advice you can use — short and to the point — every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday

Thursday, September 29th, 2016 technology  research  practice

  • Practice

I am adopting a very expansive view of “practice tips” this week given some things that have been on my mind as I recently took on two new staff.

As far as starting businesses go, starting a law practice or professional services firm is remarkably easy and safe relative to many other kinds of businesses. Doing it well is a much different matter. The skills required – project management, human resource management, leadership, and financial judgment, among others – are not taught in law school. Typically, legal education programs only touch upon them briefly and many lawyers hang up their own shingle without these skills. Unfortunately, the lack of skill is often coupled with a lack of insight and the hubris that sometimes accompanies a license to practice law.

It’s no secret that many lawyers and law firm staff complain of bullying, harassment, and disrespect by both colleagues and managers and of poor work-life balance generally. The attrition rate in individual firms and the practice generally is huge, as is substance abuse and poor job satisfaction. These things are massive hidden costs that ultimately affect quality of life and bottom lines. It also leads to injustice. Although the standard of advocacy and adjudication in Canada is generally excellent, one cannot escape the concern that such things divert from the merits of clients’ cases.

Small firms are not exempt. I know one articling student who was warned during his interviews by the firm’s current articling student that “[founding/managing partner] is a yeller and it’s best just to avoid him”. That interviewee rejected his eventual job offer and is now excelling at a litigation boutique. Their loss and another’s gain. I also know one paralegal who is regularly taken for lunch and consolation by the partners who own her firm because the remaining partner (whom she works for) was so belittling, aggressive, and disrespectful that they felt obliged to compensate for that. For big firm horror stories, check out abovethelaw.com. A satirical Twitter account, doubtlessly inspired by true events, @BadLegalLLP is not always that far from its intended satire.

Despite all the talks on civility in the profession, it does not appear to me that we always walk the talk within our own offices. The costs, both to individual reputations and to our profession, is probably just as great as poor quality work or negligence.

I am no expert in human resource management, but I have paid a lot of attention to it over the years and drawn on many sources for insight and inspiration, especially in two areas: rugby and my own clients.

Why rugby? Simply put, it is a character building sport which rewards heart and work ethic over talent (although perceived talent often comes from heart and work ethic). There are no superstars revered the way there is in soccer, hockey, or other professional sports. Despite drawing similar crowds to other professional sports, there are few players who make over $500,000 per year salary. Players are often immortally loyal to their clubs and spend considerable time developing the younger generation while celebrating the older. Sounds a bit like something we are told to aspire to in CLE seminars?

The single best example is the New Zealand All Blacks. Over the 100 years leading up to 2004, the All Blacks enjoyed a 75%-win rate. To put that in perspective, the Yankees’ 1913-2016 win-rate is about 57%. In hockey, Team Canada’s international win rate is 62% if we count ties and losses together and 69% if we exclude ties from the equation altogether.

How did a tiny island nation of 4.5 million not just compete on the world stage against countries like France, England, Australia, and South Africa (countries with far more people and money), but routinely batter them?

In part, it’s because the All Blacks “sweep the sheds”. That means that, following games and practices, the “sheds” (aka changing rooms) are not cleaned by staff, rookies, or players in the dog-house. The captains and star players get the brooms out and clean up the locker room themselves before giving press interviews or heading out to celebrate. This accomplishes two things: (i) everyone knows that nobody is above the grunt work; and (ii) everyone must be respectful of their work environment and colleagues.

They have also been proactive in addressing issues. In 2004, the All Blacks were in crisis mode after a single terrible season. Especially concerning was that morale was in the gutter. Their culture was rotting from the inside. Future performance was threatened. Nonetheless, they managed to regroup and emerge a stronger force than they were before.

From a 3-day leadership retreat came a renewed resolve and approach to re-building the most successful team in the history of sport. They built their culture around the proposition that “Better People Make Better All Blacks.”

