New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

A key to culture change: asking your experts

09 October 2018 - By Katie Cowan

Management gets a bad rap. Not capital M Management, the types who exploit the workers and stretch inequalities, and have done so for centuries. I’m happy to light my torch and go after those bastards, just say the word. No, I’m talking about little M management, the life skill.

We in the professions tend to think of management as a lesser role. It requires none of the skill and fanciness of being a lawyer so while we acknowledge, technically, begrudgingly, while rolling our eyes a little bit, that management is necessary for the good functioning of a firm or bureaucracy, we feel fully entitled to disregard it in our professional career design process.

No one knows better that management is a skill than someone who is being managed poorly. Unfortunately, when you ask junior lawyers, many of them are counted amongst this number. In Josh Pemberton’s research many juniors spoke of inadequate supervision, a lack of training, bullying, overbearing managers, and micro managers. The juniors reported that poor management interfered with their development and their wellbeing, and I felt teary at the validation of some of my own experience years ago, and the recognition that so many others were still suffering through similar issues.

Gosh, being a human is difficult sometimes. There is a whole bunch of stuff we assume we can probably just do if we try, that we “should” be able to do if we try, and we can’t. And sometimes we don’t even know we can’t. But then someone does research and finds out that we and our cohort are not good at the thing we assumed we didn’t specifically need to learn, and that it’s hurting people. It sucks.

Life learning

I sound facetious, but I am genuine. It is a terrible thing to learn, as a smart and capable and learned person, that one is still a beginner in many areas, even areas related to our daily work.

Law is not alone in a peculiar practice, but I am writing in a law magazine, so let me limit my inquiry to law. In law, if you work in a law firm, and you are very good and have been there a while, you might get promoted, all the way up to partner even. Kudos to you. At that point, however, your job is not just doing the thing you have expertise in – practising law – but now it is managing people. The skill that got you there is not the skill you need when you arrive.

To its credit, the Law Society recognises management as a discrete skill that should be learned, and includes significant education on management in its Stepping Up programme. But of course, we all know partners who are terrible managers of staff, so a lack of skill in this area is usually not an impediment to being put in charge of others.

Some people are good managers by luck. They’ve never read any Dan Pink, they don’t even know what HBR stands for, and yet they intuitively manage junior staff so beautifully that those staff learn capability and confidence like baby ducks taking to a lake. So deft are these managers that they navigate the complexity of the management relationships with, I’ll say it, grace. To see them discipline someone is to feel an unbidden prickling in the eye. To hear them give a pep talk is to weep.

Dumb systems

Other good managers are made by bad managers. Many people are bullied or left unsupervised and vow to do things differently when it is their chance. But relying on people to be born good managers or made into good managers by bad managers is a dumb system, not least because it’s haphazard and unpredictable. For as many people who say they don’t want to treat their juniors the way they were treated as juniors, there are scores of people who resist any attempt to improve working conditions because “it was like that for me, so you have to go through it too”.

So, if we are to reflect as a profession on the cultures we have and how we might like to change them, we must start with the fact that management is a skill that many lawyers need to learn deliberately and may fail at if left to their own devices, to the detriment of the people they are responsible for. We add to that the understanding that culture is a systemic thing created by all the people participating in it, but often led from the top.

Review reversal

Knowing these things, what do we do next?

At this point, I hope, one answer (and there will be many) becomes clear: ask the people being managed what their experience is of being managed. Specifically, develop a culture where all staff regularly provide feedback (and feel safe enough to provide it) on all other staff, so that strengths can be identified and enhanced, and weaknesses or outright failures can be identified and remedied.

Do you know how bizarre it is that annual review processes are generally completed top down only? That is, the conduct and performance of the junior employee is reviewed and fed back to them, but at no point are junior employees consulted about the conduct and performance of their seniors? That is bizarre, everyone.

An illustration of a boat race

From a business perspective it’s bizarre because how well junior staff get managed is fundamental to the organisation’s performance, and you have this little bundle of experts on the management skills and weaknesses of your senior staff right there, and you don’t ask them.

From a human perspective it’s not just bizarre; it’s often cruel. It’s how a culture where some people’s voices matter and others don’t persists. It’s how bullying goes unseen. It’s how harassment goes unpunished. It’s how juniors get left out to dry because their supervisors are too busy to teach them or supervise their work. And the other, possibly well-meaning senior staff never hear about it, because the power dynamics in a workplace where the junior staff are never safely and genuinely consulted about their experience, obscure what is happening when the “good partners” are not in the room.

There are firms who have a culture of feeding back from all levels. It is a practice called 360 degree reviewing, and I once interviewed for a job at one purely because the firm operated this way. It was not a one-off process, which might have excluded certain voices because of fear, but a culture of feedback built into the culture and ecosystem of the firm. The people I know who work at this firm, a highly-functioning, successful firm, are happy in their work and loyal to the firm. They feel seen and heard (ding ding ding for their sense of self and humanity) and they do excellent work for the firm. Wins all round.

I think most of us humans read things like the Pemberton research or the Dame Margaret Bazley report and feel all sorts of things. We want better for our junior lawyers, for ourselves and for the profession. We feel despondent at the scale of the change we would like to see.

But there are two big things we can do to make in-roads on change that will stand the test of time. First, we can recognise, with some self-compassion, that management is a difficult but valuable skill that takes time and care and bandwidth and humanity to learn and apply. And second, we can develop systems to get the right information from our in-house experts on being managed (and then, importantly, act on it).

Both of these things take humility and commitment, but I promise, it will be worth it.


Katie Cowan katie@symphonylaw.co.nz is a former lawyer. She is now director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers. Katie is advice columnist for LexisNexis NZ’s Learn Law life platform and hosts The New Lawyer podcast which can be found at thenewlawyer.co.nz.

Last updated on the 9th October 2018