November/December 2018

Simple Steps

Becoming a More Connected Law Firm Leader?

Allison C. Shields

Good law firm leaders recognize that their team is their greatest asset and that the success of both the leader and the firm is dependent upon that team. To get the most from their teams, these leaders stay accessible and connected to their employees instead of remaining behind their desks (or constantly checking their iPhones) and leading from afar. They make time for face-to-face conversations, both with individual team members and groups.

So, how can you be a more connected leader?

Demonstrate That You Care

Your employees are on the front lines daily, communicating with and caring for your clients and ensuring your business runs smoothly. To do their best work, employees need to feel that the firm and its leaders care about them as people, not just as employees. This requires you to get to know them on a personal level. Informally check in with your employees on a regular basis. Talk about their lives and their career goals, not just about the firm and the work to be done. In turn, your employees will want to work harder for you and your clients.

Show employees that you are invested in their careers. Challenge and encourage them. Give them stretch goals to show you believe in them and you want them to improve. Allow them to make mistakes and to learn and grow from those errors. Let them know how important their jobs are to the success of the firm as a whole and to individual client matters.

Support your employees in reaching their goals. Outline the skills and competencies required to perform the various jobs and functions in your office. Highlight opportunities for advancement and communicate the requirements for promotion.

Be explicit about your expectations for each employee based not just upon their current job title or description but also upon their strengths, weaknesses and career goals. Provide them with the tools and training required to meet those expectations. Work with each one to develop a plan to follow, with benchmarks to be reached. Conduct regular meetings, both individually and in groups, to provide guidance and feedback, identify obstacles and brainstorm ideas, and monitor progress and provide accountability.

Listen

While it’s important for leaders to develop a clear vision and mission for the firm, it’s equally important to allow your employees opportunities to offer their perspectives on how to accomplish the firm’s mission and goals.

Create a collaborative atmosphere. Encourage brainstorming and thinking out loud. Make meetings a safe place where all ideas, complaints and suggestions are welcome. Even seemingly trivial complaints can reveal deeper issues that could harm the firm or identify potential benefits. Encouraging feedback provides opportunities for education, communication and relationship building.

Employees who are immersed in the different aspects of the firm’s work days are often the best equipped to see problems and suggest improvements. Ask employees what they think and what they hear clients say. Employees may hear what you don’t and can provide valuable intelligence.

When employees feel that their input matters and is respected and that they have an important role to play in the firm’s work, it fosters loyalty. There’s no better way to get employees to buy into the direction the firm is going than to allow them to contribute to making decisions, designing next steps, suggesting innovative solutions for solving problems or offering novel ways to deliver services. It may take time, but once employees realize that their opinions are being taken seriously, they’ll make suggestions that can translate into greater efficiency and increased profits for the firm.

Walk Your Talk

Set an example. Employees will do as you do, not as you say. If you espouse client service as a firm value, you must demonstrate client service. Employees need to see you practicing good client service and communication—going above and beyond for clients, and rewarding employee efforts to do the same—rather than dodging client calls or treating clients as simply a number or an invoice.

What you spend time on also signals to your employees what you value and what behaviors they should emulate. If staff meetings focus mainly on billable hours with little to no discussion about how the firm can improve the client’s experience with your firm, or if your firm is inefficiently managed or uses outdated technology, the message your employees (and your clients!) receive is that the firm doesn’t live up to, or believe in, excellent client service.

Show your commitment. If you tell associates and staff that they are expected to participate in specific activities or demonstrate specific behaviors, make sure partners are doing it as well. Hold partners, managers and supervisors accountable, not only for their own efforts but also for cultivating skills and behaviors and guiding the business development efforts of those people they supervise.

Keep your promises. Good intentions are not enough. Failing to follow through with what you say sends a signal that you can’t be trusted and risks losing the confidence and respect of your employees. Memories of disappointment can last a long time and can poison what would otherwise be a great employer-employee relationship.

Your employees are always watching what you do and say to see whether you’ve got credibility and integrity, even if you’re not speaking directly to them. Before you speak, make sure you’re committed to following through on your word.

Show Respect to Get Respect

The best way to earn respect is by showing it. If you and the other leaders of the firm don’t respect your partners, associates, staff and clients, you will not receive respect in return. Show your employees that no matter what their position within the firm is, they are valued by treating them accordingly. Do not micromanage. Micromanaging can prevent employees from learning or gaining confidence in their own abilities.

Do not tolerate screaming, cursing, sarcasm or condescension from anyone in your firm, especially its leaders. Acting in this manner signals that it’s acceptable to treat others poorly and it communicates a lack of respect for your employees. Do not allow outsiders—opposing counsel, vendors or even clients—to treat your employees poorly either. When you stand up for your employees, it demonstrates your respect.

Show respect by showing appreciation to your team on a regular basis. Share and celebrate the firm’s successes with all the people who helped bring them about. Acknowledge a job well done. Doing so publicly offers an opportunity to highlight and reinforce desirable firm behaviors and values. Provide negative feedback privately and constructively to encourage improvement and avoid embarrassment.

Connected leaders can spot problems before they become disasters, identify opportunities arising from that knowledge, experience the perspectives of their team members and foster creativity and innovation. By being connected, they develop employees who become great leaders themselves.

Allison C. Shields

Allison C. Shields is the president of Legal Ease Consulting Inc., where she works with lawyers and law firms to develop strategies to improve marketing and client service, and increase productivity, efficiency and profitability. She is the co-author of several books, including LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers (ABA 2013) and How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line (ABA 2014). Email her.

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