How to Build a Law Firm With People-First Values
To truly transform a law firm’s culture, a perspective shift is needed from the top levels of management. What are the key considerations to be kept in mind when orienting a culture towards the well-being of clients and staff?
Lisa McKenna, founder of McKenna & Co Solicitors, shares her insights in this article.
Dry, brittle and boring. That is the perception of law for you. Even the media says so. In fact, the image of law and legal studies is pretty harsh, and there may be some truth to it.
But the law is also personal, sometimes disturbingly so. At times heavy on the admin – the boring bit – there is also a certain grit and courage that comes with being an attorney. Itis about people, the personal, and the deeply human.
Often complex, practising law requires sensitivity and delicacy. And who are the people who provide these services? They are the same people.
As clichéd as it sounds, the law is about people, for people, by people.
Lawyers are the least happy at work, apparently. To some extent, perhaps, the actual work is to blame. Lawyers struggle to find meaning in their work (2.6 out of 5) and their job satisfaction is marked at ‘very low’.
But there is another angle. People who go into the law may already have a natural inclination towards pessimism. If they are not already high on the scale of feeling the glass is half empty, it is drummed into them in law school. They are trained in ‘defensive pessimism’, which incidentally makes them better lawyers.
Author of Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, says: “Pessimists do better at law.” Research conducted by Seligman at the Virginia Law School found that “the pessimistic law students on average fared better than their optimistic peers.”
The image of law and legal studies is pretty harsh, and there may be some truth to it.
So if lawyers are prone towards pessimism and cynicism, either innately or moulded, it is even more important to ensure a good work environment. Growing a culture that can support employees and nurturing an environment of collaboration will affect how happy staff are and how they treat clients – and vice versa.
How Do You Grow a Culture?
Not exactly in a petri dish, but not completely differently either. Analogies of bacteria growth aside, you do not want to leave your company culture development to chance. Chance and luck are a gamble, and the stakes are too high.
The future and success of your law firm depend on a good, people-focused culture, and there are tangible strategies to help take the serendipity out of the equation.
The Seed: A Vision
This is not unique to a law firm. Really, any endeavour needs a vision. It is generally something we inherently do when we start a project: we see a future of what we want to achieve in our mind’s eye. A clearly defined outline will guide and support the important decisions and strategic direction of your firm.
A vision statement should clearly state goals and objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (the Smart framework). It will provide guidance on all aspects of the operation from hiring to marketing, client engagement and onward.
This is where you can dream big. All ideas should be explored in terms of the current or short-term future, and then at possibilities in the future. Be open-minded to this process of exploration by writing out all ideas, and then edit them down to Smart criteria. Ideally, you want as many staff members involved in this process as possible.
Not only is it a way of crystallising your firm’s direction, it will also put all employees on the same page and incentivise everyone to move in the same direction. It will give them clarity on where the company is going and, hopefully, on their team and individual role within its success.
The future and success of your law firm depend on a good, people-focused culture
Here are some questions to help you establish a good company culture:
Are we hiring good people?
While credentials and experience are important in a law firm, those can be established by reading a CV and checking references. What you really want is people who will engage with your vision and values, who are passionate about their clients, and who will bring a positive influence through their personality and work ethic. Conducting interviews should revolve skilfully around identifying characteristics that will be a good fit for your firm’s culture and existing staff base.
Does everyone know about our values?
It is great to have a strong vision statement and a well-laid out set of values. But it is no good if they are tucked away and nobody has ever seen them.
Make sure you hold regular communication sessions to share and educate the whole team about your values and how your strategy is aligning with them. Are the decisions being taken in meetings a reflection of those values? How are values being implemented on a daily basis and in the longer term? And how is each member of staff able to participate in their implementation?
Are we recognising our staff and offering rewards?
It does not usually take much to recognise a member of staff – and it is easier if you have a set of values against which to hold exemplary behaviour, even if it is unrelated to the job itself. People who are involved in community projects that are linked to your values, for example, should be recognised.
Obviously, you want to reward outstanding work within the company too, which boosts morale and encourages performance that aligns with your values and vision.
How consistent management is our management style?
A consistent management style comes from the top. The managing partners need to work together and present a single face in decision-making, particularly when it comes to behaviour that is not aligned with the culture and values of the firm. People notice when consistency slips, and it erodes culture and morale.
It requires collaboration and integrity, strength and leadership to present consistency. Communication needs to be a two-way street, with an open listening stance as well as information flowing from management.
Do we encourage work-life balance?
Lawyers can become completely drawn into their work, which becomes unhealthy and leads to burnout and feeling unappreciated.
This is avoidable, as long as everyone is on board with ensuring that working until you are burnt out is not lauded. A good culture must also support staff that needs time out, be it for illness, a sick child, or a personal matter. It can be difficult to do without the key person during a difficult case, but that is where having a good team is essential.
Can we trust each other?
Strong bonds and trusting relationships are key in a positive work culture and an environment where trust can thrive. Celebrating company victories, perhaps with a lunch out or a bit of team-building fun, and marking people’s personal milestones, can foster closer relationships. That leads to a culture of trust and good professional relationships.
Getting people to work together on projects outside the office also promotes positive relationships. Activities like problem-solving outside of work, volunteering away from the office, can teach people about each other in a more casual setting, creating better understanding of each other, while also having joy.
Is the client the centre of our world?
Everyone in the firm needs to be client-centric. Each and every client should take priority; they should feel appreciated and welcomed by attorneys and support staff. Treat clients as you would be treated.
The culture of your firm should feed through from senior level partners to the client. Take control of the company culture and make sure it is going in the direction you want it to go. If it is not, then it is time to look at giving it an overhaul and redirecting it. A people-first culture will translate into bottom-line success.
Lisa McKenna, Founder
115 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2, D02 FN88, Ireland
Tel: +353 01 485 4563
Lisa McKenna is the founder of McKenna & Co Solicitors in Dublin, one of Ireland’s fastest-growing law firms. A practising solicitor and notary public herself, she is a champion for placing the human aspect at the heart of her law firm and in the client service her firm provides.