December 10, 2020 Feature

Six Steps to a Better Law Firm Culture in the Age of the Digital Water Cooler

Eric Farber
Strengthening your culture will keep your team focused and your law firm thriving during the crisis.

Strengthening your culture will keep your team focused and your law firm thriving during the crisis.

Roberto Westbrook // Getty Images

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said, “character is destiny.” How you act now will be remembered for a long time and will shape your company into the future. Your team is looking to you to lead them through this crisis. Anything less makes you undeserving of them following you anywhere.

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As your company leader, or as a leader in your company, you must lead with empathy, direction, clarity, information, encouragement, and, most importantly, facts.

Unless your team is making N95 masks, they are nervous about the viability of the company and their job. Be empathic to their situation as well as the collective situation. Be honest about the true state of the company and what needs to be done to make sure the company survives and thrives. Bring them into the conversation and bring them closer by asking for ideas on how they can contribute more. More than ever, they want the company to survive just as much as you do.

Our company, Pacific Workers’, The Lawyers for Injured Workers, represents thousands of injured workers in their claims against insurance companies. Our clients are going through active injuries—they are still being treated by doctors to get better and return to work. Virus or no virus, their treatment and cases must continue.

Five days before the lockdown order in the Bay Area, our entire team (except for people scanning and sending out mail) went remote. Our management team had been following the spread of the virus for more than a month. We quickly realized that if one team member got sick, our office would have to close. We wanted to be ahead of the issue and knew we had to get our team remote as quickly as possible. When we made the decision to move, we were able to do so in less than 72 hours.

Despite our new environment, our team has continued to thrive. We have grown by close to 20 percent, hit the two highest consecutive months ever for new clients, and have hired ten new people. We have expanded to new markets and proudly have maintained all salaries and even paid out bonuses.

How did we do this? Culture.

Culture is the biggest driver of employee happiness and client satisfaction. It is also the biggest driver of productivity and growth. In study after study, it is shown that companies with happy employees are simply better run companies. They report 13 percent turnover among staff versus a 48 percent national average, a 12 percent higher rate of productivity from their employees, and in publicly traded companies beat the market by 5 percent. Creating a good culture does not just make a company a nice place to work, it makes it far more profitable.

Designing a powerful culture is not easy. Continuing the momentum and building culture in the age of the digital water cooler double the challenge.

I am often asked to define what company culture is. However, there is no simple or practical definition of company culture. We can say that every company has a culture—good or bad. Intentional, directed, and disciplined cultures are rare in companies, however. They are even rarer in law firms. Amorphic and impractical definitions of culture are far more common.

A simple definition of culture is the air a company breathes. A more complex definition is getting the people in sync with a mission, values, and a disciplined process to better serve the team and the clients.

Culture, from the root cultus, means to cultivate and care. An intentional culture begins with showing the team how much you care—about them, their family, and their future. Caring builds trust, the strong fabric of any good relationship. A strong culture focuses on the personal and professional development of every person at the company. It shows them there is a path to a better future. It encourages them to bring their whole selves to work, good and bad, so they can overcome obstacles and grow in a supportive environment. Building a caring community within your company builds a company constructed of trust. We strive to show how much we care about our team in significant ways. Asking for more requires showing you care more.

For example, at the early stage of the crisis, we sent out an employee survey to ferret out the true challenges our team was experiencing. Not surprisingly, the survey revealed that team members who are parents are struggling to balancing their workload with being homeschoolers. To help, we partnered with an online platform to provide tutoring and fun creative classes for the kids of our team.

The survey also revealed the difficulties of social isolation. Many of our people live alone. We organized weekly events such as a few pizza parties (where we sent pizzas to everyone’s houses), movie nights, Jeopardy night, and even a virtual “escape room” to help. We encourage team members to reach out to each other. We do this to keep people connected outside of “work.” Little things matter, but so do the big things.

At the beginning of the crisis, we held virtual companywide meetings to discuss the issues facing the company, the anticipated challenges, and what we would expect of our team. We were straight with them. We set out what we believed were the obstacles we had to overcome, the priorities, and a new set of standards. We set out the strategies that we felt were necessary to be able to survive. We asked for their 100 percent commitment toward their work and their caring for clients.

Our culture develops the team professionally and personally. It allows the team to focus on the clients in systematic ways. We create standard processes and procedures, training, and direction. These processes are not set in stone—our team is expected to participate in changing them to make them better. They are the ones who are closest to the system that is intended to serve the clients.

