Five tips for leading a high-performing legal team

For the last several years, I have led a large team of more than 20 legal colleagues, which includes lawyers, contract professionals, and paralegals. Through my experience, I would like to share some tips I’ve adopted from the myriad of literature out there on the topic of leadership. Some of my favorite leadership gurus include Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, Brené Brown, a University of Houston professor, and Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, among others. I like to try some of what these experts encourage strong leaders to do. Here are my favorite tips.

1. Connect—as a group and individually

Five tips for leading a high-performing legal team
Five tips for leading a high-performing legal team

Connecting with my colleagues is essential to developing and maintaining a high-functioning team. Humans need other humans to interact with, and the past two years have highlighted this for us. I try to schedule one-on-one time with each person on my team on a recurring basis that works for each colleague. These individual conversations are invaluable. They allow me to get to know each team member on a personal level—their family, pets, hobbies, and vacation destinations, for example—and they provide an opportunity to discover things we have in common. This is important to forge connections. I appreciate the diverse composition of our team and what each colleague contributes to the mix. Brené Brown defines connection as, “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.” I take this to heart and always keep in mind the power of connection.

2. Show an interest in colleagues

Teams want to know that their leaders are interested in them and in learning about what interests them. We have a breadth of expertise and experience on our team, from long-tenured lawyers to newer legal professionals. We perform best when we encourage and make the most of our colleagues’ talents. Of course, there is always plenty of work that simply needs to get done, but I strive to find a healthy balance for each team member—a mix of work that must get done, work that interests each colleague, and new opportunities that will help develop their talents and perhaps grow new ones. I believe this leads to more satisfying experiences for our team. Doing so, I try to follow Adam Grant’s advice: “A coach sees your potential and helps you become a better version of yourself.”

3. Display gratitude—regularly and frequently

There can never be too many “attaboys/attagirls.” Formal feedback once or twice a year is important, but it can’t replace the value of real-time recognition and genuine appreciation year-round. When happy clients send along notes of appreciation about team members, I respond and copy the colleague who is recognized and add my own thanks for their valued contributions. I heard Indra Nooyi tell in an interview about how she found an opportunity to praise her team. She wrote very detailed and thoughtful letters to the parents of the members of the leadership team who reported to her, praising their strengths and sharing their contributions and accomplishments. I was inspired by this and try to find regular opportunities to send notes to my team members to show my appreciation for their talents.

4. Bring joy into the workplace

Work is hard—that’s why it’s called work. My team knows I like to bring humor into our interactions when I can. I will make a joke, share an occasional (too often, some would say) Dilbert cartoon, or relay a funny work story. The Dalai Lama says, “It is much better when there is not too much seriousness.” We don’t have to be serious all the time; work is serious enough. I also like to celebrate milestones—birthdays, weddings, births. To me, bringing joy into the workplace is part of acknowledging my colleagues’ whole selves. Being a professional doesn’t mean you have to leave your personal lives at the door.

5. Practice what you preach

This means role modeling what an excellent lawyer and a good colleague looks like. For starters, I make sure that I’m involved in some of the same work my team is doing. This helps me stay connected to what they are seeing so I can understand the challenges they experience on a daily basis. Role modeling also means being a mentor to others—new joiners as well as experienced colleagues. The apprenticeship model is a fixture on our team, and, as a leader, I must also demonstrate how to share my knowledge and be a collaborative and generous colleague to all on our team. The flip side is to remember that I can learn from others on my team, and for that, it’s important to be a good listener. I’m always mindful that the success of the individuals on our team reflects well on all of us; we all benefit from being held in high esteem.

I will close with this note to self from Adam Grant: “Listen to the advice you give to others. It’s usually the advice you need to take yourself.”