"Can We Talk?" Ensuring Consensus Through Communication

Reprinted from:

Published 5/10

Unless there is candid partner communication and buy-in for the firm's business plan, the firm's continued existence could be in doubt.

"Firm culture" is a primary determinant of law firm success. People must like the work they do and those with whom they do it. Lawyers who are members of the same firm should share a camaraderie that shapes the development of a shared firm culture. Many factors come into play, such as the exchange of ideas and the education of one lawyer by another. These are vital to a profitable, successful law firm, and to successful lawyers.

However, in many of today’s geographically diverse firms, which often were built by merger, partners are that in name only. The governance of these large firms has fallen to a very few in the organization (the management committee). The remaining partners often have little interaction outside their own practice areas. Unless there is continuous open and candid communication among equity partners in firms, and acceptance and buy-in for the firm’s business plan, sooner or later there will be the dissolution of the firm, whether by withdrawal of individual partners or wholesale departure and formal liquidation. The end result will be the same. Communication is a continuous requirement to ensure that individual agendas do not subvert the firm’s existence.

Leadership and Communication

The most important function of all law firm leadership is to facilitate continuous communication, ensuring that individual agendas continue to be attuned with one another. However, the Great Recession has made communication a casualty at many firms. Their members worry about business that is disappearing and clients that do not (and cannot) pay. Cash flow and collections demands become paramount, while communicating about what is going on almost becomes an afterthought. But poor communication can cause as much stress as poor business. Piled on top of the anxiety concerning clients and the economy, and the pressures of seeking the best results, uncertainty about how the team is faring can leave everyone in doubt and in fear.

Lawyers primarily focus on the task at hand and getting results, leaving little room for camaraderie and support. Inclusiveness, as I have written here previously, will produce more harmony for all, increase productivity and therefore increase profitability of the firm . When a lawyer’s connection with team members is positive, it creates a shared work ethic and belief that the firm’s work is worthwhile. Failure to do so will create inefficiencies and disharmony in the firm, and thus poor client relations.

Creating the team is a lawyer’s number one practice responsibility. Everyone in a law firm —lawyers, staff and support personnel —should be committed to a team effort for providing the best possible client service. Clients ultimately get their understanding of a firm by the way in which everyone, lawyers and staff, conducts themselves. A successful law office should be a team that creates quality service and work product for the benefit of clients. Improving the client service skills of everyone in the office involves them in the financial and organizational life of the firm so that they understand and appreciate their role and look forward to the future. The result will be a better firm.

A communication effort that supports an emotional commitment to the firm’s success can lead directly to the ideas of value billing and client service, as an antidote to simply focusing on billable hours and ignoring the worth of what each person does. It takes the law firm out of the realm of industries like autos and banking, where churning out cars and mortgages without regard to value and worth led to overshoot, collapse and layoffs. The automotive manufacturer that once was the largest company in the world ended up in bankruptcy because it did not listen to its customers or its employees.

Dysfunctional Firms

Consider what happens in a dysfunctional firm. Lawyers may ask firm members and staff for achievements that are beyond their reach because the necessary resources aren’t provided. Accurately or not, the lawyers are seen as trying to fool the other members of the firm by saying things that cannot be believed. When people think they are being fooled, their reactions are first embarrassment —then anger. An angry law firm is one doomed to failure. It’s far better to be open and honest about what your firm needs to achieve, and to work as a team with everyone having the same agenda, using sufficient resources to achieve agreed-on goals.

In divorce practice, lawyers frequently hear clients say that "we grew apart." This reflects a failure to communicate openly and candidly as time passes. Law firms, small and large, are subject to the same need for communication that is open, candid and frequent. Failure to maintain consensus and communication merely causes poor economic results and unhappy lawyers. If all members of the firm are not clear about the overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, there is no real firm leadership —and ultimately there may be no firm.

The Value of Meetings

So, what is the solution? The simple fact is that successful communication starts at the top. The firm’s primary rainmakers, its management and the managing partner all must be in concert. If the partners are not clear about the overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, then the communication process is bound to be sabotaged and of little use. The first element of any communication effort is the firm leadership’s agreement to abide by it. That said, all members of the firm —including associates, paralegals and staff —must be part of the communication process.

One of the most effective ways to do this is too often neglected. Law firm retreats and conferences are unique opportunities for firm leaders and other stakeholders to confront tough issues, change the firm's direction, focus on a strategic plan, and develop camaraderie and consensus. A retreat can achieve more in several days than the firm could otherwise accomplish in months of fragmented meetings. The reason why is simple: Retreats allow lawyers to separate themselves from the daily grind of billable hours and from the distractions of electronic communication, to actually think about what they want to accomplish in the practice of law, and how best they can accomplish it. A well-planned retreat can re-emphasize a shared sense of purpose in the firm, demonstrating that "we’re all in this together."

A properly structured retreat can bring the firm closer together and create the momentum and unity to move forward in new directions. A poorly conceived and executed retreat will be an expensive boondoggle that can stir up active resentment. Busy lawyers resist spending their limited free time on nonbillable activities, and bad retreats produce a flood of irate e-mails or voice mails asking, "Why did we waste our time on that?" Such reactions mean that the organization has lost a golden opportunity to communicate, bond and become more successful.

An effective all-firm meeting or retreat is the ideal mechanism to facilitate communication. These literally get everyone together in the same room where concepts can be discussed, ideas and questions raised, and acceptance established. A physical show of hands can be a powerful validation of the firm’s new direction. The all-firm meeting symbolizes the communication that is essential to harmonious and collegial growth for the firm.

The Issue of Cost

Unfortunately, recessionary pressures have all too often been used as a reason for canceling or not scheduling communication meetings. Doing away with or failing to pursue a mechanism that combines people for training, sharing of best practices, networking and meeting in person is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Organizations cannot afford to allow their people to huddle in tiny corners, receive no stimulation and talk only via an online social network. Bringing people together, along with pertinent resources and activities, will make them feel more committed and positive about the future.

The cost issue ultimately rests on the value of organizational development. Can a meeting be conducted only if it’s local, or is there something to be said for travel and for meeting away from daily distractions? Technology —videoconferencing, webcasts and the like —make it possible to absorb the content of a meeting without actually being there, but many organizations have found that live contact among people enhances and expands the effectiveness of decision-making at governance meetings. An analogy can be made back to the time when voice mail first came out. Because technology ultimately cannot replace human contact, telephone companies soon started an advertising campaign ("Reach out and touch someone") to bring technology back to the human level, and that’s still important. High-tech does not eliminate the need for high-touch.

In a very real sense, firm retreats are an exercise in marketing. Marketing ultimately means developing close relationships with people to achieve your mutual goals. At a retreat the entire firm is marketing itself to its members—bringing together the people, ideas and resources that make the practice of law worthwhile in that particular organization. Holding a firm meeting to create unity of focus and purpose can ensure the firm’s success and its ability to serve clients effectively. Failure to maintain consensus and communication ultimately causes unhappy lawyers, dissention, poor client service and bad financial results. If all members of the firm are not clear about the overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, ultimately there may be no firm. A firm meeting, however it is structured, can thus be a small price to pay.

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