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.
Time is money. Three words which pretty much sum it up for us all. Especially when your staff consists of your dog – then you quickly realize that passing the buck isn’t an option. Instead, you must learn to sort through the multitude of tasks facing you each day and narrow down your focus to only the key revenue-generating activities, while letting the majority of the “noise” fade away and most of us accomplish this with a to-do list.
However, not all activities are of equal value. There is an economic principle called the 80/20 Rule, or Pareto Principle, that basically means that 80% of the effects of anything in your life will come from 20% of the causes. When applied to your daily to do list, the Pareto Principle means that 80 percent of the value of your list comes from only 20 percent of the items on it.
In other words, if you have 10 items on your list, you could focus on only two of those tasks and get the vast majority of success even though you ignore the other 8 items entirely!
Now I know you may be ready to go after your to-do list cutting out all the low-payoff items – before you get out the hatchet, read my short list of suggestions so that you cut out the right tasks:
Know what your goals are. You can’t choose your biggest payoff tasks if you don’t know what your goals are. Thoughtful planning is critical so you know what you’re trying to accomplish and can rank your items accordingly. In order to do that you need to …
Write it all down. Write every task down, from the largest to the seemingly least important that has to get done. Before you can rank your items, you need a complete view of every task in your work world. I call this a brain dump. From it, you can determine what to delegate, what to defer, and what to start working on each day.
Evaluate. With your goals in mind, ask yourself, “What are the top three activities I can complete today that will move me closer to those goals?” Put an asterisk next to those tasks and start the day there.
Track your success. At the end of the week, review your daily lists. Have you made significant progress towards your goals? Which tasks turned out to be the most important? Which did you think were important but proved to be less valuable?
Keep refining. Use your weekly review to make informed decisions going forward. If you notice that you often rank your social media efforts as critical, but they don’t seem to be impacting new business, resist putting those as starred items on your daily lists.
Remember, though, that tools are only as good as the person who wields them. No to-do list, app or program, no mindset, trick or suggestion is going to help you build a better, more productive work day. Only you can do that, and you do it by sitting down at your desk, day after day, starting fresh with your daily to do list and the top 3 things you want to get done.
There’s a lot of teamwork that goes on in a law office. Sometimes it runs like a well oiled machine. Sometimes it just fizzes and pops!
So, for today’s tip, ask yourself what’s one thing you can do to take your team to the next level? Here are some ideas to get you started:
Communicate – Great teams know how to communicate. They make space for each individual to express their ideas, not just the ones that are naturally expressive. They don’t shy away from differences of opinion, but rather use them as an opportunity for open discussion about continuous improvement.
Prioritize – Great teams seamlessly move forward together on all their day-to-day tasks. They also respond in harmony to urgent matters. They are able to do so because they are aligned on priorities and a method to shift, as needed, in the face of change.
Core values – Great teams agree on core values. When faced with challenging decisions, how to choose between competing needs or how to respond to anomalous situations, they defer to the values that built the firm.
Trust – Great teams deal with each other in a transparent and inclusive manner and, as a result, they trust each other. They stay focused on the task at hand without distracting concerns about hidden agendas. They are all driven by the best interest of the client and the firm.
Mastery – Great teams don’t reinvent the wheel everyday. They master the processes that are key to their success. And they are always looking for ways to take that mastery up a notch, to be more efficient and effective.
So, which of these qualities is most critical to your team’s strength? Ask yourself, and ask your team, what can you do to bolster them?
For more on team building, see the following posts on SlawTips:
♫ I can see a new horizon underneath the blazin’ sky
I’ll be where the eagle’s flying higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion, all I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future’s lyin’, St. Elmo’s Fire…♫
Lyrics and Music by by David Foster and John Parr, recorded by John Parr.
The time has come for us, David Bilinsky and Garry Wise, to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders and writers to carry on the work of SlawTips.
This, therefore, will be our final, and farewell post.
Garry came on board back in Feb 2013 following Laura Calloway’s transition to new ventures in January 2013.
Laura and David started the PracticeTips side of SlawTips back on Jan 13, 2011.
