May we talk?
We used to have watercooler chats. I could walk by your office and talk about a case for a few minutes, hear about your big win and talk about that opposing counsel who was so unreasonable, etc. You remember.
But then, it was over. We worked from home.
The first hole in our business model was communication in a virtual world. The fix: Zoom. Many firms added or enhanced with other communication tools by adding Trello, Slack, Microsoft Teams and more. We had stuff to do, and it wasn’t happening in person anymore. So we adopted new ways to communicate and collaborate.
Problem solved, right? Well, yes, sort of. Like so many things in life, if you pull a string, you risk unraveling the sweater. Our sweater was our old law firm business model. Maybe you were able to sew that sleeve back on during the height of COVID, but what about the rest of the sweater? What I mean is, you added new workarounds for communication that are now mainstream. But while this was going on, how was your office morale, retention rate, job satisfaction, employee sense of purpose and value?
What's really happening to our firms?
Many firms have found that COVID took a real toll on everyone’s mental health. No surprise. The new reality of running a virtual office, a hybrid office with members at home and in the office, and even a firm where everyone returned to the office shows us that there are bigger problems to solve.
We have seen the symptoms: discontent, low morale, virtual communication fatigue, isolation, plummeting retention rates, inability to find new hires, increasing use of sick leave and paid time off (PTO), decreasing productivity, lack of motivation and drive and more. Among lawyers, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and insomnia rose. Likely the same is true for our staff.
OK, I hear you. Too much doom and gloom? Let’s get to the fix. What we all need is a tool for a bright and sunny future, a tool that sings, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow ... ” (Too much?)
What's for breakfast?
Management expert Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Culture is hungry! It eats everything. Want to make more money, increase client satisfaction, improve productivity, grow your firm, improve morale and fight back all those COVID effects? Feed your culture. Culture is the key to growing through change. You can identify and fix other problems, but at the end of the day, the biggest issues will remain in your firm. Invest in culture, and everything else will mirror the success of your healthy culture.
For example, have you noticed that the cycle of employment changed with COVID? The disconnect is far greater. The bond between employee and firm is harder to make and harder to grow. The time between hiring and losing an employee is speeding up. Hiring is hard, but retention is even harder.
Employee needs seem to be changing and old fixes aren’t working, or working as well. We can’t fix everything by just giving employees more money. They need to be valued. They need to have a purpose, be inspired. They need to feel ownership and to be part of something bigger than them. They need autonomy and an opportunity to realize their potential. They need partners, a team, a tribe. They need a leader with a vision that inspires them. They need to have a mission that bonds them with their firm tribe. They need to be part of the fix. They need to know that they are making the world a better, safer and more just place. They need to be safe and accepted. They need a space that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion. They need a place that encourages innovation and rewards those who bring new ideas and fresh visions, and who challenge the status quo. They need to be given the trust to “Just do it.”
I see a hand ... “Yes, you in the back.” Thank you for your thoughts, and let me repeat what you said. He said, “And they need someone to hold their hands, sing ‘Kumbaya’ and give them an award for coming to work today, too.” I hear you. Really, I do. But today’s legal economy is not unique. We are part of a larger culture where the companies that are growing, scaling and succeeding are feeding their culture and building their mission-driven tribes. It’s a recipe that works. If you want to attract new talent, retain existing staff, and grow a firm that is sustainable and will produce employees who are happy, productive, motivated and loyal, then focus on your culture. Put employees first by investing in them as your top priority. Your firm will increase its productivity, your clients will be happier and better taken care of, and you will make more money while working in a happier and energy-driven environment.
Building your culture
Culture has many sides and many faces. Don’t let anyone tell you that their culture is just one thing like “We are aggressive,” “We are tough but fair” or “We reward hard work.” Culture is bigger than that and wraps its arms around every aspect of your firm. So, to build and grow your culture, you first need to know what your culture is. Hopefully you have a positive culture because you can unwittingly be sustaining an ugly culture if you are not careful.
Start by defining your core values. They define the uniqueness of your firm and the values that connect you as a tribe. Your core values should give a clear vision of your firm and who you really are; inspire and guide your team to act, to succeed and to grow; and direct how your firm hires, promotes, fires and works.
Make your core values visible. Put them on the walls. Post them on your website. Reference them at meetings; give them life, value and meaning. Show them as a blueprint for success and a code among brothers and sisters.
Amplify your core values by giving out a monthly award recognizing those who embody them. Elevate your firm by perpetuating a stellar example of staff efforts by repeating their stories, providing videos that inspire others to follow the leadership of your model staff and regularly reminding your teams how to live the firm’s core values.
Connect and collaborate
Culture is inclusive. Build opportunities for firm members to socialize, share, hang out, bond, make friends and find commonalities. Virtual firms are the hardest places to build culture. Look for opportunities to offer a virtual game night, meet for a baseball game, team-build at an escape room, celebrate a team victory or accomplishment with a praise channel on Slack. The possibilities are endless, but the purpose is to build deep bonds throughout your firm.
Law firms often retain a strict hierarchy (i.e., paralegals serving attorneys), which has the effect of diminishing or taking away the autonomy of staff. Instead, break the old model and maximize the autonomy of every position. This can be simple things, like asking your staff “How do you plan on solving that issue?” rather than “Here is what I want you to do.” Let your staff imagine ways to improve their job and give them the latitude to implement their ideas. Autonomy is key to releasing your staff from their doldrums and bringing a blue sky work environment to your firm. Nothing improves morale and builds a strong culture like having trust in your teams, valuing your staff, sharing ownership and giving others the room to succeed.
Silicon Valley start-ups have successfully built empires by giving employees the ultimate autonomy: letting them choose how and when they work. For example, consider ending the time clock. Let staff start and end their day when it works best for them and when they are most productive.
Here is a crazy idea: Consider ending sick leave and PTO based on length of employment or based on credits earned for every 40 hours worked. Simply give your employees unlimited PTO. Set minimum production rates that must be achieved to maintain employment and offer bonuses for high production rates. Then let your staff work their chosen hours with autonomy. Companies that have adopted this model have seen productivity rise, retention rates improve and job satisfaction skyrocket. As an added benefit, this is a great perk that attracts new and better talent into your office.
Invest in every employee's success
Investing in your people is key to building the culture. Show your employees that they are the most important, even more so than clients. If everyone at your firms feels valued and important, they will be happier, loyal and more productive. In return, they will produce happier clients and be proud ambassadors for the firm everywhere they go, whether they are working, vacationing or having dinner with their friends.
You can invest in many ways. For example, offer education benefits, or send them to online training or to a state or national conference in person. Offer your employees all the benefits you can, like health insurance, disability, a 401(k), etc. The better their life is, the fewer issues will take them away from work or find their way into work. Give each employee the most secure and safe life you can provide them. You will be rewarded with happier employees and an infectiously upbeat office.
Here’s another crazy idea: Invest in their health. Offer “sleep credits” to employees who achieve a full night of sleep. Studies show that people who get 8 to 9 hours of sleep are more productive and happier. Take care of the employees who take care of themselves. Sleep credits can be traded for paid time off or bonuses. There are similar models for exercise and healthy diets.
Make your culture the priority. Put staff before clients, and clients will be better served. Create an attractive culture and retention will improve, and you will attract new and better talent. Give your teams autonomy and unlock their full potential.
COVID has been difficult, and it has uncovered holes in our firm structures. But the silver lining is that it has also opened our eyes to more opportunities to build and grow our firms that we may never have seen without this crisis. In the end, we are the beneficiaries, not the victims. Indeed, in the words of economist Paul Romer, “(a) crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”