September 01, 2018

Practice Management Advice

Making Clear a Culture of Transparency

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Butch Tate recently reminded us of an important lesson that everyone should have learned on the playground: Keeping secrets from some of the team will only keep the whole team from winning. Tate was working on a project that, when successful, would bring hope and help to thousands. Unfortunately, one member of the group wanted to have a private conversation with some of the members, to the exclusion of others. The easiest path would have been to allow the private conversation. It would have spared potentially hard feelings.

But Tate took the path less traveled and ultimately saved time and resolved the problem. He insisted that all communications be made to the entire group. Whatever differences arose among team members, they needed to be faced head-on. He would referee, and the group would be stronger for having worked through the issue together. Masterfully, he introduced the topic and created a safe environment for all sides to air their grievances. By the end of the meeting, all were happy again, working toward the common goal because Tate insisted upon transparency among the group members.

Getting Caught Up in Secrets

It’s easy for a law firm to get caught up in secret sidebar conversations rather than fostering transparency. Usually these conversations become grist for the rumor mill. They create a culture of insiders versus outsiders, which causes hard feelings and distrust among colleagues. As a result they also consume a lot of time that could be better spent working for clients or managing or marketing.

Law firms need leaders who promote a culture of transparency. Although it’s easy to see the need for transparency when you are on the outside looking in, it’s even easier to forget it when you are a member of the inner circle. To the staff, all the lawyers are part of the inner circle. To the associates, all partners are the “in” crowd. In large firms the concentric circles of who is “in” and who is “out” are more complicated. Regardless, a firm that is not perceived as transparent winds up wasting a lot of time on petty exercises and, possibly, disputes.

Think back to your own childhood. You can likely recall an instance when two friends whispered in one another’s ears in front of you. As a child you called this “keeping secrets” rather than using a grown-up phrase such as “a lack of transparency,” but the effect was the same. People who you thought were your friends were keeping “important” information from you. Odds are that you did not shrug off the matter and go about your play. Instead it became the primary focus of your attention. You did not appreciate how your friends were treating you. You felt left out. You wondered whether they were talking about you and, if so, you assumed they were talking about you in a way that you would not have liked. These friends had treated you unfairly. They had hurt your feelings. They had caused you to become angry because you believed that you had a right to be a part of the inner circle that knew the secret. They caused you to no longer trust them because how do you trust people who keep secrets from you?

Whether their actions were a form of childhood malice, a lack of maturity or an absence of empathy, it’s highly unlikely that your friends attempted to resolve the situation on their own. Absent intervention by an adult, there probably was no apology or explanation of why they kept the matter a secret. The friendship was damaged.

Creating a Culture of Transparency

These playground dynamics happen in law firms every day. A conflict exists among colleagues and partners engage in the sidebar conversations that Tate refused to allow. Leaders share “insider information” with a select few people. Decisions are made without consulting those who will be most impacted. Gossip is allowed to permeate the office unchecked. For those who are on the outside looking in, the sense of distrust, grievance and hard feelings is no different than that experienced on the playground.

If problems caused by a lack of transparency are allowed to fester, your most precious asset—your trained staff and lawyers—find new jobs or continue to work in an environment where trust and collegiality have been diminished. Neither scenario benefits the firm.

A better alternative exists—law firm leaders can insist on transparency in the same way as Tate did. Here are some suggestions for building a culture of transparency:

  • When someone wants to have a private conversation, ask yourself whether it is appropriate to do so in that circumstance.
  • Don’t allow yourself or other leaders to be pulled into the secret sidebar conversations of your colleagues. Make certain that you are seen as an honest broker when resolving conflicts.
  • Whenever possible, consult with those who will be impacted most by your decisions. Of course, you cannot share all the firm’s issues with the staff, and they understand that. But be generous in what you can and do share.
  • When you fail at transparency—and you will from time to time—take the time to apologize to the people affected.
  • Don’t fake it. If you hold yourself out as being transparent, follow through.

The same dynamics, issues, feelings, securities and breaches of trust are present in all of our working relationships. Tate reminds us that secrets waste time and money. Facing problems head-on and quickly will keep a positive firm culture—and happy employees too.

Linda Klein

Linda Klein is a past president of the American Bar Association and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law.

John Hinton IV

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law.