All three of us have had a great deal of fun (and many a Wednesday evening) devoted to getting the next installment out to SlawTips. It has been a gratifying journey for us all, and we move on, content that we are leaving PracticeTips in the extremely good hands of the many exceptional contributors who have joined us as Tipsters over the last year.
Good luck and best wishes to them all: Michael McCubbin, Andrea Cannavina, Sandra Bekhor, Elizabeth Mah, Ian Hu, Stacey Gerrard and Mark Morris.
No doubt, the best has yet to come.
Our thanks, as well, to Barney Christianson, who will also be moving on, after a year of stellar contributions.
Now to be clear, you aren’t entirely rid of us yet.
David will continue to post at his blog, Thoughtful Legal Management and on the main Slaw site. Garry can still be found at Wise Law Blog and @wiselaw on Twitter – and according to the rumour mill, might make the occasional appearance at Slaw, as well.
Special thanks to Steve Matthews, of course, for running this joint and trusting us with the keys.
Finally, thank you to our readers for visiting and reading and re-tweeting and commenting on our many posts over the years. We hope we have added some value to your professional lives and provided the occasional practical tip that has helped you prosper in your legal and paralegal practices.
Our best wishes to you all.
So in the patented Bilinsky spirit, we will take our final bows, and now, leave you with a song…
I’ve noticed lawyers pop into LinkedIn or Twitter once in a blue moon and then completely disappear.
If that’s you and you’d like to figure out how to enjoy some of the benefit others have found on social media, here are a few tips to get you started:
You need a strategy. Define your target audience, point of different and purpose for your engagement, so you’re not scratching your head wondering what to do everytime you log in at LinkedIn.
Don’t waste your time on sites that aren’t aligned with your goals. The fastest way to get turned off social media marketing is to build in activities that don’t go anywhere. Be selective about participating where your target market is more likely to be found. Determine ideal timing and frequency to reach your readers. And get yourself started with a base of connections that are likely to share, like and comment on your posts. Do the same for them.
You will need to form new habits. Jumping into social media in a bigger way doesn’t mean you have to set aside a day a week just for posting! What you really need is to form a new habit that aligns with your day. When you check your email in the morning, take a quick look at your LinkedIn feed, bookmark an article to read later on and post a comment when you get to it. Set email notifications for only your highest priority groups or sites. That way you’ll minimize interruptions, but you’ll be able to respond when something catches your eye.
It’s a lot of pressure to figure out how to be quick, witty and charming several times a day… especially if it’s restricted to coffee breaks from phone calls, meetings, court appearances and other day-to-day activities as a lawyer.
Doing some of this foundational work will minimize decisions you have to make about where to spend your time and what type of engagement to focus on. Those changes alone can turn the social media black box into a manageable and transparent process. More importantly, they will help drive results.
For more reading on social media marketing, see the following posts on SlawTips:
♫ Their habits, I confess None can guess with the couple…♫
Lyrics and music by Sammy Cahn and Neal Hefti.
Look at your desk and office. Whose office does yours resemble? Oscar Madison’s or Felix Unger’s? Is your desk neat and tidy or more a hodgepodge of piles of paper, old coffee cups and files stacked everywhere with food wrappers interspersed? Of course The Odd Couple accented the extreme personal differences between Oscar, who is perhaps the world’s most famous slob and Felix, the extreme clean freak, as a way to create an underlying comedic friction as the backdrop for the show.
But according to George Rains, your desk says a lot about you and your work habits. George states that there are at least 3 reasons to keep a clean work space:
#1 A clean work space projects a Professional and Personal Image
#2 Your office reflects on the image of your firm
#3 A clean office can help maintain personal health
George is not alone in advocating for a clean and tidy workspace. Pat Heydlauff states:
According to the National Association of Professional Organizations, paper clutter is the No. 1 problem for most businesses. Studies show the average person wastes 4.3 hours per week searching for papers, which adds stress and frustration to the workplace while reducing concentration and creative thinking.
Renae Nicole states that a clean workspace reflects on the overall morale of the organization. A clean and tidy desk reflects on how someone views their job. She also reinforces that a chaotic workspace can hinder efficiency.
