Building an Award-Winning Legal Office Culture

Volume 40 Number 1

By

About the Author

Timothy M. Lupinacci is a shareholder in the Birmingham, Ala., office of Baker Donelson Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. A self-processed leadership “junkie,” he has worked to build a positive firm culture while serving as the office managing shareholder for five years, as well as a member of the firm’s board of directors and presently as chair of the firm’s Financial Institutions Advocacy Group. 

Law Practice Magazine | January/February 2014 | The Management IssueBuilding and maintaining a positive office culture are critical components to reaching and achieving collaborative goals. There is a lot of literature about the importance of culture in the marketplace, including detailed descriptions of the corporate atmosphere at Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Toms Shoes and Zappos. Tony Hsieh describes the key importance of culture to Zappos in his excellent book Delivering Happiness. Hsieh states that “if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff—like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers—will happen naturally.” The same is true in the legal industry. Hildebrandt Consulting and Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group have said, “Law firms discount or ignore firm culture at their peril.”

Culture is a key component of building profits, passion and purpose. Many business leaders, however, struggle with how to get serious about improving their office culture and implementing dynamic changes in practice. Certainly winning “best place to work” awards does not guarantee that you have a great place to work. However, I find value in these “competitions” through boosting employee morale at winning and, more importantly, analyzing the anonymous employee feedback that typically is provided through the process. Securing rankings as a best place to work can be a measuring stick of progress in improving the culture of your law firm.

Let’s talk about a few of the initiatives that have helped to achieve a successful law office culture in my firm over the past five years.

SHAREHOLDER DINNERS

To build an award-winning culture, you have to lead from the top. If the leaders of your office do not believe in a culture of inclusion, camaraderie and respect, it is almost impossible to build that type of culture throughout the entire office. A good starting point is to make sure that your leaders are getting together outside of the office. In her delightful book Dinner With Churchill, Cita Stelzer highlights one of the many techniques that Winston Churchill used to persuade others to accept his strategic vision for various goals. She notes that “Churchill used the informal setting of dinner parties to enhance his efforts to shape the future of Europe and the post-war world.” While not on the scale and importance of the political challenges that Churchill faced, I believe that his “dinner table diplomacy” provides value in the law firm.

Our firm started hosting a shareholder dinner at least once a quarter at a local restaurant that has a room for private parties. There was no agenda to the dinner; rather this was a time for partners to get together in a relaxed environment. I started each evening with a short “toast” tied to a leadership challenge and then just let the lawyers interact over dinner.
Holding regular, quarterly shareholder dinners helps bond office leaders and facilitates collaboration. An additional benefit of challenging the office leaders to step up in leading the office was increased momentum in building a strong office culture.

LEADERSHIP LUNCHES

Everyone in the office, from the highest paid rainmaker to the mid-level associate to the receptionist, must recognize that they are leaders. Each person leads in his or her own way, whether it is a team of associates or paralegals or secretaries, within their community, family or faith organization. Providing an opportunity for everyone in the office to grow in technique and expertise in leading their respective spheres of influence is an important step in building culture.
To facilitate this growth, we held monthly leadership lunches where everyone in the office was invited to share pizza and engage in an interactive leadership lesson. This fostered interaction among office members in a casual setting. After enjoying fellowship and food, I led a 20-minute discussion of a leadership book and encouraged interaction through questions. The leadership lunches empowered individuals by including them in leadership growth opportunities and by building camaraderie between attorneys and staff.

WALKING THE HALLS

An important piece of advice I received upon becoming the managing shareholder was to “walk the halls.” Visiting with people without an agenda sets a tone of inclusion and transparency. It also provides an opportunity for people to share thoughts or to vent about problems. Despite the encouragement, I failed in consistently doing this. I tried scheduling blocks of time on my calendar to get out and walk the halls; however, I tended to let this item slip as my day got busy.

This failure prompted several initiatives to have focused interaction with everyone in the office in a variety of ways. I attended our monthly staff meeting to give a report about things going on around the office and firm, to listen to concerns or ideas and to keep in touch with issues with which the staff were wrestling. I began holding monthly associate lunches to discuss office and firm issues with our young lawyers. I also brought in firm leaders to address issues with which the associates were struggling, such as IT problems.

I also held a monthly lunch meeting with six or seven office leaders to get feedback on initiatives and goals, discuss problems, talk about potential lateral shareholders and discuss the office in general. This provided a sounding board on new ideas and resulted in core leadership buying into the overall direction of the office.

