The Art of Managing Flex Legal Talent
April 28, 2023
In any job, working well with others is crucial. For those who manage contract legal professionals, that involves working with Flex talent, staffing and hiring managers, internal stakeholders, and others.
Working with others is not always easy. Of the hundreds of books, websites, and other resources for how to manage people, few focus on the unique aspects involved with Flex talent.
I have a different perspective than that of managers within law departments and law firms. Most have experience with a handful of organisations – in many cases, only one or two. In contrast, I have worked with dozens of law departments and law firms and have seen what works and what does not.
The emotional tenor of an interaction plays a critical role in its outcome. Reaching the best results requires vulnerability and authenticity. Lawyers are trained in taking a position and sticking to it, but connecting with people requires letting down one’s guard – and few people want to go first in doing so. You need to take the initiative by demonstrating you need and want others’ views. There isn’t a formula for demonstrating receptivity and establishing vulnerability, but starting with questions rather than statements is best: ‘I’m not sure if I’m understanding things correctly – can you elaborate?’ or ‘I apologise if I’ve missed something – what would you add?’ Likewise, being honest, genuine, and considerate conveys respect and fosters productive interactions even – especially – if you must convey unwelcome news or raise a difficult topic (e.g., negative performance feedback).
Another key aspect of leading legal professionals is persuasion. Law schools teach students to question things, advocate, and win disputes. Legal talent can be predisposed to push back against whatever you say. Three tactics make reaching consensus easier:
Get ‘yesses’. Probably every law student knows the cross-examination tactic of questions starting with ‘would you agree’. This approach works by establishing a ‘shared reality’ for the discussion and fostering a non-contentious atmosphere. Finding common ground sets the stage for reaching agreement.
Don’t argue. Managers are in the persuasion business. Arguing with law professionals rarely works. By winning, you make the other person feel inferior and resent your triumph. Instead, get ‘yesses’ and then lay out your objectives and must-haves. Stating your bottom line is not arguing, it is being transparent about what the situation requires of others.
Make it about the other person’s interests. Legal professionals typically think of maximising the benefits (i.e., to their client’s interest) of a course of action. This makes it is hard for them to refuse doing something that, according to their own criteria, benefits them. If you listen carefully and spot what another person values, you can present what you need them to do as good based on what they have told you. While easier said than done, always try to identify reasons someone would use to persuade themselves to do something.
One of the realities of leading people is that each person has a distinct personality and particular set of motivations. Nevertheless, the principles I described apply to everyone with whom you manage. By being attuned to others and striving for constructive interactions, you will achieve the best results with Flex talent.
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