October 23, 2012

Multiple Offices, One Firm: Tips for Staying in Unison

Law Practice Magazine

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July/August 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 5| Page 55


Multiple Offices, One Firm: Tips for Staying in Unison

Creating cohesion among multiple offices of a firm can be challenging, all the more so as the geographic distance between offices expands. Differences in time zones, local culture, languages and more may lead to offices that share little else than the same firm name.

Mindful of these difficulties, firms are focusing on how to create more organizational unity, whether the firm’s offices extend across state lines or overseas. Let’s take a look at several effective strategies.


Leadership Across All Levels and Locations

All successful organizations have one thing in common—effective leadership. Law firms are no different. To be successful over the long run, firms must have leaders with the know-how and skills to accomplish the following:

▪ Create and communicate a shared vision for the entire firm.

▪ Place an emphasis on team work across practice areas and offices.

▪ Have a strong commitment to professional and career development for all the lawyers in the firm.

This isn’t just about the top tiers of firmwide management. Having strong leaders in place within each office and each practice group is also essential—although it’s not always the reality, of course. The fact is, it’s often just assumed that if someone makes it to a leadership role, albeit mainly based on practice expertise or years at the firm, he or she already has the skills to effectively manage and motivate others. The far surer path is for firms to provide a leadership training program for all their leaders at all levels.

This type of training can be organized and delivered in a number of ways, but certain subjects should be requisites, including how to convey the shared vision of the firm, performance management techniques, communication skills, strategic planning tactics, and sensitivity to cultural and generational differences among the firm’s people. Firms might choose to provide separate executive coaching to each participant as well. But however your leadership program is structured, it’s essential to include opportunities for all firm leaders to interact with one another—a critical factor in creating a connection between all offices and practice areas.


Remote Management Communications

It should go without saying that maintaining regular communication between offices is crucial—and it’s especially so for firm managers, team leaders and others who are supervising lawyers and staff in different locations. Technology plays an invaluable role here, with tools such as videoconferencing, extranets, Voice over Internet Protocol and a range of others greatly aiding in the process. (See the “Collaboration Technologies” feature on page 38 for more on this.) However, even with all the available technologies, some face-to-face communication is still essential. Practice group leaders who manage individuals in a number of offices, for example, should plan on at least quarterly visits to each office.

Also, regardless of the communication method—be it in person, by phone or via the Internet—managers must ensure they are providing clear messages to their people, especially when dealing with lawyers and staff from different cultures. Remember, every language has slang that won’t necessarily be understood by those from other regions and cultural backgrounds. Leaders should make a practice of using straightforward language in communications and double-checking to make sure their messages are clear to everyone.


Orientations for Lawyers

Also invaluable in a multioffice firm is providing both firmwide orientations and office-specific orientations to new lawyers. A general firm orientation gives attendees an overview of the larger firm, including its mission, key practice areas, and policies and procedures, and includes training in technology systems, communication protocols, cultural sensitivities, time management, and tips for how to succeed in the firm. These orientations should bring together individuals from different offices so that they begin to establish cross-office relationships.

In addition, an office-specific orientation should be provided to anyone who’s new to a particular office, even if that individual has already been working for the firm in another location. Having a structured process by which a person becomes acclimated to the office, work and colleagues in the new region will start the relationship on the right foot. And there’s a “reverse process” that firms with international offices should think about as well—meaning that in the case of U.S. lawyers who’ve been working in a foreign office for a substantial time, you should consider how to help them transition back into their home offices as smoothly as possible when the time comes.


Firmwide Professional Development

Professional development is essential to competing in today’s global marketplace, and lawyers are increasingly demanding training, mentoring and career development opportunities as part of their firm experiences. If your firm does not put an emphasis on these opportunities, you will likely have difficulty attracting and retaining top talent and thereby offering the highest quality of service to clients.

Many firms are moving to level-based training programs, in which they bring all associates from a particular class year together. Like the firm orientation, these programs provide on-level skills training, as well as opportunities to establish cross-office working relationships. Some firms may balk at the cost of providing this, but they should instead look closely at the results that can be achieved—increased efficiency, higher retention levels, and efficacy in client, team and cross-office relationships.

More and more, firms are also providing individual career development for each lawyer. This can be more difficult when the individual is in a different country from his or her practice leader, but the investment will be worth it. Having all your lawyers generate a yearly plan and then devising ways in which each can pursue his or her career goals within the firm is good business—and gives your most valuable assets additional reasons to stay with you. Awareness of each individual’s career development plan allows supervising partners and other work coordinators to match assignments with the individual’s interests and goals whenever possible. In addition, many firms are now providing internal or external coaches to help associates develop the skills necessary to meet their career and the firm’s goals. Whether the lawyer is in the United States or in an overseas office, the benefits of an individualized approach can be great.


Alumni Relationships

Employing some of the foregoing strategies has an additional effect: It begins the process of establishing strong alumni relationships, which can be very important for firms with offices in far-flung regions. Remember, alumni who have had a good experience with your firm can be some of your best sources for business referrals and play a positive role in your public relations in different marketplaces, whether they land in another firm, a government entity or a corporate environment.

So, since you already know that not all of your lawyers will make it to partner (most of them won’t), you will do well to build even further on the career development process outlined earlier. Once it is clear that certain lawyers will not be promoted to partnership, consider how to assist them in achieving their desired employment goals going forward—
for example, by providing outplacement or career transition services. Also, partners can provide specific introductions or help make connections that may land the lawyer in a new (and possibly advantageous to the firm) position. An organized, worldwide alumni program can extend the reach of your firm and its lawyers—past, present and future—into many places in many ways.

While there are clearly challenges to building a unified organization, whether you have offices around the country or all over the world, the rewards in doing so are great. Implementing the tips provided here can set you on your way to long-term success. Bon voyage!

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP.
She is coauthor of
Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent ( ABA, 2000) .