GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2004
Rallying the In-House Team
Unless you work as a true solo, with no employees, you are a member of a law firm team. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of books written on the theories of team building and leadership qualities. You can read one of those books to learn about the business school approach to these subjects, but this article covers practical ways you can encourage your employees to work well as individuals and as team members. The ideas and suggestions mentioned here are the policies of our law firm.
I believe the keys to building a successful law firm team are to hire the right people, keep them happy, help them be productive, and encourage them to enjoy working together. It begins with the initial interview. An experienced interviewer can usually discern fairly quickly who will and who will not fit into an existing team or be the basis for forming a new team. Although there may be an appropriate place in your firm for a productive but unfriendly employee, such a person will definitely have a harder time fitting into a law firm team. You should normally look for qualified applicants who are outgoing, but not domineering. Working in a team often requires compromising, and a successful team usually cannot include members who insist on doing things their own way. We have found that age, gender, race, and other such factors don’t make any significant difference in whether a new employee will fit into an existing team. It can be helpful to have some diversity in these areas, so a team has more than one perspective on certain issues.
Our law firm has about 25 employees, including several part-timers. We are basically divided into two independent and separate departments: personal injury and Social Security disability. The administrative and clerical group bridges those two teams. This structure presents several opportunities and challenges for the team concept. Within each department, a lawyer functions as team leader with regard to the procedural process. My job is to set firm policies and to enable each employee to perform well as an individual, as a member of the departmental team, and as a member of the firm as a whole.
Team members want a leader who is honest, above all other qualities. If team members cannot rely on the statements and promises of the leader, they will never respect or trust the leader, and the team will never function as well as it should. To achieve top performance, a leader must work with the members of the team, not try to dominate and control them. The ultimate goal of the leader is to educate and motivate the team members so that they will work at their highest level even when the leader is not present. Achieving this goal requires team members who want to work together, want to help each other when necessary, and want to produce results that benefit the team and the firm, not just the individual employee.
Creating and maintaining a team obviously requires getting and keeping qualified employees. Constant employee turnover makes building a team very difficult. We are fortunate to have many long-time employees in our firm. Incentives for employees to join and stay with our firm come in many forms. Appropriate salary level is essential, but it is definitely not the only factor, or even the most important one. We have had several employees leave our firm for higher-paying jobs, only to return to us after discovering that more money doesn’t always offset a poorer working environment. Our firm leaders show respect for the employees, listen to their opinions, and share firm information with them. We want all our employees to feel they are “partners” in the firm. As much as possible, we give the opinions of staff members the same consideration as those of the attorneys. We strive for a classless society at our firm.
Some benefits for individual employees cost money, but some are free. We begin with a friendly initial interview, without typing tests or long questionnaires. On an employee’s first day at work, he or she receives a nice plant for the desk and is taken out to lunch by the office administrator and several other employees. We give employees frequent praise for their work. Praise comes at absolutely no cost to the firm but is the best way to let employees know that you appreciate them. We brag about our employees’ achievements or experience levels when we are talking with clients, and we compliment our employees in the presence of other employees. Praise in private is good, but praise in public is better. Besides offering words of appreciation for doing a job well, we reward extra effort. Occasionally, when an employee does more than is expected, we give the employee movie tickets or a restaurant gift certificate. We give employees little gifts for holidays such as Valentine’s Day. We give gift certificates on employee anniversaries, we pay for flu shots, and we even pay for an exercise class that’s held in our building. We value each employee, regardless of position, and each has personalized business cards. We have a fairly relaxed dress code, and on infrequent occasions we unexpectedly close the office a little early and let the employees go home. We continually ask our employees what they need in order to do their job better. If employees want a headset for the telephone, an electric stapler, or anything else within reason, we give it to them.
More important than providing any of these little perks, we empower our employees as much as possible to make their own decisions, rather than having to ask a superior about every detail. Leadership is not about control, it’s about education. If you can teach employees to make their own decisions, then the leader does not have to be present for the employee to continue to function at a high level. Obviously, in a law firm, only lawyers can give legal advice. But with that exception, we encourage employee autonomy. We also emphasize cross training. We want our employees to know as much as possible about the jobs of other employees. There are several benefits to cross training. Employees are less likely to complain that someone else has an easy job if they know more about the responsibilities of that job. Cross training also allows us to be flexible when an employee wants to take off for a day or an afternoon. There are very few job duties within our firm that can be done by only one employee. Finally, we try to promote from within the firm, so employees want to learn the duties of other jobs in case they have an opportunity to be promoted to a higher position.