So look at your desk and office. Are you more like Felix or Oscar? Fortunately it isn’t too late – salvation is at hand – all of us can aspire to better habits – starting today!
(if you want to take a short online test to see if you are more Felix or Oscar, click here).
Reputedly, these are among life’s inevitabilities. And while there is probably very little we can do about death and taxes, change is something we truly can manage.
A central theme of many of my Practice Tips posts has been the importance of planning for law firms and other professional practices. By occasionally stepping back from the demands of our day-to-day dealings and deadlines, we can gain the benefit of a longer view, think about objectives, and develop strategies and routines to meet our short and longer term goals.
There will be many changes along the way, from the day we first hang a shingle, through to the maturity phase of our practices, and the ultimate decision that may come sooner – or later – than we think to wind down, transition to retirement, plan for succession or otherwise expand or contract our professional horizons.
Throughout our careers, there will probably be more than a few office addresses, important collaborators or partners, key clients, irreplaceable staff members, and memorable cases and projects There will also be revolutions in technology, drastic changes to the substantive law, regular shifts in the economy and continuing evolution of our marketplace and our regulatory environment.
Not to mention, a few curveballs.
Things don’t generally remain static in professional practice. Opportunities, setbacks and new challenges will virtually always come our way.
There will be lessons learned and pages turned, if you will.
It would be naive to believe all of these changes can be planned for. Some changes will be thrown upon us, unexpected, sudden and even unwelcome. That’s life, I suppose.
Nonetheless, much of this inevitable change can be managed and directed, if not wholly controlled. And our professional paths and our career successes may well be defined by how we navigate these changes.
Obviously, the future can’t be fully predicted or controlled, but with careful planning, a professional practice can definitely be guided in the right direction more often than not.
Begin by identifying objectives, challenges and issues. Get input from others. Be concrete about goals. Break objectives down into their components and target small, readily achievable milestones. Speak regularly with your partners, associates, staff, accountants, life partners, practice management experts and any other trusted sounding boards. Make lists, check them twice. Always leave space in your calendar to regularly assess where you are and work on your practice and professional goaks.
The topics of discussion will likely change through the phases and life cycle of every practice, but once established, the habit and art of planning can be a majar contributor to handling change and moving our career arcs forward.
When you go to a conference and network with a diverse group of lawyers it isn’t necessarily obvious what you should do to prepare. The typical advice is to get a primer on recent headlines within the industry, or at the very least with local happenings. While this is good advice to start up a conversation, the tip I want to give today is that it’s possible to network well and make a memorable mark by “knowing nothing”.
The trick is to take a deep interest in people you seek to make a connection with. What are their hobbies? What are their greatest loves? Explore them – everybody loves to talk about what they love the most, what makes them tick. Taking a real interest in someone makes them feel important and will make them remember you. This advice was given to me by a mentor who handed me a book I now constantly recommend in turn – Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People.
What if you know nothing about the hobbies or the loves? Is your conversation partner an avid fan of golf, but you don’t know the difference between par and a putter? No problem. Ask what it is about golf (or whatever the topic is) that makes it so beloved. Perhaps it’s spending time outside in a luscious green space. Or it’s the opportunity to spend several hours with companions thinking of nothing but hitting the next ball, living in the moment. Or it’s the eternal competition with oneself. The deeper the exploration, the more abstract the reason, the better your chances are of meeting them on the same ground.
Similarly, winning beauty contests is not necessarily a matter of peacocking – showing how great and wonderful you and your firm is. It may instead be a matter of listening to your clients and understanding what their real needs are. In my days as a new lawyer I would meet new clients and assume they wanted to hear about their rights. I’d lecture on about the law and legal rights, preening on about my knowledge of the law. Not surprisingly, I did not win many beauty contests. But when I changed gears and made the meeting a real conversation with questions like “what’s your greatest concern?” and “what do you want me to do for you?” I began to win clients over.
So if you’re not up on the latest in hockey, don’t despair. You can network well without knowing the latest headlines, sports or hobbies. The key is to listen and to take an interest in others.
When I speak to lawyers about improving productivity, some of the best feedback I receive is how to stop distractions. Research has shown that every time a person is interrupted from a task, it takes some 20 minutes to return to it. Each interruption costs productivity and, if you bill by the hour, you lose the chance to docket “0.3”. Here are some common distractions and what you can do about it.
