Solid relationships between managers and their direct reports are fundamental to running a high-performance legal team. In my lawyer coaching practice, I always ask new clients how they communicate with their manager, and I am still bemused every time I hear about an in-house attorney who does not have regular one-on-one meetings with his or her manager.
Beyond one-on-ones being proven as an effective leadership mechanism, they are also an easy way to develop rapport with your team members. A recent study showed that managers have a bigger impact on their employees’ mental health than therapists or doctors—with an influence similar to that of a spouse or partner.
No wonder these lawyers are seeking my help since they aren’t getting what they need at work.
Benefits of holding one-on-ones with your legal team
My first piece of free advice: don’t be that manager who isn’t investing the time in your team.
A regular touch base with each of your direct reports enables you to:
- Scale yourself as a leader. Becoming more effective as a leader will help you build a scalable legal team.
- Develop your team members. Remember, it costs more to hire and train than to mentor and promote.
- Spot issues early. When you intervene early (in both legal and personnel issues) you can escalate quickly or steer them in the right direction.
- Provide real-time feedback. Invest regularly in your team’s personal and professional development.
- Keep track of goals. If you’re asking, “What goals?” check out this webinar about how to set in-house legal department goals.
- Save time. By reducing frequent interruptions and requests for approvals, you’ll save time in the short-term. In the long-term, you’ll ensure your team is focusing on the big picture and running in the direction you’d like them to.
- Earn the trust of your team. Setting aside this time and demonstrating interest in your team shows your direct reports that you care about them.
10 tips for effective legal department one-on-ones
Now that we’ve established the benefits, let’s jump into ten ways you can have great one-on-ones with your legal team members.
1. Figure out a cadence that works and honor it
This differs for each direct report. There is no one-size-fits-all model. For more tenured employees, you may only need 30 minutes every other week. For more junior employees it could be an hour weekly. New hires may be better served with shorter but more frequent check-ins. This cadence should be revisited over time as your needs and the needs of your direct reports change.
Honor this time and don’t cancel it at the last minute. While it may seem like the easiest meeting on your calendar to cancel when urgent items arise, your team may be counting on you for a timely contract approval or critical conversation they have been preparing for. If you absolutely must skip the meeting due to an urgent matter, make sure to change it rather than cancel it. When you cancel, even if not your intent, the message you are sending your team is that something else is more important than them.
2. Be present
Leave your busy day behind and be present for one-on-one conversations. Observe how your direct report appears to be doing, dig into their work and job satisfaction. Use this time to really listen, especially if your team runs largely autonomously as many lawyers do. Don’t have your phone or computer visible. If the meeting is virtual, close out other windows and set your computer to do not disturb.
You know what it feels like when someone is not mentally present in a meeting. Don’t be that person. Be there for your team.
3. Come with an agenda
Have a clear understanding of what the purpose of the one-on-one is, and who is bringing the agenda. Create a shared document that agenda items can be added to during the week, so each person has a chance to see what is up for discussion and prepare.
In addition, knowing what projects and agreements each team member is working on with help you use your time effectively. (Learn how Lexion helps legal managers have visibility into their team members’ workloads and statuses.)
4. Don’t forget the big picture
It can be easy to only focus on the day-to-day or more urgent tasks. On occasion take a step back and use the time to have a career discussion or big-picture check-in.
If you have an annual review process, consider using one on-on-one per quarter to chat about progress, goals, or areas identified as opportunities in the last annual review.
5. Give feedback
This is a time to ask yourself as a manager, did I observe anything this week that merits feedback to my direct report (positive or critical)? Feedback is best given in real-time, and next best, given in a timely manner. This way both parties have the circumstance fresh in their minds and can discuss. You should be giving feedback at least monthly in your one-on-ones.
6. Get feedback
Use any extra time to ask questions or solicit input on the team. For example, “What could we be doing differently as a team or department to improve our performance? Morale?”
If you’ve created an environment of psychological safety for your team, you may be able to get more candid (without that, these questions are unlikely to yield useful results). A few other questions you could ask:
• As your manager, what more could I be doing to help you meet your career goals?
• Is there anything I am not doing now that I should be?
• What is my reputation in the department?
Don’t wait until a 360 review to get feedback from your team on your own performance and leadership.
7. Leave time for questions
Don’t take up the majority of the meeting on your own agenda. Let your direct report go through their questions and concerns first so they get what they need.
If you find that you frequently run out of time, either extend the meetings or advise your employee that they can use the first 75% of the meeting and to prioritize their agenda items appropriately.
8. Provide high-level coaching
This is your time to probe the thinking of the attorneys on your team and help them build the right mental models as they develop in their career.
For example, pivotal moments like the transition to manager or when a new business is added to their job scope, are great times to spend some of your one-on-one coaching your team members. One way to do this is by asking insightful questions and letting them explore the answers.
9. Consider skip-level meetings
One of the best mechanisms to understand what is happening in your org, especially with new team managers is meeting with their direct reports.
Remember it can be intimidating to meet with your boss’ boss. Make sure to set the stage for why you’re having the meeting (to check in on their career and learn about how they are working with their manager so you can help their manager with his or her development).
These types of one-on-ones are often held less frequently, perhaps quarterly for new manager’s teams, or ad hoc if you manage a large org.
10. Be human
We all love to hear what we’re doing right more than what we’re doing wrong.
Make sure to start and end the meeting on a positive note. Connect with your team. Get to know their lives outside of work and share your own.
As leadership expert Kim Scott puts it, make sure to challenge directly and also care personally.