We have a completely open-door policy for our teams and for the firm. Any employee can talk with a leader at any time. Everyone’s calendar is available for viewing on our computer network. We want to hear suggestions, and even complaints, from our employees. Suffering in silence is not good for the employee, the team, or the firm. At least once per year we formally ask employees for complaints or suggestions, and we require each employee to give at least three ideas for improving the firm or their particular job. The open-door policy does have one major drawback: It can interfere with the normal “pyramid” of office management and result in more of a “hub-and-spoke” system where everyone comes straight to the boss with problems.
Aside from rewarding and compensating employees for performing well individually, we try to create a family feeling within each team and within the firm, so the employees won’t want to disappoint their office “family” by poor job performance. Most people don’t shirk their responsibilities to their families, and we want them to feel the same way about their teams and about the firm. This is the primary team dynamic in our firm—make the employees want to work together as a team, not for personal gain, but to assist their friends and teammates. We have quite a few methods to generate team spirit and to encourage employee bonding and friendship.
We have team meetings to discuss changes, problems, or conflicts within the team. Each employee’s opinion is solicited and considered in these meetings, although most major decisions are made by the leader, not by a vote of the team. Occasionally, members of the team will go out to lunch just to visit, and not specifically for a meeting. We also have financial rewards for team performance. Each department has a monthly revenue quota, and if the quota is met, each team member receives a bonus. The revenue figures are available for anyone in the firm to see at any time, as we believe sharing this information makes employees feel they are a trusted part of the team and gives them a feeling of being invested in the firm. Awarding the bonuses based on team performance, not individual performance, obviously gives each employee an interest in seeing that all team members are doing their job well. Cross training allows one member of a team to step in and help another member who may be temporarily overburdened, and the bonus system encourages this teamwork.
To further encourage friendship within teams and within the entire firm, we have firm events to let the employees have a little fun together. We have brief monthly parties to honor any employees who have birthdays that month. We have a Thanksgiving dinner where the firm provides the turkey and dressing and each employee brings a homemade dish. We usually do something to celebrate the fun holidays like St. Patrick’s Day. We have a nice holiday dance party each December for employees and spouses, and we usually take employees and spouses to a baseball game each summer. At Halloween, we have a costume contest with prizes for various categories. Our building management has occasional contests for the tenants, such as Star Search, Survivor, and other silly events. We encourage our employees to participate as representatives of our firm, and we let them take the time off required to do so.
On “The Holiday Formerly Known as Secretaries Day,” in a blatant display of gender stereotyping, all the female employees are invited to a luncheon hosted by my wife. Each year in May, the male employees are invited for hamburgers and a short visit to the Byron Nelson Golf Tournament. A couple of our employees have had swimming parties or barbecue dinners at their homes for the employees and spouses.
We give each employee shirts with our firm logo and allow them to be worn any day at the office, along with casual pants. We have a large lunchroom with refrigerator, microwave, and other necessities, and we encourage employees to bring their lunch and eat there. Drinks are free, and we have a television for the soap opera junkies. Besides keeping the employees close at hand in case something important comes up during their lunch hour, this encourages further visiting and bonding among the employees. Various employees sometimes bring doughnuts for everyone in the morning, and sometimes the firm orders pizza so everyone gets a free lunch. We have a bulletin board in the lunchroom where we post cards and letters from clients praising an employee or the firm as a whole.
We have an office calendar that shows everyone’s employment anniversary and the number of years they have worked at our firm. The calendar also has the birthdays of the employees and the birthdays and ages of all the children of our employees. We have a section of our intranet where employees can post photos of their children for other employees to enjoy. We also post photos from the firm parties and events.
This family approach does not work with everyone, and we have had employees who either did not want to fully participate as team members or were so fixed in their opinions that they tried to dominate their teams. If such an employee otherwise does exceptional work for the firm, these faults can sometimes be overcome. But given a choice between two equally qualified employees, we will always choose the better team player.
Team building can be approached in a theoretical, business-school manner, and as mentioned, there are many books you can read if that’s your preference. My preference is to hire competent and friendly employees, instruct them in our way of working, tell them frequently that they are important to the firm no matter what their position, encourage them to bond with other employees, and let them work without micromanagement. With some occasional exceptions, this policy has worked well for our firm for almost 25 years. I encourage you to try some of these ideas in your own firm and see if you can build a happier and more productive law firm team.
Robert A. Kraft practices law in Dallas, Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.