Like so many of us, I’ve been glued to news programs observing (and where I can, participating in) the world’s response to the police murder of George Floyd. This is on the heels of earlier protests by individuals wanting the Covid 19 crises to be over and business to get back to normal. I’m not going to talk about the content of those protests, but I do want to use this opportunity to talk about the climates that lead to this level of frustration and how to deal with them. It’s a flavour of what we see in law firms all the time…an environment that law firms do not tend to handle well.
In my 26 years inside of law firms, I certainly witnessed (and even on rare occasions participated in) times of frustration by one faction or another within the firm. Often, it came from either staff or Associates. These events have a common evolutionary pathway: it begins with an incident that is deemed to be unfair in some way by some people. If the firm chooses to ignore this concern, the injured party seeks to broaden the scope of the injustice, including other (perhaps older) examples of similar injustices and expanding the list of inured parties to show a pattern. This increases the chances of recruiting empathetic individuals who might not be directly impacted, but start to see the issue as a cause worthy of support. This in turn can intensify the dedication of the original injured party or parties to develop a deep emotional connection to what is now a cause. In this state, they are more willing to take a louder stand and make comments that come very close to or cross a bar, making it difficult for the firm to strike a balance between addressing the original issue, and looking like the partnership has lost control. And by then, they have indeed lost control. The answer is to address the issue much sooner.
- Before any incidents arise, create a forum for obtaining regular feedback from your Associates and staff. This could be in the form of regular town hall meetings, a suggestion box, establishment of a committee, the determination of an advocate for each group and an open-door policy for access to those advocates, etc. If you find out about a problem before it becomes an “issue”, you’ll be in a much better position to a. deal with the issue itself and b. ensure it doesn’t escalate into something far more difficult to deal with.
- Take comments seriously. If you only pretend to listen, you will lose their trust. This leads to escalation such as gathering support for their cause. People march because they don’t feel heard, or because they don’t feel their words are resulting in any action. Use active listening to show you’ve truly heard them. Let them know what you will be doing next, and when you will get back to them. Then stick to your word. This doesn’t mean that you agree with them. This doesn’t mean you’ll do exactly what they said. But if a valued member of your firm has a suggestion or concern, it should be investigated/considered. When through experience they can trust that you will truly give their concerns consideration, they will be more understanding if at the end of the day, the answer is “no”. They may opt to leave the firm, but they’re less likely to take a bunch of people with them or to bad mouth the firm once they go. Alternatively, you just might find, on investigation, that their issue is relevant. Now you can deal with it.
- Research deeply. I recall raising issues when I was in-house, and then hearing back from someone six weeks later reporting that they looked into the issue and found it to be groundless. No one had called me to hear first hand what the issue was. No one asked my opinion on a fix. Don’t guess or assume. Do full and proper research into each issue. If you have a solution in mind, run it by the person who identified the issue in the first place to see if it suitably and fully manages their concern. This is the most missed-step by law firms, in my experience.
- Look past the scratch to a possible infection. Firms are often afraid to look more deeply at an incidence to see if it is part of a systemic problem, but that’s the best risk-management they could practice. If there was a water leak in your home, would you repair the plaster or would you try to determine where the leak was coming from? An issue – even one identified by a chronic complainer – may still have some truth to it. Really look into it. See if the evidence on the surface is indicative of a much bigger problem that, if fixed early, could save the firm time, money and emotional expenditure.
- Determine how broadly you need to announce the solution. For some issues, a good fix and a report back to the initial complainant is all that is needed. For other issues, a broader communication might be warranted. And don’t be afraid to apologize for the issue, and to admit that the firm is still learning and appreciates partnership with its staff/Associates to help identify issues that need fixing. This is not a sign of weakness: it’s the opposite.
- Learn from each incidence. I believe that everything happens for a reason. Why did this issue arise now? What does it say about the firm? About the mood of your staff or Associates? What could be changed that would lower the chances of this type of issue happening again? Use this as an early warning system or better yet, as a golden opportunity to fix something before it’s truly broken.
In many instances, unhappiness is the result of poor communication so that’s always a good starting point. But many times, there are legitimate complaints that follow on a pattern of similar complaints. They happen because the firm repeatedly ignored an issue, causing complainants to get louder and louder.
I used to tell my staff that if a lawyer had to call us to ask for status on a project, we had already failed in reporting to them properly. Firms would be well-served by working on their relationships with staff and Associates, ensuring those individuals feel free to speak with someone in the firm when there is an issue, that they will be heard, that their issue will be properly investigated, and that there will be an outcome that will be communicated. Protests are a sign that the system is already broken, and needs to be fixed quickly and effectively.
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