In many ways, this was a fresh commitment to old values that had withstood the test of time, but the impact of this reinvigoration is what is notable. In the 12 years since, the All Blacks win rate has been 86%. An 11-percentage point increase would have been a massive turnaround in a team that previously won less than half its games, let alone three-quarters. It is even more impressive when you consider that their competitors are most often those nipping at their heels in world rankings.

While this became the core narrative, its execution required the humility that comes from actually sweeping the sheds. This extended into a more devolved leadership style: arm the players with intention and capacity and then trust them to deliver. The All Blacks field one captain, but 15 leaders are on the field.

They also focused on brain biology, identifying the effect of stress on cognitive function and performance and develop triggers and anchors to help players cope with stress and, where appropriate, use it to perform. Sound relevant to performance in legal practice?

Beyond that, I also pay attention to what my clients do. Like all lawyers, I have clients who enjoy incredible success and others, tragically, whose businesses or lives fail. The ones who succeed and the ones who fail have a few things in common. Here is what I have learned from the happiest, most successful ones:

First, they build a team based on character, culture, and loyalty – not necessarily talent. Talent is great, but it can be acquired. Great talent can perform poorly and ruin others’ performance if it lacks character and loyalty and doesn’t care about culture.

Second, they treat their employees with genuine respect. This isn’t just being civil and polite in person or occasionally picking up the lunch bill. Anyone can do that. Genuine respect includes eliciting and seriously considering feedback. It means putting employees’ desires, where reasonable, ahead of arbitrary personal preferences. It means accepting that there is often more than one right way of doing things and letting another right way happen, even if it’s not your way. People who feel valued and respected perform better than people who largely “perform” from fear of getting yelled at, fired, or not promoted. If your employees need the “stick” as motivation, then fire them and find new ones.

Most importantly as a show of respect, they trust their employees’ judgment. This includes delegating responsibility and accountability. When that judgment is off and results in a mistake, the burden of that mistake is shared equally across the organization. Blame, at most implicit, is channeled into a learning opportunity. Otherwise, the odds are that someone else will benefit from the cost of a mistake.

Similarly, accomplishments are celebrated and shared equally.

Third, they incentivize and reward their employees – and not just monetarily and or for specific accomplishments. Money is important, but so is having skin in the game and feeling valued in intangible ways. That includes delegating responsibility and having trust. Granting more responsibility and trust is often as important as money to an employee. So is work-life balance. An early Friday afternoon departure, encouragement to take ample holiday time, and contribution to one’s non-work pursuits reap dividends.

How do I know this works? The clients I have in mind started with nothing more than their shirts on their backs and built companies with mid-7 and 8-figure revenue streams – in less than ten years.

How does this factor into law practice HR?

Most law firms hire and retain employees by fit or talent or a combination of both. Fit and character are not necessarily the same thing. They each have a very different impact on firm culture and performance. If you have good organizational culture and performance and hire someone who fits but lacks character, your good work can be ruined and quality employees’ capacities will be squandered. As for talent, there is no shortage of that wasting away somewhere, out of sight and mind, due to lack of character.

Many law firm managers govern through fear of a negative consequence. This might result in short-term productivity, but what is lost in the equation is the cost of attrition and inability to develop people’s capacities. This is true even if you do not value positive work relationships and are focused on the bottom line. Trust and empower your employees and they will perform without a hawkish manager being present. That’s called passive income. It’s also called having more time to enjoy what is important in life.

And, of course, exercise humility. Behind every practice, personality, and brand is a person. People have weaknesses and people make mistakes. They have histories that have turned them into the person they are, for better or for worse.

Perhaps most importantly, humility means leading by example, so be prepared to sweep the sheds.

If you do experience attrition, take huge advantage of it by holding an exit interview and find out what it really was like to work for you. You will be surprised at the positive and negative feedback you will hear. It is absolutely priceless.

The above probably sounds naïve to “theory X” managers. Not all people will respond to the kind of approach set out above. I won’t deny that. If you want to build an enterprise that will perform well, bring you enjoyment, and build the kind of value that can be part of a retirement plan, then get rid of the people who don’t fit your culture or lack character and loyalty. It will be a mutual favour.

-Michael McCubbin