“Culture eats strategy for lunch.” This quote, frequently attributed to modern management theory expert Peter Drucker, describes the importance of culture to an organization. Culture is so critical that it drives employees’ motivation in one of two ways – either to achieve the company’s or team’s strategy or to undermine it.
Absent a positive culture, an unintended culture will often be created by the loudest voices, the strongest personalities, or the existing (and frequently dysfunctional) philosophy. This culture often leads to negativity, lack of motivation, recruiting difficulties, and turnover. However, positive law firm culture will support the leader’s vision, attract, and retain talent, produce motivated employees, and help to ensure favorable results.
According to Team Stage’s Company Culture Statistics: Leadership and Engagement in 2022 report:
- Company culture is an essential factor for 46% of job seekers.
- 86% of job seekers avoid companies with a bad reputation.
- Millennials prioritize ‘people and culture fit’ above everything else.
- Having highly engaged workers can lead to a 202% increase in performance.
- A culture that attracts high-caliber employees leads to a 33% revenue increase.
So how do you strengthen your law firm culture and, in the process, build a motivated legal team? Here are some techniques:
1. Hire the Right Employees
A law firm’s employees directly contribute to its potential success – or failure. While hiring an employee can be expensive – more than $4,000, according to a Glassdoor study – and time-consuming, replacing one is even pricier, ranging from half to twice the worker’s annual salary. When a law firm loses its best employees, it loses more than just money – firm morale breaks down.
So how can a firm attract the right candidates and retain valuable team members? Answer: By hiring the best candidates. Here are some steps to take:
Time it Right
In the legal industry, timing is everything. If a law firm hires too soon, it risks financial trouble. However, if it waits too long, it might make decisions out of desperation, and the wrong person may get the job. So ask yourself these questions to decide whether the time is right:
- Is the firm turning away clients? You need additional work to grow your firm, and if you are turning clients away because you’re too busy, it could be a sign that you need to hire.
- Is your client service suffering? If you fail to communicate with clients on a timely basis or come dangerously close to missing deadlines, you might need more help.
- Is the firm having trouble keeping up with business tasks? If your accounting is falling behind, this will negatively impact your finances and future growth potential.
- Are your employees starting to burn out? If the atmosphere around the firm is becoming tense because people can’t get all their work done, you should consider hiring someone before the organization begins to suffer burnout.
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, now may be the time to look for help.
Consider Your Needs
Before hiring a new team member, consider your firm’s needs. For example: Do you need another attorney to handle cases? Or an additional paralegal? What about administrative support staff? Are you looking for someone who specializes in a particular area of law or job function? Are you expanding your staff, creating a new position, or replacing a departing team member?
If you determine that a typical position won’t fit your current needs, adjust your expectations; and pivot toward wherever you have a need. You can also change the standard job expectations for a particular position and specify what you are looking for in your job description. Never settle for someone who will not fulfill your firm’s needs, no matter how impressive their resume or qualifications might be.
Define Your Ideal Candidate
According to the employee engagement platform Vantage Circle, the ideal employee exhibits certain characteristics, such as:
- Engaged, passionate, and always up for new challenges
- A strong work ethic
- Honest, not afraid to express opinions, ideas, and frustrations
- Confident, particularly if filling a client-focused role
- Ambitious, innovative, able to deliver, and not afraid to take the initiative
- An enthusiastic team player who elevates the rest of the team
- Critical thinking skills, including the ability to come up with logical solutions to problems
- Strong communicator with effective oral, written, listening, and presentation skills
- Reliable, willing to take charge of their work, actions, and results
Before you open the position, you need to decide what and who you are looking for. What characteristics should this employee have? What skills do they need? How much are you willing to train? Then, once you’ve hired someone who you think will be a good fit, don’t forget to appreciate them for a job well done and recognize their achievements with kind words, awards, bonuses, and other employee benefits.
A clear, well-written job description provides numerous benefits, such as:
- Allow your firm to attract better-qualified candidates
- Help you understand what you expect of your employees and what they should expect from you
- Come in handy during job interviews
Providing applicants with a comprehensive job description will help put potential employees on the same page as the firm and more closely align them with your organization’s goals. To make sure that your job descriptions remain current and accurate, you should include the effective date (and all revision dates) on each job description, confirm that a job description is current before posting the position, and ensure the accuracy of the job description during the performance review process.
Involve Your Current Team in the Process
Your new employee will become part of your existing team, so everyone should be involved in the hiring process. Hearing different perspectives regarding candidates will ensure that you cover all the bases and might also prevent hiring the wrong person.
