspection: How did you think that hearing went? What did you think of the redline edit to your draft? Guide them to the constructive lesson you want them to take from the experience, and be clear and specific for how they can improve.

Tell them your true view of their performance, but emphasize its tie only to this specific shortfall. Then, end on a positive. Rarely (read: never) is a performance an unvarnished failure. Point out a success, reaffirm how well you think of them generally (which you should have been telling them all along) and emphasize that you have moved on from the feedback and that they should, too. Healthy organizations are grudge-free.

Remember, people want (and need) feedback, no matter their position. Never forget the countless people working behind the scenes at your organization: Much like the mechanics who kept the airplanes in my squadron flying, the staff at your organization is the engine that drives it forward. That is true regarding both direct support—like your paralegals and assistants—and indirect support, such as kitchen staff, office services, library staff or accounting and human resources—to name just a few. In fact, effective feedback to your staff can be as simple as information about what you are doing and why they are important to you achieving it. They will feel more invested in your mission and, hopefully, more satisfied by their jobs.

Finally, feedback must be directed most of all back to yourself. As with any aspect of leadership, humility and authenticity are key to feedback. Be introspective and give yourself the honest feedback you may be getting less often as you move up the ranks. But also seek out 360-degree feedback by asking your people how you are doing. If you are hearing nothing, then you have not empowered your people to tell you things you need—but may not want—to hear.

Effective feedback is the lubricant of healthy organizations. With it, your organization will thrive. People will feel recognized and part of something larger than themselves. And they will course correct when they fall off track. Without it, resentments will fester, people will be ineffective and they will vote with their feet. Praise in public and critique in private and do it based on clear expectations, immediately and concretely. When it is over, move on. Your people will thank you for it. Your organization will thrive on it.


Liam J. Montgomery flew F-14 Tomcats in the U.S. Navy for more than 11 years before leaving the military to attend law school. He is a partner at Williams & Connolly, where he has practiced for more than 10 years. Follow his musings on leadership and management on Twitter (@lawyer_leader) and LinkedIn and through #lawyerleadership on both.


ABAJournal.com is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”



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