May/June 2019

Career Steps

Seek Input from Everyone in Your Firm

Wendy L. Werner

One of the most disappointing things to hear from someone describing his or her law firm is when he or she says, “We’re a 28-lawyer firm,” with no mention of the number of other employees who work at the firm and who make unmeasured contributions every day. In addition to excluding from any consideration employees who help keep the firm running and make it profitable, it underreports, to the less-than-knowledgeable public, the number of employees who work in your business. You may be inadvertently underselling the size and scope of your law practice to potential future clients.

But just because you may take the first step toward acknowledging the number of all employees, it may not mean that you are managing the firm or a practice group as a whole. Many firm’s management activities are divided into sectors, namely, the attorneys who bill hours and generate business and everyone else. Paralegals, who also directly generate income, are often caught in a space where they are neither perceived as income-generating, like lawyers, nor are they viewed in the same way as other support staff.

One of the ironies about this practice is how new lawyers are frequently oriented into the policies and procedures of the firm. Junior attorneys and law clerks are often wisely encouraged to show deference to, and learn as much as possible from, long-term support staff. Woe to the summer law clerk who disrespects the legal assistant of a senior partner. Having seen law students and junior lawyers come and go over time, the long-term support staff member is guaranteed to know more about how the firm works than any new employee. And in many situations attorney supervisors wisely trust the judgment of these valuable staff members.

But how often are these knowledgeable employees asked to take part in formally training new lawyers? Or how often would they be consulted when the firm makes decisions about what content is necessary for new lawyers to learn while addressing all aspects of learning the practice of law? Is there a general awareness of how people looking at different aspects of how your work is done may view your efficiencies, policies and best practices? How do you create situations where you are fully managing all members of the firm? If you are managing your firm (or practice group), there are a number of ways you can help both develop the firm and your employees by more broadly managing the entire firm, not just its attorneys.

A Diagonal Slice Discussion

It is likely that law firm managers rarely address development, or firm issues, not just with attorneys or with support staff separately, but rather with all firm or department employees in a diagonal slice, from the most junior staff to the most senior attorneys. One of the ways in which you learn how well people are functioning is to get them together in a manageably sized group and determine who is responsible for what and how each step in a process is being completed. These kinds of process improvement conversations, not unusual in corporate environments, are often more rare in law firms. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the law firm earning model isn’t necessarily focused on efficiencies. But walking through a process from start to finish can give you much-needed information about where bottlenecks and inefficiencies may be occurring. And, yes, disrupting your firm’s work for a day, or part of a day, is an expensive proposition. Consider it an investment.

Separately, different levels of employees frequently grouse about the difficulties that other employees foist upon them through bad processes and poor communication. But rarely do all groups take the opportunity to sit down together and work through an entire process to create a better outcome and smoother day-to-day working relationships. To do this and get your desired outcomes, some ground rules need to be established.

  • Everyone must be involved and have an equal voice in the process. While this doesn’t mean that shareholders will not have the ultimate voice when it comes to cost or implementation, if there isn’t engagement with everyone, there will be no buy-in to the decided process outcome.
  • In the early phase of defining the problem, don’t shut anyone down or out. From where each person sits, there may be a different source of a problem, but no one has an entire picture of the process. All employees need to raise issues to address them.
  • When side issues come up, park them. Once you start asking for input, issues will emerge that have little or nothing to do with the original question asked. Keep the discussion on track, but acknowledge the other concerns raised for future discussion. Designate someone to keep track of this content and ensure that they are addressed, or at least acknowledged, later. They could become the outlines of subsequent discussions.
  • Don’t criticize initial possible solutions. When generating possible strategies, some of the ideas may seem far-fetched and unworkable, but they need to be heard. While they may not be implemented in their entirety, solutions are often made up of a number of different ideas, some of which may have seemed unworkable during their initial recommendation.
  • Don’t hold grudges, and don’t allow retribution. If people are not free to air their suggestions and recommendations without critique, they will simply not contribute their ideas in the future. If there is gossip or underground talk that criticizes or minimizes recommendations, discussion group members will know that their ideas are not truly valued and that their rank or status in the firm is the sole driving force behind decision making.
  • Don’t make unrealistic promises. Some problems have solutions that are unaffordable or unworkable. If you need to put boundaries around how much you can invest to make a firm management issue something that you can implement, state this up front and stick with it. At the same time, don’t set too artificially low a bar. Efficiencies that you can create in your processes can save you money or lower risks that you were previously unaware of. That can create a significant cost savings.
  • Follow up, follow through and assess. Changing processes is difficult and awkward. If you have done something in a particular way for an extended period, doing it differently can feel initially uncomfortable. You may end up revisiting your decided course and alter it slightly. Keeping track of results is critical to determining whether you are on the right track and making progress.

Creating Stakeholders

The best way to learn a subject matter is to teach it. And the best teachers are often those who use a particular process every day. If you engage the people who know a process best to teach it to others, regardless of their level in the organization, you will help foster a greater stake in your law firm’s success than training only by rank. Giving staff the opportunity to teach attorneys and others is a way of valuing their knowledge and expertise—and often their loyalty. It is a reward that does not create cost; it creates savings and fosters morale.

If you are the managing partner, or a practice group chair, trying to be the best manager you can be, consider the ways in which you can engage more members of your firm. Be willing to ask questions, turn instruction on its head and bring everyone together when you need to in order to create efficiencies and solve problems. You will create a better law firm in the process.

Wendy L. Werner

Wendy L. Werner, principal of Werner Associates LLC, is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She was the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s (LP) Law Career Paths Task Force and is the co-chair of LP’s Book Publishing Board.