When not telling lawyer jokes or cursing behind their backs, people use a number of adjectives to describe lawyers: learned, meticulous, fast-thinking, ethical, courteous, tenacious, well-organized, brilliant, formidable, wise and witty. The word “nice,” however, typically does not make the cut.
Peripatetic author, entrepreneur, worldwide connector and speaker at the 2011 ABA Law Practice Management Law Firm Marketing Strategies conference, Peter Shankman has helped redefine social media, public relations, marketing, advertising and customer service. In his new book Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over—and Collaboration Is In, Shankman makes a compelling argument for why organizations, including law firms, should be “nice.” Not only are “nice” organizations more pleasant to be around, they are more profitable, making his thesis more than just rhetorical. If being nice affects the bottom line, management had better pay attention. We caught up with Shankman by phone, and he shared the inspiration for his book—and why he loves his lawyer.
DOING WELL BY DOING GOOD
In one segment of his book, Shankman points to Poland Spring as an example of doing well by doing good. The bottled water company owned by Nestle Waters North America Inc., started distributing water in Manhattan and allowed emergency crews to use their trucks in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 strike, even though no one asked. Poland Spring did wonders for its brand simply by being nice to its community in a time of need. “People like to buy products, use services and work for companies they trust,” he says.
Shankman also told us that the reverse is true. “Law firms or companies are mean when they don’t care about their customers, don’t consider the effects of their actions beyond the bottom line, or when they treat employees badly.” He says that such “meanness” will ultimately be discovered, and “in an era in which reputational risk has become a board-level concern, any allegations of abusive labor practices, sourcing concerns, environmental impact or shady financial practices can instantly stain a brand and even lead to shareholder action.”
HOW LAW FIRMS CAN BE NICE
Drawing on the observations of Shankman and others, we set out to discover how being nice applies specifically to law firms. Here are three nice strategies we see law firms employing to ultimately make their organizations stronger.
“Inbound” marketing is the perfect tool for lawyers to be nice while marketing their wares.
Most lawyers have grown up in a culture of “outbound” marketing, i.e., marketing where the lawyer tells people he or she is great. Maybe it’s a magazine advertisement, or a website, or an advertisement on a bus. Inbound marketing is where a lawyer shows he or she is great. Maybe he or she speaks at a conference, or gives a newspaper interview regarding a topical court case, or writes an article, just like this one. At its core, inbound marketing is a form of being nice. Inbound marketing is giving away one of the lawyer’s greatest assets—his or her knowledge—in exchange for a larger number of people listening and forming a positive brand impression regarding the lawyer and his or her services.
Inbound legal marketing has exploded in the last decade, largely due to social media. With the rise of low-cost blogging and social-sharing platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, lawyers can now share their thoughts and opinions with massive audiences. Here are examples of where we see lawyers using social media to excel in inbound marketing.
- Subject matter blogging. These are blogs that focus on a legal subject that is important to a large number of people, for example, immigration or intellectual property. They need to be interactive to keep people coming back, and this can be done with regular blog posts, embedded videos, recommended resources, Q&A forums and the like. Their content also tends to focus more on “macro” issues (e.g., the effect of proposed immigration laws on family members) rather than legal minutia (e.g., how the U.S. Supreme Court’s dissenting opinion in Toledo-Flores v. United States implicates Marbury v. Madison).
- Sharing thought leadership. Many sites allow lawyers to demonstrate their expertise. A great example is YouTube. A simple search for “intellectual property law” returned 72,700 results. One of the first results was Stephan Kinsella, a Houston intellectual property lawyer, discussing these rights. If you’re not into video, there is SlideShare or JDSupra for sharing presentations and whitepapers. You can be a guest author on The Huffington Post or Business Insider. Consider working with associations to offer podcasts, webcasts and online chats.
- Starting conversations with potential clients. There are many places online where potential clients raise their hand and say, “I need legal help.” There are social groups, listservs, meet-ups, Q&A forums and the like. The key is becoming a responsible member of one of these communities (e.g., the Minneapolis Real Estate Facebook group), so that you can start a conversation with people when they raise that hand (“I noticed the question regarding your client’s dog run. The issue you’re raising is called ‘adverse possession.’ Here’s how a case for adverse possession usually works…”). This is a smooth transition from responsible group participant to helpful lawyer—just as one might do at a party in the offline world. Notice that we keep stressing “responsible.” Lawyers must avoid outbound marketing tactics in social media groups (“That’s a great question about the dog run. You need to hire a lawyer, and we have the best real property practice in Minneapolis!”). Lawyers who sign up for a group simply to advertise their wares are usually tuned out, if not kicked out.
In the end, inbound marketing is about delivering real value to real people in a sincere way. “Sometimes lawyers who succeed the best do so because they don’t act like lawyers,” Shankman says. “They act like human beings.”
Creating a go-to law firm.
We’ve all heard of the “go-to” person, but what about the “go-to” lawyer or law firm? Many lawyers will notice that the more inbound marketing they do, the more people will assume they are experts in all things legal.
This is a good thing.
Here’s an example. Let’s say an employment lawyer gets a call regarding divorce planning from someone who saw her speak at the Rotary Club last month. She doesn’t practice family law, nor does anyone in her firm. If she tends to focus only on issues, she will groan about having to take calls or meetings that have nothing to do with her billable hours.
