Law firms often seem to operate as rigid hierarchies where anyone below the rank of partner feels they have little influence.
This is a common frustration for legal secretaries, paralegals, junior attorneys, and other legal professionals who are not in traditional leadership roles. But the truth is, even if you are not in a position of authority, you can still drive positive change at your firm.
To lead without authority, you need to understand how much your workplace influence matters. You also need to anticipate some common challenges to building that influence. Then, you can learn some basic strategies for leading a firm despite not being in a traditional leadership position.
Why does your unofficial influence matter?
You care about your firm and want to make a positive difference in its overall direction.
Unfortunately, you also feel you are too low on the totem pole to make that happen, so you are stuck with the frustration of having great ideas, but no way to execute them.
If this describes your plight as a legal professional, you need to learn the value of influencing without authority.
This means influencing your workplace colleagues even when you do not have direct authority over them. By displaying qualities of leadership, you can get others to willingly follow your lead and thus shape the firm’s future.
Leadership without authority yields benefits to all types of organizations, including law firms.
This approach will tend to generate diverse opinions from all team members.
Employee engagement also tends to increase when the work atmosphere becomes more collaborative.
And on an individual level, having workplace influence makes you more likely to advance the projects you care about, as well as receive promotions and raises.
Challenges to building workplace influence
There are several common challenges to building workplace influence from a non-leadership position.
One of these is the remote office. While hybrid and remote workplaces have become more common in the pandemic era, they make it difficult to connect with colleagues who are not physically present.
To overcome this barrier, you may need to take the initiative to schedule regular Zoom meetings.
Another challenge is having trouble networking, often because you are more focused on urgent day-to-day matters.
This challenge will require a proactive approach where informal get-togethers are scheduled well ahead of time. In addition to building connections with your co-workers, you will also get out of your work silo and likely gain some insights into the firm’s “big picture” view.
Women face some particular challenges when attempting to lead without authority. This is because of pervasive forms of gender bias. Women are seen, and often see themselves, as not having leadership qualities.
This only makes it more imperative for women to be aware of these biases, come from a place of strength, and present themselves as leaders.
How to lead from wherever you are
When you are attempting to increase your authority from the middle or all the way at the bottom of the firm’s hierarchy, there are several principles to keep in mind.
To enhance your influence with your co-workers, the best place to start is by focusing on strong relationships with them.
Seek to understand your peers’ personal and professional motivations. This will put you in a better position to inspire them, and make them more inclined to listen to you.
In addition, you will be able to ferret out the difference between potential allies and those who are indifferent to your success or failure.
Also important here is understanding the working and social styles of others. Is your co-worker detail-oriented? Do they like visual representations? Are they analytical or big-picture oriented? It is critical that you note these traits and adjust your approach accordingly.
If the idea of networking feels negative to you, change your point of reference.
You’re building relationships and friendships with your teammates because people are more likely to listen to people that they like and trust. With good relationships in place, your insights will be more valued, and everyone will enjoy working with you more.
Hone your listening skills
Leaders are listeners. The ability to listen is a key skill to establish influence at work.
You’ll learn things that you might otherwise have missed, giving you valuable perspective. More importantly, your teammates will feel like you care enough to hear them.
To improve your listening skills, minimize distractions and interruptions during conversations. This may mean silencing your cell phone, turning away from your monitor, or closing your laptop.
In addition, use positive body language — avoid crossing your arms, for example — and ask clarifying questions to reach a deeper understanding.
This is called active listening.
The goal of active listening is to participate in the conversation in order to hear and understand the other person. Don’t offer your thoughts right away. Instead, stay focused on what others are saying. When they’ve fully expressed themselves and feel understood, they’ll be more open to hearing you in turn.
Build your expertise
A surefire way to increase your influence is to establish your expertise.
Your top expertise may be in an area of law, a facet of litigation, or in some particular role as a legal professional. When you position yourself as an authority and a resource, others are more likely to follow your lead.
This entails a commitment to continuous learning. Proactively develop your knowledge and skills through industry conferences, networking events, and educational opportunities. Not only will you achieve professional development, you will demonstrate your commitment to the rest of the firm.
This drive for expertise should also include your organizational understanding.
Strive to understand the inner workings and processes of your firm. Know how to get things done and obtain signoff for different types of projects.
To accomplish this, try to sit in on meetings and network within the firm as much as possible. Be proactive about finding answers to questions that come up a lot.
It may help to write things down. You can create documentation about things like organizational structure, process and procedure, and important links and folders. These resources are helpful for you, and they may solidify your reputation as the person who knows the right answers.
Create and communicate your strategy effectively
We’ve talked a lot about learning to listen well. Now, it’s time to create your strategy and communicate it to coworkers and leaders.
You want to lead because you have great ideas. Learning to clarify and share those ideas is a skill that will serve you well.
The first step is to flesh out and simplify your ideas down to the most relevant points. What’s the big picture? What will your peers find the most interesting? Think about how you can get those ideas across in the course of a regular conversation.
Be prepared to answer questions without getting flustered, and if you get a question that makes you think, thank that person for their insight. If your coworkers feel involved in the refinement of your ideas, they’re more likely to support them enthusiastically.
Build trust with honesty (and use tact while you’re at it)
Legal professionals can also cultivate a reputation for honesty in order to build influence.
Share your thoughts and concerns openly while still being tactful. This will increase your status and respect among your colleagues because you have the courage to say what needs to be said and the tact to say it gracefully.
Make sure that your honesty is not simply complaining in disguise.
Yes, it might be honest to say that one of the partners doesn’t have the acumen to make big-budget marketing decisions, but it’s also honest to say that you could have offered more help when you noticed that business need. Be just as ready to own your mistakes as you are to point out others’.
On top of that, honest feedback can go a long way towards building trust with official leadership, too. Your firm partners don’t have the same perspective as you, and they miss things that you see easily.
Before you schedule a private meeting to point out all the problems at your firm, though, exercise some judgment.
- Are firm leaders open to feedback in the first place?
- Are you positive that they don’t already know this information?
- Are you sharing important information, not just snitching on a peer?
- Would knowing this information help leadership make better decisions or achieve a goal?
If you answered ‘yes’ to each of these questions, it’s probably a good idea to share. However, a ‘no’ in any of those areas requires a little more thought.
The big picture
The theme of this article has been the same throughout: to lead from a non-leadership position, the key is building trust and influence.
That should make a lot of sense because leadership is influence.
Building your positive influence at work opens more options for you and allows you to make your firm a better place for everyone. It might seem difficult, but it’s worth the time and effort.