When the company no longer has walls or the ability to be together in the traditional sense, the culture must adapt. Prior to the pandemic, our sense of togetherness and mission was strong. We had not had significant turnover in several years, and our growth was easier and scalable. Focusing on our culture has made it much easier to maintain a strong business.

Below are six things we have learned that will help your culture during the crisis.

1. Communicate the Path Forward, Clearly and Honestly

At the top of this list is to talk with your team. Have a companywide meeting to discuss the challenges the company is facing. Be honest with them, approach them with facts and truthful intention. Set out your plan and let them know what needs to be done and what is expected of them.

Set out the standards that you know will be required of everyone to accomplish the goal. Ask for their buy-in. In our first companywide meeting, we asked for 100 percent from everyone. For anyone who was not willing to participate and contribute at their highest level, we would pay them a month of salary to sit at home and do nothing—they just had to let us know by noon that day. We also announced that we joined the National No Layoff pledge through June. For anyone that would commit to us, we would commit to them.

2. Discipline in Process

We are a company that focuses on process and procedure. No matter what the size of your company, your goal is to be the best in the world at what you do (in your marketplace). Getting great means everyone must do things the same way each time. We knew that our best practices were changing quickly. The crisis will likely expose the flaws in many of your practices; get clear about the changes that need to be made and make them. Involve the team in these changes. Let the team decide on best practices needed. Process does not replace judgment. For example, workers’ compensation is intensely paper heavy, and for many years our firm has talked about becoming 95 percent paperless. We are now finally on our way to making that a reality.

3. Encourage Space for Personal Time

These are unprecedented times. The stress is compounding for everyone. Many of our team members are parents—which now makes them homeschool teachers in addition to their day job. Encourage your team members to take care of their families and themselves first. We give our team extra time every day to focus on themselves and the added responsibilities they have. The only thing we ask is that they let their direct team members know their schedule and when they will be unavailable. We encourage them to turn off all forms of communication during that personal time. I, personally, am still meditating and working out every morning in our new makeshift gym in the living room. I have also been trying to take a nap every day just after lunch.

4. Constantly Reinforce and Practice Your Values

Most companies do not have a stated mission or values. If you do not have them, put them in writing and get them out to your team. If you do have them, now is a great time to talk about them, live them, and lean into them. Your company values give you and the team rules to live by and how to operate during this time. If a core value is “empathy,” make sure you are actually acting with empathy.

5. Check In with People, Not On People

This crisis has raised your need as a leader to care more and give more—especially to those on your team. Make it a point to check in with the people on your team. See how they are, what challenges they are facing, and how you can better adapt. These are not micromanaging sessions; these are caring sessions. Get their ideas and, most importantly, thank them. The companies that lead with “you are lucky to still have a job” will not have a company for very long. I’ve only been to my office a handful of times since March. The first was to pick up my personal stationery so I could send “thank-you” cards to my team.

6. “Together Time” Continues

Our company normally has more than 50 company events a year. Yes, 50! We get together weekly to celebrate birthdays, company anniversaries, and personal and client wins. We also have quarterly happy hours, monthly lunches, an anniversary party, a holiday party, and a massive summer barbecue for our team, their families, vendors, and our community. Aside from using our video technology for team meetings, we now get together virtually for movie nights, meditation sessions, game night, happy hours, and our weekly Friday afternoon get-togethers to celebrate the “wins” of the week. Now, rather than providing the beer and wine, our team members bring their own. In the days of the disconnected company, it is important to continue to find ways to stay connected through social settings.

Conclusion

Strengthening your culture is what will keep your team focused and your company thriving during the crisis.

Our company has long kept a list of emergency procedures with instructions on what to do in case something goes wrong. It is our leaflet in the back of an airplane seat. The list is extensive and includes crises such as “loss of a key employee,” “what to do in an earthquake,” or “a key marketing channel is cut off.” However, it did not contain instructions for a global pandemic. Regardless, we were still prepared. Our culture is our preparation.

Prepare now. It is not too late. The time to prepare for a battle is before the battle starts. Sharpening your sword when the enemy is at the gates is often too little, too late. This crisis will continue for a long time. We will see more crises in the future. We all need to adapt and pivot to get through this one and the next one. If you have not built a strong culture for your company, it is not too late.

They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second-best time is today.

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Eric Farber is the author of the best-selling book The Case for Culture: How to Stop Being a Slave to Your Law Firm, Grow Your Practice, and Actually Be Happy (Lioncrest, 2020). Eric is on a mission to change how law firms operate by showing lawyers the value of putting culture first. He is the CEO and chief legal officer of Pacific Workers’, The Lawyers for Injured Workers, headquartered in Oakland, California.