The benefit of having more scheduled “walk the halls” meetings was the ability to put it on the calendar and plan around it. It was harder for me to cancel a lunch or breakfast than just ignore my calendar pop-up to walk the halls. Of critical importance in all of these settings, including walking the halls, was to ask each attorney and staff member what I could do to help them—and following up on those areas.

THE BIG IDEA

Sometimes all it takes is one good idea to help break an office or team out of a slump. Good ideas can come from any source, not just you as a leader. I read about a Google practice to award cash bonuses for innovative ideas. I modified this idea and created a “Big Idea” contest.

I encouraged everyone in the office to submit an idea relating to increased productivity and client development. I had a committee select the best idea. It was then implemented and a cash bonus awarded. This led to some great innovations at the office that benefited our culture. Effective leaders must be intensely disciplined about seeking out new ideas and implementing them well.

CHANGE THE WORLD

Working together on a common project for common good is an important office unifier. In his book The Radical Leap Re-Energized, Steve Farber states that you “may not think you can change the Whole World … but you can certainly change the world—small w—that you and yours live in: the world of your company, the world of your employees, the world of your industry, or the world of your family.” I used this concept to focus our office to change the world around us.

We scheduled two Saturdays together to work on a Habitat for Humanity house. We cooked breakfast at a local women’s shelter. Our office has a legacy of involvement in the civil rights movement, so we provided employees the opportunity to volunteer during the workday at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. We formed teams to participate in runs and walks for the Susan G. Komen foundation and for cystic fibrosis and juvenile diabetes. While helping to impact the community we wore Change the World T-shirts, which built further unity among our offices.

THE CULTURE BOOK

In Delivering Happiness Hsieh describes the “Zappos Culture Book.” Hsieh, as Zappos’ CEO, asked employees to email 100 to 500 words to him about what the Zappos culture meant to them. Zappos compiled each response verbatim—the good, the bad and the ugly—and the Zappos Culture Book grew into a large book that now includes vendor and partner entries.

As we focused on building an office culture of inclusion and excellence, I decided to develop our own office culture book. As a result, I sent an email to each employee of the office, requesting that they email me what our office and firm culture meant to them.

The result was a large number of responses that formed the basis of our very own culture book that we distributed to each person in the office. This positive, internal affirmation that resulted in the book is hard to put a price tag on and served as another opportunity to build unity across the office and to increase our strong office culture and beliefs.

FUN DIVERSIONS

There are certain times in an office’s journey where the stress level is heightened. In those times it is even more important to add some element of fun to the mix. One such time was when we embarked on a major renovation of our office space. I knew the disruption would increase tensions and problems with standard day-to-day operations.

To help provide some solace from the renovation stress, we developed an office-wide Wii bowling tournament. Each person got to bowl one game “free” to participate in the contest. They could also make a $5 donation to a specified office charity for each additional game that they wanted to bowl.

At the end of the yearlong renovation, we took the top four scores and hosted a bowl-off in our newly renovated auditorium space. We invited the entire office to watch the final bowling competition, offering refreshments and snacks. The winner won a wide-screen, high-definition television. The bowling competition provided a small respite from the tension of the renovations, built unity by having a fun activity to participate in and cheer about, and raised additional money for a local charity.

CELEBRATING WINS

Celebrating victories along the way is important for teams and offices. During local best places to work competitions, the organization asks the finalists to pick a song to be played while the company is recognized. To increase the energy and fun level, we picked up-tempo hip-hop and pop songs as our victory anthems. The excitement within the office over what song we selected grew as the event neared. It was a fun way to distinguish our victories and gave us something to rally around as we started being recognized for our office culture.

When we hit certain office financial goals, we hosted an after-hours party at a nice venue that featured live music. It was an opportunity to thank everyone and to celebrate our collaborative effort to achieve the goal. It also served to build relationships among co-workers outside of the office. If you set up goals and objectives for the office, it is critical to celebrate wins along the way.

CONCLUSION

There is no magic in the specific items that we implemented over five years in building our office culture. The key foundation is focus and discipline. Building an office culture does not happen by itself. It takes a commitment to focus on building relationships, growing respect and developing strategies to improve a law office culture. It starts at the top with the individual leader, but it cannot be achieved by any one person. The leader has to be disciplined and really intend to develop steps to build the culture. The challenge begins with a commitment to make a change in your office’s culture and then to identify one or two initial steps in that journey. Then you have to take action on your plan.

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