General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

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Practice Area Newsletter

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

FALL 2010

Vol. 7, No. 1

PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

 

Are You the Architect of Your Firm’s Culture?

By Kevin Chern

Hiring the right people can determine the success or failure of your law firm. It’s not just you that makes an impression on prospective clients and determines whether or not they hire you; it’s not just you that builds the relationship that will determine whether or not your past clients refer you to their friends and colleagues. Good hiring means not just finding talented people, but choosing staff who fit your law firm’s culture.

 “Talent” is largely self-explanatory, but many attorneys and law firm administrators aren’t quite so clear when it comes to “culture”. In screening for talent, you’re looking directly at the applicant, but in determining whether or not a prospective employee fits your firm culture, you must first look at yourselves. Every law firm has a culture that defines it, but few take an active, conscious role in defining that culture and ensuring that it is compatible with the firm goals, desired clientele, and employee satisfaction.

The solo practitioner or law firm partner who doesn’t think about culture is missing an important opportunity, almost certainly to the detriment of the firm. Culture will develop, with or without conscious guidance, and the culture that grows up accidentally may not be the one you’d like to foster, nor the one that helps your firm achieve its goals.

In part, that’s because the skills and mindset that make an effective lawyer are not the same skills and mindset that help build relationships, create a friendly environment, engender loyalty, or even grow a business. Gerry Riskin talked about this disconnect at Get a Life 2009, and the laughter in the room full of attorneys indicated that nearly all of us recognized the truth of his words. But even armed with that knowledge, many attorneys simply aren’t aware of the way that their own personalities and methods of interacting steer the culture of the firm as a whole.

Building a firm culture that furthers your aims means understanding the relationship between culture and success, and then taking steps to create and maintain a culture that supports those goals. The process of assessing and evolving your firm’s culture may take time, but the first step is asking critical questions:

Does the Current Culture of Your Firm Accurately Reflect Your Goals and Priorities?
The first step is an honest look at your current firm culture in light of your goals and priorities. Are you currently acting like the firm you want to be? Assess the relationship, and the disconnect, between your vision for your firm and the culture that has organically grown up around you. Understanding the ways in which your current actions and environment don’t reflect your values and vision is the first step toward redefining your firm culture.

Is Your Culture Built From the Top Down Or From the Bottom Up?
Now that you’re consciously thinking about developing a positive culture that’s in line with your firm goals, consider the source of that culture. Shared values and shared goals keep your organization working more efficiently because everyone is working to accomplish the same result; there are no hidden agendas and warring priorities. The mission extends beyond revenue goals to a vision for the firm environment, type of clients you want to serve, relationship with the community and more. That vision may be communicated to the whole firm by a strong leader whose priorities are clear, or may flow from the team as a whole. Law firms are traditionally top-down organizations and in many firms that structure will have become part of the culture by default. If you’re open to letting your team help define who you are as a company, be sure to communicate that openness and create an environment that encourages two-way communication.

Do Your Actions Agree With Your Words?
Many firms pay lip service to things like work-life balance and an openness to input from the trenches, but don’t operate in a way that supports those stated priorities. Telling your employees that you want to hear from them isn’t enough; actively encourage the interaction and make sure those who do step forward feel that their input is appreciated and seriously considered. Likewise, make sure that your allocation of resources matches your stated priorities. While there may be fluctuations and the occasional need to shift resources in the short-term, the work you assign and the money you spend says more about your goals and priorities than your pep talk at the weekly firm meeting or a mission statement on the wall. If you claim to value one thing but pour your energy and financial investment into another, the mixed message is confusing and interferes with the ability to create that all-important sense of common purpose.

Culture consciously crafted can be a powerful tool for your firm, helping to define your image to the community and your prospective clientele and increasing employee investment. The right culture draws the right people to you, whether those people are clients, employees, or others in your field. But culture ignored has just as significant an impact on your day-to-day operations, even if that impact isn’t consciously recognized. Make the choice to create and nurture a positive culture that reflects the goals and values of your firm.

Kevin Chern is the president of Total Attorneys, a technology-enabled services firm that provides legal marketing and practice management consulting services to more than 1400 solo practitioners and small firm attorneys. Under his leadership, Total Attorneys has become one of the country’s leading managed services firms in the legal industry, more than doubling revenues annually and joining the ranks of the Inc. 500 elite. For more information on Kevin Chern and Total Attorneys, visit www.totalattorneys.com.

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