Turn off cell phone notifications
Every cell phone beep pulls you out of the task you’re working on. If you are in the office, chances are the notification is not work-related. Depending on your phone, you can turn off notifications globally or by adjusting the settings in the app. Facebook and Twitter are common culprits – there are notifications for virtually any activity that occurs on your account – new messages directly to you, messages that are liked or shared, and messages that have a new comment. If your cell phone chimes every time you receive an email, that can be a huge distraction as well. Turn them all off.
We use our phones constantly. A 2015 Deloitte study found that people check their phones 46 times a day. Make a conscious choice to avoid looking at the phone while you are working on tasks. When you’re done, take a break and go ahead and do a few fun things. Depending on your level of focus, a starting point would be to take a break every 45 minutes – about the average time a person can concentrate on a task before losing effectiveness.
And turn off email notifications
The biggest temptation on your work computer is to check email. Email can be highly productive – giving instructions, receiving updates, and communicating with clients and staff are all important tasks. But if you’re immersed in a factum or a letter to counsel, a ping from your email is an unwelcome distraction. Turn off email notifications – while Windows 8 and older you can turn off notifications in Outlook, in the new Windows 10 notifications are system-wide (click on this link at howtogeek.com for a helpful how-to) – and work in peace.
Colleagues dropping by
A friendly workplace is great to have for a number of reasons, but one of the potential pitfalls is colleagues may drop by your office to chat about baseball and interrupt your work process. While you don’t want to close your door all the time and be the office hermit, it’s okay to shut out the world when you’re deep into a memo. If you are in an open space and the constant noise bothers you, consider headphones or earplugs to help you focus and indicate you don’t want to be disturbed.
We are not multitaskers
Very few of us can multitask well. Study after study shows that using a cell phone while driving is the equivalent of drunk driving. Trying to email instructions to staff, type out a factum, and text your friend at the same time is a recipe for disaster. With the mind trying to do everything at once, nothing gets the attention it deserves. Focus on doing one thing at a time.
Prevent distractions so you get the most out of your work day. With the task lists growing by the minute, the urge may be to do a bunch of tasks at once, but the best way to juggle is likely by doing each task one at a time, uninterrupted.
Slow Down.The point is to use email to increase productivity, not be the fastest to respond. Common courtesy is to respond within 24 hours.
Be Professional.Yes, that joke your buddy sent you last night was a hoot, but you should never forward such communications to business contacts.
Protect Your Friends. When sending a message to a group, do not disclose your recipient’s email addresses. Use the “bcc” (blind carbon copy) field for multiple addresses and place your own email address in the “To” field.
Do Not Use “Forward to All” and “Reply to All” Functions.I have witnessed embarrassing moments of others (and recall my own painful “oops”) when messages intended only for the original sender, are, in fact, sent to everyone who may have been cc’d or even bcc’d on the original message or post. Best not to use either button at all. Ever.
Do A Final Full Read of Each Email.With each email, always read through your message from start to finish before hitting “Send”. This last reading is crucial in catching any missing information or attachments and allows you to get a full understanding of the “tone” of your message.
Formatting Counts.Every email message should contain proper formatting, punctuation, grammar and have a signature containing your name, email address and telephone number.
Don’t Send Large Files.Sending large attachments may cause some inboxes to reach their size limit. If this happens, the recipient must log in and download or delete your message in order to receive any further emails from any source – almost guaranteeing they will not think kindly of you from that point forward. Use a service such as www.SendThisFile.com to transfer large files.
Be Polite.Do not type in CAPITALS as it is considered shouting.
Be Clear.Do not use acronyms or cryptic shorthand in your messages. Not only will the recipient not understand your message, it may make the recipient feel “stupid” for not being able to figure it out! Each message should contain enough information for the recipient to understand what you need or what they need to do in response to your communication.
Leave The Subject Line Alone.When replying to messages, especially to groups and list servs, do not change the subject line. Many email applications allow a sort by subject, giving subscribers the ability to follow a particular discussion “thread”.