“Lawyers make the best managers”, said no one ever.

Of course, many lawyers are excellent managers of people. But I don’t know how many times I’ve heard colleagues complain that their management obligations were “getting in the way of the day job”. And while I have learned a lot from the various bosses I have had throughout my career, many of the lasting lessons on people management have come from witnessing how not to do it.

I was offered a training contract at Allen & Overy exactly 20 years’ ago (what a strange sentence to type) when I was in the final year of a French and Italian degree at Edinburgh University. I can remember feeling a huge sense of relief that the next four years were mapped out for me: two years at law school in Nottingham, and then two years training at A&O’s offices in the City.

If I’m completely honest, for me the main attraction at the time was a combination of prolonging student life and a clear passage to London to join all my friends. Sure, at that stage I had a vague interest in business and was pleased to be joining a firm which may enable me to use my languages, but I don’t recall the academic (or in law firm parlance, “technical”) aspect of law, or indeed the status of the profession more generally, being much of a draw.

(It’s probably no surprise that I chose to qualify into that least technical area of law, corporate, nor that I (first) left law at 2 years PQE to become A&O’s HR Manager for Trainees because I was so keen to have line management responsibility. Had you told me that I would be a partner one day, I would have laughed in your face.)

When I joined A&O, many of my superiors came from generations where intellectual rigour and the prestige of the profession were actually the main reasons for becoming lawyers in the first place. They would certainly have seen themselves as “trusted advisers”, but the notion of the “business enabler” was less common – “manager” and “leader” even less so, although some would have discovered that they were very good in these positions along the way. For the others, not only did they not identify with these terms, they were also quite dismissive of the need for lawyers to develop the skills required to perform these roles well. Delivering excellent work and generating income (which I’m not disputing are the fundamental elements of a successful practice) were what these lawyers chose to focus on. Their style of management (not that they knew that they had one) was consequently “command and control”.

Last month I gave a virtual presentation organised by Legal News Wales to a group of lawyers about how to manage teams remotely. I gave the game away fairly early on by saying that I believed that the best way to achieve this was to become a better manager, and that to do that, they should adopt a coaching style of management.

A coaching style requires managers to give support and guidance, rather than instructions; and to ask questions and listen, rather than offer advice. It’s the very antithesis of “command and control”, and therefore, as I acknowledged in my presentation, a style which is particularly challenging for lawyers. But for the lawyers who manage to buck the trend (and this is something that I can help with) the reward will be happier, more engaged teams: this is desirable at the best of normal times, but even more crucial yet elusive in today’s world of remote working. And lawyers will then find that they have more time to devote to the “day job”.