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Management challenges in the legal sector

The Challenges of Management in Law Firms and Chambers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Nobody goes into the legal sector because they want an easy job. Anyone who does is swiftly disavowed of that notion by the long hours, heavy workload and sheer competitiveness of the industry. But due to the unique structure of both, there are often clear challenges with management that must be overcome if chambers and practices are to thrive. So let’s take a look at some of the key management challenges in the legal sector.

Management challenges in law firms

The nature of these structures means that the hierarchies within law firms are often rather complicated. Problems with management can often stem from disagreement between leaders. While partners often go in order of seniority, the fact remains that they’re all on the leadership level. Every firm is unique in its values and structure, so when partners disagree, it can sow chaos through the ranks and bring down productivity. 

Research by Deloitte shows that 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture to be vital for a successful business. When asked which factors contribute substantially to a company’s success, 62% of company executives cited ‘clearly defined and communicated core values and beliefs.’ While more executives valued ‘clearly defined business strategies,’ what is worth noting is that when employees (i.e. the people most likely to suffer under a conflict of leadership) were asked this question, the percentages who selected these answers were much closer, with both over 50%.

People management is a skill often missing in some senior lawyers, just one of the management challenges in the legal sector

People management is a complex skill, distinct from those required to do legal work. Your talent as a lawyer might get you promoted, but you’ll need more than that to excel in a leadership position. On top of that, it’s not uncommon for a managing partner to continue taking an active role in cases. From a personal perspective, this is understandable. Passion for legal work is presumably why many got into it in the first place. But legal casework and company management are both full-time jobs, and it’s near impossible for either to be effectively done in half measures.

Law firms as a whole have a general lack of professional management from outside the legal sector. This is due in part to the tradition of having managing partners, as well as the perception that it takes a lawyer to run a law firm. But this requires newly promoted partners to learn management skills on the job, leaving everyone working under them to suffer the consequences. The results of this are clear to see, with the 2017 NALP Associate Attrition Report finding that 44% of associates leave their firms within three years.

Unless firms are willing to take on management from outside the legal profession, the only solution is for lawyers to be given suitable management training. This is certainly feasible, as young lawyers often continue aspects of their legal education as they work their way up a firm’s ranks. What makes this especially important is the fact that the traits which make someone a successful lawyer, such as scepticism, can impede them as a manager by making it more difficult to create a trusting work environment.

One of the many management challenges in the legal sector stems from the lack of training senior staff can often go through prior to taking on a management role.

Management challenges for law chambers

With around 80% of barristers being self-employed, while staff members such as legal clerks or HR personnel are directly employed by the chamber, problems with management can be hard to address. Take a look at the personnel listing for any of the law chambers in the UK, and it becomes apparent with many that their organisational structures all work a little bit differently. Some are administrated by the Chief Executive or practice manager, while others are run by the most senior clerks.

Being a junior barrister is a profession fraught with difficulty, and according to the Bar Council’s “Wellbeing at the Bar” survey found that the majority of respondents saw showing stress at work as a sign of weakness. So as many young barrister struggle, there is often nowhere for them to turn when chambers lack properly established HR departments.

This lack of traditional support structure is a major issue for chambers management. Barristers and other staff working alongside can lack access to proper HR departments, with that side of the business often handled by clerks without specialist HR knowledge. The Bar Council took steps to address this in 2017, appointing Narrow Quay HR as a consulting agency. Dr Isabel DiVanna, Commercial Director at the Bar Council, said, ‘Chambers often tell us that HR is one area where they feel additional insight is needed, as it’s easy to get things wrong – and costly when this happens. VWV is a reputable firm and trusted Bar Council partner, so we anticipate this additional provision being of particular value to our colleagues in chambers’ management.’

A lack of females and BAME representation in the higher echelons of firms and chambers is another of the key management challenges in the legal sector

This was an important step, as that same year, shortly prior to becoming the Chair of the Bar Council, Andrew Walker QC expressed concern at the lack of young barristers, saying, ‘To put it bluntly, we are recruiting and retaining ever fewer new tenants, and have been for over a decade, and the bar is steadily growing older.’

Then there is the issue of gender representation at the upper levels. While entry-level barrister positions have a more or less equal split, senior positions are still largely held by men, with disproportionate amounts of women being driven away from the profession. Less than a third of judges are women, and they make up only 15% of the Queen’s Council. While many drop out due to issues with work/life balance, the fact that a third of female lawyers have experienced sexual harassment while half have experienced workplace bullying must surely play a significant role and represents one of the key management challenges in the legal sector.

We have previously discussed how chambers can benefit from a digitised performance review process, and one of the benefits is the ability to raise issues confidentially via weekly check-ins. This would help leadership create real change from the top down.

If you think Weekly10’s habit-forming employee check-in or performance appraisal tools could benefit your practice, take a look at our demo options today.

Interested in learning how Weekly10 helps firms and chambers with management challenges?

Research Associate