If, however, she focuses on opportunity (which most nice lawyers do), she will realize this acquaintance perceives her as a go-to lawyer. This offers her the following benefits: (1) an opportunity to give something to this acquaintance and reinforce her brand as a go-to lawyer, (2) an opportunity to give business to her favorite divorce attorney, and (3) a great sign that her inbound marketing is succeeding in generating a positive brand impression and keeping her in the front of people’s minds. Each of these elements also has the potential byproduct of getting her future business, whether it is from the acquaintance, the referred divorce lawyer or others who hear her inbound marketing message.
In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell speaks to the value of go-to people, which he calls “connectors.” According to Gladwell,
[c]onnectors know lots of people. They are the kinds of people who know everyone. All of us know someone like this. But I don’t think that we spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of these kinds of people. I’m not even sure that most of us really believe that the kind of person who knows everyone really knows everyone. But they do.
What is the value of these connectors? They put people together and, in so doing, generate value for others. They are the market makers of our social interactions. People like market makers. They like to have them speak at their conferences. They like them to head their associations. They like to hire them. They like to interview them for news articles. They like to refer them business.
According to Shankman, part of being a go-to lawyer or connector is being a solid listener. “The majority of people in a conversation listen only so they can find an opening where they can speak. They think they are good listeners, but in reality, they are not. By actively listening and focusing on what a person says, your answers are based on how you can help them,” he says.
Shankman told us he has been with his lawyer for 15 years because the lawyer is a nice guy who actually listens to him and doesn’t bill him for every phone call. A two-minute conversation does not get wrapped up into a 25-minute billing session. Shankman does the same with his own clients. He makes an effort to call different clients every day, with each receiving three to four calls a year. During his calls, he listens to what they are working on, their latest story or maybe something as simple as the weather. “By turning off the clock and simply listening, clients come back to you when they have big jobs,” he says.
Creating a nice law firm culture.
According to Shankman, managers are finding that employees are asserting a type of control they did not always have in the past. They want a work/life balance, they want more training and they want to like whom they work for and with.
Lawyers are looking for nicer work environments and, according to Shankman, law firms are responding: “Law firms allowing employees to take time to volunteer and increase pro bono work is new, and incorporating this niceness is a law approach never seen before. Firms in New York go as far as to give employees a day off every month to do something nice.”
Ultimately, lawyers are expecting some balance between what the law firm takes and what it gets. In Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant explores giver and taker organizations and defines them as follows:
In giver cultures, employees operate as the high-performing intelligence units do: helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring and making connections without expecting anything in return. Meanwhile, in taker cultures, the norm is to get as much as possible from others while contributing less in return. Employees help only when they expect the personal benefits to exceed the costs, as opposed to when the organizational benefits outweigh the personal costs.
At different conferences, author Mark Britton has asked lawyers whether their firm has a giver or taker culture, and in almost every instance they tell him “both.” But when he asks them to assign a percentage, they almost always attribute more to taking than giving.
Why is this?
We believe it has to do with the lack of interdependence among lawyers in a firm. They are essentially a federation of independent actors who drive the product (i.e., their legal services) from end to end. This allows them to take their product to another firm at almost any time. This is very different than, say, a software company, where product management, development, marketing and sales are all highly interdependent. Because these individuals all contribute to the product, seldom does one person control it to the point where they could take it elsewhere.
Moreover, most firm compensation systems and partnership tracks reward a winner-take-all mentality. Some call this “eat what you kill.” While there is merit to these systems, they are antithetical to a giver culture. One does not receive more compensation or make partner because he or she helped others be more successful. What matters is his or her originating, management and billing numbers, each of which inherently focuses on the “me” rather than the “we.”
So how does one develop a nice law firm culture where lawyers are incentivized to give more often than they take? In Grant’s book, he highlights a study of 64 intelligence groups that found the following:
[T]he single strongest predictor of group effectiveness was the amount of help that [intelligence] analysts gave to each other. In the highest-performing teams, analysts invested extensive time and energy in coaching, teaching and consulting with their colleagues. These contributions helped analysts question their own assumptions, fill gaps in their knowledge, gain access to novel perspectives and recognize patterns in seemingly disconnected threads of information. In the lowest-rated units, analysts exchanged little help and struggled to make sense of tangled webs of data.
Does your firm operate like those successful groups of intelligence analysts? If not—and probably not—here are a few objectives to shoot for:
- Create a giver culture from the top. This is the cornerstone, where firm leaders buy into the concept that if they give more to their employees, they will receive in equal or greater amounts. What you give depends on your firm’s circumstances. While it may not be a day off of work every month, it might be remote working arrangements, more transparency in firm decision making, lower billable requirements, billable credits for training, etc.
- Communicate your giver culture. This sounds simple, but intrafirm communication is often challenged. Consciously developing a plan for a giver culture and communicating that plan to the law firm as a whole is an important step.
- Build incentives for teamwork. If one partner helps another, do they get compensated for that? Grant talks about “organizational tipping.” Could partners “tip” one another for help, with those tips counting toward their annual compensation points? What about reducing the compensation for a lawyer who provides no tips?
- Offer coaching for lesser-performing lawyers. A coach is more than a mentor. It is someone whose compensation depends on the less successful person succeeding. This may be a young lawyer, the retooling lawyer or the struggling lawyer. If you want to keep them in the organization, you need to coach them.
- Build or buy tools for information sharing. If someone has a great contract, memo or brief, how do other lawyers find out about it? Does your firm have tools in place to help them? There is a lot of inexpensive, enterprise software out there for both publishing and sharing thought leadership within firms.
Being nice. Doing good to do well. Giving more than taking. Being the go-to person. “It’s an entirely new world,” Shankman says. “People are dying for someone to pay attention, rather than just sell them stuff.”