I come from a world where client service is as important as legal expertise. In fact, client service might be even more important than legal expertise because as Maya Angelou said, years from now people won’t remember what you said or did but they will remember how you made them feel. The reality is that most clients wouldn’t know the difference between a great legal contract and an adequate or poor one (unless it was tested in court). But clients remember that you were responsive, compassionate, creative, determined, etc. For this reason, we usually take the time to go beyond providing great legal advice, and we also focus on great service for client.
In terms of staff and lawyer management, most law firms intuitively understand how important it is to shape a culture that is supportive, respectful, and creates the best possible circumstances for loyalty and productivity. Toward this end, many of them state how they will be run and how their culture will be maintained in documents they call mission statements, vision statements, value statements and principles of management. Yet too often, this paperwork is ignored by individual lawyers who prefer – on some relationship issues – to take the most expedient path instead of the most respectful one. They do this because:
- We all know it takes more time to build and maintain relationships than to simply plough ahead with no regard to those around us; and
- Their actions in this regard are too often supported by the firm’s compensation system which primarily focusses on rewarding an eat-what-you-kill mentality despite what the firm’s values list might say.
Simply acknowledging that these individuals are operating in conflict with the firm’s culture is insufficient. Allowing this behaviour to go unchecked is enabling it and effectively admitting that the firm’s culture is set by its weakest spots. Yet dealing with these issues can be painful and time-consuming. Some firms believe it would be more damaging to deal with the bad behaviour than to allow that one lawyer to continue. “Oh, it’s just Bob’s way”, they say. “He’ll be retiring in five years anyway”. But like a rotten apple in a barrel, that behaviour will have negative ramifications that will sneak up on a firm and may not be noticed until there is considerable damage to clean up. Ultimately, ignoring issues of disrespect and counter-culture can be deadly. In such circumstances, I’ve seen entire departments walk away to form a boutique or join another firm.
Technology is not helping. I had a visit from a friend the other day – someone who had arrived earlier than expected from overseas and stopped by to surprise me. While we were in relaxed conversation in my backyard, my phone rang on at least three occasions. He kept asking me “do you need to get that?” “No”, I said. “I don’t need to get that. I’m talking with you right now”. But I understand why he kept asking because it’s rare these days that when I’m speaking with someone in person and their phone rings, they don’t answer it with barely an “excuse me” in my direction.
I’ve been in many a lawyer’s office when their computer dings to tell them they’ve received an email and they just have to check it while we’re in the meeting. Whether it’s a ringing phone, a beeping email, an incoming Facebook or LinkedIn post, a tweet or an Instagram posting, nothing should be more important than building the relationship with the person in front of you. Trust me: your technology won’t feel offended if you look at it fifteen minutes later. Our immediate attention to the technology around us is bordering on an addiction. And ultimately, responding every time a piece of technology dings at us is anything but efficient.
I’ve also been witness to group emails with content that is sufficiently disruptive that it really should have gone out with personalized, individual messages (or phone calls or in face to face meetings) instead. But it was faster for the sender to send out one bulk group message, so they did. The emotional clean up that usually results from these emails is much more time-consuming than having taken the time to communicate individually in the first place.
In fact, communication frequently comes under the efficiency vs. respect heading. Another example: a friend who works in law firms recalled a time when new Associates were being shown their offices. The problem was that the paralegals in those offices hadn’t been told they were about to lose them. This friend has also seen consultants walk through a firm with management, pointing at desks and offices with the clear intent to move things around; yet no communication had gone out to members of the firm. This type of activity has the potential to slow down productivity faster than a walk-through by Johnny Depp. And it may last for days or even weeks. Further, this was only one of numerous examples she provided where she’s seen staff feelings ignored or where they have been demoralized for the sake of expediency and efficiency. Staff may forever feel they are undervalued: but when you go out of your way to prove it to them, you risk alienating a critical component of a successful law practice. And that’s certainly not efficient.
In my experience, law firm management wants to do the right thing. It’s just that between managing the firm and running a law practice, time is so precious. When a task needs to be done, by necessity law firm executives and managers seek out the most expedient, efficient way to get things done. Efficiency is critical in this day and age, but let’s just take that sober second moment to ensure that the way we’re about to operate truly will be the most efficient way to proceed. Efficiency should be calculated by the time spent on an issue start to finish; the action AND any clean up required. If we tabulated efficiency in this way, we might realize that a little extra time on respect at the front end will ultimately result in a far more efficient management process.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org