Being a Good Leader

As lawyers we often sign up for chaos. Many of us thrive in it. But here’s the thing about chaos: chaos, like all parts of life, provides an opportunity to learn and evolve and do the chaos better next time. Unfortunately, many of us just want to enjoy the end of the chaos and be thankful we survived! We regroup and brace for the next round. But in that regrouping there is also an opportunity to debrief and take action to make the next round of chaos much less painful.

Most senior attorneys have had that moment in the middle of a fire drill when the a junior attorney brings them work that is less than stellar. We can smell the all-nighter wafting from their work product and we can see the panic in their eyes. Having lived through it ourselves, we know how to spot the signs of young attorneys who are floundering on the verge of a complete meltdown. When this happens, our impulse is typically to take the crappy work product we just received and fix it ASAP so that we can continue to weather the storm.

We add to our plate for the sake of sanity and efficiency.

In those moments, our minds are filled with angry rantings and ravings aimed at those young attorneys, frustrated at the work they’ve given us. We know they are just skating by, counting on all of those above them to fix their mistakes! We get indignant and vow to never work with them again! We’re hesitant to give them work and we no longer trust them for the next project, mentally deleting them from the team roster. Never mind that every time their shining and hopeful faces darken our doors, we just want to scream at them.

Then, like anything in life, once the painful part is over, we don’t really want to spend time digging through the muck and thoughtfully considering our misery in any of kind of existential way. We just want to move on and try to enjoy some semblance of life before the next storm. But consider what we miss out on when we don’t force ourselves to go back through the experience and use its teachings to strategize the next nightmare.

It’s no wonder that there are so many senior attorneys who have a penchant for treating associates terribly. They are tired of “fixing” the mistakes of their juniors and then internally festering about it thereafter. After years and years of bottling up that frustration, it comes out in sharp language and harsh rebukes. But it doesn’t have to be this way; if we do our own work, we can be better and DO better for the next generation.

Besides, how can we expect young attorneys to ever get better at managing the chaos if we don’t eventually hold them accountable and help them to grow once the dust has settled?

In these situations, every attorney has a few options. They can fix the mistakes of their junior attorneys, cover them up, and stay silent in their anger, letting that frustration and bitterness grow and impact their relationships with young and developing attorneys. Most of us don’t even realize we are living in this camp. We see this more of an “out of sight, out of mind,” approach and I call that BS. It might be out of sight, out of mind in the euphoria that comes at the end of a chaotic week but those judgements and frustrations will inevitably resurface the next time we work with the person at issue and it will likely drive us to avoid recurrences. The end result? We take on too much and refuse to delegate because we “don’t trust” the junior attorneys to “do it right.” Fast forward to us getting burnt out and the junior attorneys not developing…and the cycle continues!

On the other hand, once that fire drill is over, leaders can have that uncomfortable conversation, give the feedback, and start setting some clear boundaries. When we let people know the impact their actions (or inactions) have on us, it builds accountability and awareness of the team dynamic. It provides an opportunity for them to do better the next time and helps them understand the importance of their role. It also provides an opportunity to provide clarity around future expectations–This is the only time I’m willing to re-do XYZ for you in the middle of a deal, the next time I’m going to make you re-do it even if it holds up everything else and I will let the rest of the team know of the issue.

Neither approach feels good. Neither approach is going to be fun. But in the approach where we give honest feedback, maybe those attorneys will stop making those same mistakes and perhaps we can develop an honest and open partnership where we can learn to trust and rely on each other. Maybe that approach will allow all of us to grow into senior attorneys and partners who not constantly fuming at young associates and the mistakes that they make. Perhaps we can get really good at providing the kind of feedback that we wish others had given to us when we were baby lawyers. Over time, we can become skilled at seeing these frustrating moments as providing a future opportunity to invest in the relationship and implement measures that might just prevent those things from happening again in the future.

It’s so easy to walk away from the chaos and just forget what happened and keep moving forward.

But the reality of it is that we don’t just forget.

When members of our team drop the ball in the middle of a project and we don’t eventually have that conversation, we don’t forget. We remember, we stew about it, and we develop a mistrust amongst our team members. If after every chaotic week, we were able to conduct a post-mortem and review the performance of those around us, looking for opportunities to mentor, develop, and provide authentic feedback to the rest of our team, imagine how much easier the next chaotic week just might be?

To be clear, I’m not making excuses for senior attorneys who lash out and treat associates terribly, but rather I can fully understand why they feel that way after years and years of being disappointed in the midst of chaos by those around them and having to swoop in and “save the day.” It’s difficult to not understand how lonely and frustrating it would feel to constantly mistrust everyone around you and feel like, if it weren’t for you, nothing would ever get done successfully. Bitter and angry? I get it. But there is a better way.

If you find yourself in leadership and mentorship roles and feeling angry and frustrated with those around you, let’s connect. I would love to spend a free consultation with you exploring ways to transform the way you lead and change the way you feel!

Photo by Anna Shvets

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