Why Law Firms Need “Great Managers”

Topics: Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Talent Development

great managers

Law firms are struggling these days to do a better job of retaining their Millennial lawyers. Millennials famously have less loyalty and a shorter time frame before jumping ship than any previous generation. Is this a baked-in problem, or can something be done about it?

According to research by the Gallup Organization and others, there are definitely steps you can take to increase the commitment, engagement and tenure of your Millennials. The key is to develop what Gallup calls “great managers” to supervise the Millennial workforce.

Before we talk about “great” managers, let’s take a moment to recall that managers are not the same as leaders. Managers are focused internally, while leaders are focused externally. The role of “manager” evolved to oversee internal complexity, while the “leader” role evolved to cope with external change and uncertainty.

The main tasks of a manager are to facilitate the efficient performance of the work in a consistent and high-quality way, and to develop subordinates. By contrast, the main tasks of a leader are to set a direction when there’s insufficient information to know what the right direction is, and then to get people on board so they follow in that direction.

If you want your Millennials to be more committed, more engaged, and to stick around longer, this has to change. I’m not suggesting that we create a new layer of non-lawyer managers. Aside from the cost, that would not sit well with most lawyers. What I am proposing is more and better supervision of younger lawyers. Supervising lawyers should, at a minimum, understand and practice the precepts of great managers.

Average Managers vs. Great Managers

Average managers usually focus on control — making sure that everyone does what they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to. And their main approach to developing those they manage is to identify areas where they are deficient, and then coax their subordinates to work on their deficiencies to bring their performance up to speed.

Gallup has found that great managers, by contrast, set clear expectations about the outcomes but then allow ample leeway to their subordinates as to how they achieve those outcomes. (This increases the amount of autonomy accorded the subordinate. Research shows that this is one of the most highly motivating steps a manager can take.) And when it comes to developing people, great managers help their subordinates to identify their greatest strengths, and then help them to use these strengths in their work. They further work to cultivate those strengths, to make them even stronger. And when necessary, they try to adjust the work itself so that it plays to the employee’s strengths.


Gallup has found that great managers, by contrast, set clear expectations about the outcomes but then allow ample leeway to their subordinates as to how they achieve those outcomes.


What makes this “strengths” approach better than the conventional approach? Results. Here are some documented findings from Gallup’s research which comes from studies of more than 80,000 managers:

  • Employees who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job;
  • Employees who receive strengths-based feedback have a 14.9% lower turnover rate; and
  • Teams that receive strengths feedback have 8.9% greater profitability.

The Level of Engagement

And there’s one more astonishing but consistent statistic which requires a short explanation. Gallup regularly tracks the level of engagement of the workforce in many countries around the world. They publish monthly statistics about the level of engagement, and these statistics remain relatively constant. Gallup divides the responses to their engagement surveys into three categories. Here are the categories, with the typical percentage of the population that falls into each category. In any one individual business, these proportions can vary significantly, but across the general population, the proportional percentile distribution of these three groups remains fairly constant:

“Engaged” — These are workers who look forward to coming to work, give more than is expected of them, take the initiative instead of waiting for orders, “good-mouth” the organization to others, and are generally good corporate citizens. They represent about 30% of the workforce, and they’re the ones everyone wants in their organizations.

“Not engaged” — These are workers who do the minimum expected of them. They are generally dutiful, obedient and hard workers, but may have a “9 to 5” mindset about work. Many are working for a paycheck as opposed to seeing their work as a calling. They represent about 50% of the workforce.

“Actively Disengaged” — These are workers who actively resent their work in some way. Some of them want to sabotage the work; they may arrive late and leave early; they may bad-mouth the organization to others; they may feel unfairly treated; and they can be a liability for the organization. They represent about 20% of the workforce.

Here’s the amazing statistic: In workplaces where managers ignored their subordinates, there was a 40% chance of the workers being “actively disengaged.” In workplaces where managers paid attention to their subordinates, but they focused primarily on weaknesses or on “fixing your deficiencies”, there was a 22% chance of the subordinates being “actively disengaged”. But when a manager primarily focused on an employee’s strengths, the chance of that employee being “actively disengaged” on the job declined to less than 1%! This is why one of Gallup’s mantras is that “Great managers focus on strengths.”

These findings represent just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t have the space in this blog post to cover all the other important and actionable findings of the engagement research, but I can summarize it by saying that modern behavioral science has now evolved to the point that we now know to a fair degree of certainty how to genuinely boost and sustain the level of engagement of employees in any workplace.

More importantly, most of these strategies work just as well in a law firm as they do in other businesses, despite the fact that law firms, in many ways, are different than other businesses. It’s just a little harder, and takes a little longer, but the scientific principles still hold up strongly. As lawyers, we tend to look for problems and find it easier to notice deficiencies than strengths, and this training may partially blind us to the power of strengths.

But the bottom line is: Consider training all your lawyers who have any supervisory responsibilities in the science of becoming a “great manager”.