I’ve taken advantage of the relative quiet of the end of summer to take the free University of Alberta Indigenous Canada course.  The course provides a summary of life and history in Canada according to those where were here first.  I’m about halfway through as I write this blog post, and I’m finding it both fascinating and world-view changing.  I believe this program should be mandatory for all high-school students, and would certainly encourage students of all ages to take the course.

I’ve also found it fascinating to speak with some family and friends about what I’ve learned and how it is changing my understandings and beliefs.  I find, oddly, an amount of resistance to my increasing empathy with our First Nations.  How, I wonder, can those armed only with personal knowledge and perspective argue that the First Nations perspective and context I am learning is either inaccurate or of low value?  But then, isn’t that human nature?

It’s been my experience, in over thirty years of working with law firms, that business decisions have often been made according to the personal agendas of certain lawyers, or the gut feelings of leaders.  When marketing began to rise as a resource in law firms, we tried to align decision-making with the provision of data and analysis.  We tried to help set firm-wide goals and values as the filters through-which decisions would be made.  We started to ask clients for feedback as a further method of securing data that could help in decision-making.  The purpose for all of this research was to attempt to provide a broader perspective with which better decisions could be developed.

The value of broad perspective in decision-making was particularly illustrate to me when I served as President of the Legal Marketing Association, my global professional association at the time.  In that role and leading the organization through some very difficult choices, I learned that the best decisions came from the most robust discussions, and from seeking insights from all stake-holders.  The value of seeking broader perspective was so obvious to me that oftentimes, when the 12-person board would have little debate on an issue before it was time to vote, I would put a hold on voting and ask everything to play the devil’s advocate, poking holes in our decision and considering perspectives that might not be around the table, but might be representative within our membership.  Through such processes we always came to a stronger, more durable decision.

How does this apply to law firms?

  1. Regularly seek out the perspective of your clients. Have informal check-ins from time to time throughout an engagement.  How are we doing?  Are we sufficiently responsive?  Are our responses clear and free from jargon?  Are we communicating with you often enough, and in the right ways?   Consider more formal check-ins such as an annual client survey, or formal client audits for your top clients.  Don’t assume you know how your client is thinking…. ask them.
  2. Check in with Associates. Associates should not run a firm; but a firm should not be run without considering Associate perspective on significant issues.  Associates are the future of the firm, and a pretty important part of the firm prior to their leadership.  The attrition rate for Associates in a law firm is one of the most unfortunate and expensive issues with most firms.  Engaging them in the decision process can make all of the difference.  It’s been my experience that Associates:
    • who have been engaged in strategic planning processes are more invested in the outcome.
    • who have participated in their career planning within the firm are happier with their place in the firm;
    • whose perspectives have been sought on issues tend to become more strategic, thoughtful lawyers and leaders.
  3. Check in with staff. Lawyers who have taken the time to hire, train and build a strong working relationship with great staff know the incredible value of those staff members.  If a firm has taken the time, trouble and money to build strong staff, you want to ensure they stick around.  Money can drive some loyalty; but most great staff don’t follow the money. They follow the respect.  Part of respect is to periodically ask them how the firm is doing as a boss.  We often call these staff satisfaction surveys.  It can also be helpful to invite staff to comment on larger issues.  I always ask to interview a representative number of staff members when I do strategy planning with a firm.

Law firms can get nervous about asking for the opinions of these stakeholders as the firm may decide to go in a different direction that these groups might suggest.  That is, of course, the privilege of being an owner.  That said, does it make sense for a firm to make a decision in opposition to the three groups listed above?

Ultimately, we come to better decisions when we take the time to go beyond our own knowledge or gut feel, and delve into the perspectives of all of those involved in the outcome of our decision.  Leadership isn’t about doing things your own way.  It’s about successful relationships resulting in productive businesses.   Obtaining and considering a broader range of perspectives just makes sense.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com