Having worked in or with law firms for over 30 years now, I can say that in my experience, law firms have a hard time being honest about certain things. I’m not for a minute suggesting that lawyers do not tell the truth. The foundation of every firm I’ve worked with is the personal integrity of their lawyers. What I am suggesting is that in certain aspects of their business, it’s hard for them to see the truth, or speak the truth. And that makes it difficult to market the firm, resource the firm, and manage the firm. Here’s how…
- Brands and marketing: many law firms have come to understand the impact and value of differentiation: a brag that can be made about the firm that makes it stand out from its competitors. We call this a brand, and it’s generally supported by a marketing strategy and plan that talks about how the firm will prove that brand to the marketplace (repeatedly and consistently). Every design firm that has worked with a law firm will tell you that branding a law firm is difficult because most firms either haven’t taken the time to consider how they are unique from their competitors; or believe they are unique in terms of experience/expertise, and/or client service without being able to prove it.
This issue could be most easily resolved by firms admitting that what they’ve built probably isn’t that special in comparisons to their competitors, and using this reality as a catalyst to create a real point of differentiation. But that takes creativity, effort and time. Most lawyers are prepared to put a certain amount of effort into branding a firm; but they have limits. They want the world to embrace their brand but they don’t want to earn it.
Brands require ongoing proof – called proof points – that constantly and consistently demonstrate the firm’s commitment to their point of differentiation. It’s not enough to say “we’re the friendliest firm in town” but then have no guidelines (and no consequences) in place to ensure that all points of interaction between the firm and the market are indeed the friendliest in town. A brand can’t be a slogan and no more. Firms that do not fully embrace a brand are not being honest with the marketplace.
Similarly, many lawyers are willing to admit that marketing is an important part of their business…as long as it’s easy to do, doesn’t take them outside of their comfort zone and is prepared to take a fast back seat as soon as billable work comes along.
We would never tell our kids “just do your homework until it gets too hard, or until your favorite show is on”. Yet too often, law firms that treat marketing as only a suggestion are the first to come down hard on any lawyers who don’t meet their targets.
- Lawyer management: There are three specific areas where law firms may have a hard time being honest in their management of lawyers:
- Dealing with lawyers with challenges: whether the lawyer is under-performing or causing issues for the firm in other ways, law firms have a really hard time “policing” their own. Too often, under-performing lawyers aren’t told the seriousness of their situation until they are asked to leave the firm. And most firms find it extremely challenging to deal with Partners who might be exhibiting bad behaviours. This is especially true when those Partners are big producers. Lawyers know when different people are being held to different standards. Lawyers know when firm values count with some lawyers, but not with others.
- Compensation: Whether a firm has an open or closed compensation systems, very few firms have a transparent assessment process. At most, firms may provide guidelines for compensation but would admit that determination of compensation by lawyer is a bit of an art form that requires great subjectivity. Firms may be adequate in explaining how a committee came to a particular number for a particular lawyer; they are less adept in explaining rationale for the difference between one lawyer’s compensation and another’s. In the absence of transparency, the result is often distrust. If you can’t explain your compensation system to it’s participants, either someone is lying to someone else or there is at least the perception that someone is lying to someone else.
- Partnership consideration: Again, for many firms there may be an understanding within the Partnership of the accomplishments required in order to move an Associate to Partner, but few Associates ever see this list. There’s no reason to keep this a secret. Firms should want their Associates to meet those required targets in terms of billings, reputation, marketing, delegation, file management, etc. Withholding the criteria smells a bit like it all comes down to a gut feel process, and in this marketplace that just doesn’t cut it anymore. Be honest and open with your Partnership entry criteria.
- Staff management: Firms that are struggling with hiring and keeping good staff are starting to understand the value of a good support team.
- Law firm administrators are few and far between, and too many of them are scheduled to retire soon. We need to hold onto the ones we have as long as possible, and train up new ones quickly. But incoming administrators are different from the originals. They demand respect, to participate in decisions, to have a seat at the table. Advertising as if these conditions exist and then not fulfilling that promise will result in very public turnovers of this key position. And that won’t look good for the firm.
- Unlike the past thirty years, we’re now in an environment where the need for legal assistants and paralegals far outpaces the number of trained individuals available. It’s a buyer’s market. Competent staff can demand aggressive salaries but that’s the green’s fees for them. They want respect, to feel like part of the team, to have a say in how things are done. Some firms pretend to give these things but in reality, are operating with staff the same way they have for the past fifteen years. As older staff retire (you know, the ones who put up with those behaviours), younger staff are switching jobs with far more frequency looking for firms that walk that talk.
For a variety of reasons, most law firms are not as profitable as they used to be but they are still lucrative businesses. And the most lucrative will be the ones that understand the importance of honesty: with themselves and with their clients. Lawyers, staff and clients no longer put up with firms that say one thing and do another. And as with most professional services industries, your people are by far your most important asset. Is it time for some introspective lie detecting?
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at email@example.com