Provide Growth Opportunities
Motivated employees want to grow. To hire and retain them, your firm needs to provide growth opportunities. These might include:
- Upward career mobility for each position
- A detailed career path that outlines promotions and salary increases over time
- Access to various learning platforms and opportunities for professional development
- The ability to network, participate in mentorship programs, and attend workshops and seminars.
To determine where the interest lies, ask your team what they would like to see offered both inside and outside the workplace.
Consider Outsourcing Recruiting and Hiring
Finding the right candidate at the right time can be an overwhelming task for small to medium-sized law firms, particularly in the wake of a global pandemic and legal talent shortage. If you feel pressured, it might make better sense to outsource recruiting and hiring to an experienced practice management consultant or skilled legal recruiter who can handle the process for your firm, often more cost-effectively than you can by doing it yourself. But remember: the final decision to hire a particular candidate is ultimately one that your firm must make.
2. Recognize Valuable Team Members – and Learn How to Motivate Them
Retaining law firm staff requires being able to identify talented team members and knowing how to motivate them. Sound simple? It isn’t – what motivates one employee may not be the way to inspire another.
According to the legal website Law Crossing, there are generally two types of law firm employee motivation:
- Intrinsic – motivation that comes from within the employee. This type of motivation requires getting to know staff members to learn what motivates each one.
- Extrinsic – motivation that comes from outside the individual. While money is an external motivator for many employees, it does not motivate everyone.
Both types of motivators can change over time, and a firm needs to adjust its techniques as the organization grows and adds new employees. Here are some examples of ways to motivate valuable employees:
- Spread the authority around (when you can). While the legal industry is highly regulated, supervising attorneys can delegate responsibilities to non-lawyers. Generally, lawyers should focus their time on serving clients by performing substantive legal work. Giving employees the authority needed to solve certain problems can be a win-win, as it motivates them and frees up attorney time.
- Be an active listener. Your clients are likely not the only ones intimated by lawyers – certain staff members might feel the same way. Motivate and empower these individuals by keeping an open-door policy. Encourage them to consult you at any time with issues concerning cases or workflow, listen to their concerns, and implement their suggestions whenever possible.
- Provide recognition. Research has found that firm turnover could be reduced by as much as 30 percent simply by recognizing staff members for doing a good job. Find something positive to say to employees on a regular basis – congratulate them for beating a deadline, improving productivity, or handling a difficult client.
- Offer perks. Offering competitive pay and benefits is a no-brainer, but to truly motivate your employees, consider offering other things they want. This might include unlimited sick leave or vacation days, free gym memberships, catered lunches, paid days off for volunteering, the ability to work remotely, or something else they’ve asked for.
- Be a good leader. One of the best ways to motivate employees is to provide strong and supportive leadership. Leading a legal team to success under often stressful circumstances requires a leadership mindset and a solid commitment to the organization. A successful legal leader typically possesses the following qualities:
- Vision. To recognize and motivate valuable team members, a leader must have a team vision and the ability to set concrete, achievable, and measurable goals, e.g., “improve communication” may not be helpful because employees are not being told what they need to do. Instead, “return all client calls within 24 hours or less” is a measurable goal that they can reasonably achieve.
- Flexibility. A forward-thinking leader needs to be able to adapt to change, view it as a way to make progress, and welcome new opportunities. While a fixed mindset will hold an organization back, a leader who refuses to get stuck in “the way things have always been done” will be able to move the firm forward.
- Humbleness. Leading a legal organization requires a balance of confidence and humility. Although it can be challenging to follow the lead of someone who seems weak or uninvolved, few people appreciate an arrogant leader. On the other hand, positive leaders are not afraid to admit when they are wrong and instead consider the contributions of everyone at the firm, no matter their position.
- Integrity. Legal leaders should accept responsibility for their actions. Someone who shares recognition for achievements with everyone, ensures that the credit is distributed fairly, and takes accountability for mistakes will earn their colleagues’ trust.
The effectiveness of a legal leader is ultimately determined by their ability to hire, retain, manage, lead, and develop a stellar team of lawyers and professional staff. This can only be accomplished if they can motivate their team by fostering professional development and growth.
3. Deal With Employees Who Don’t Fit – In a Positive Way
One of the most challenging things a law firm must do is terminate an employee. However, to protect the integrity of the team and the firm, you must sometimes be willing to sever relationships with employees who, for various reasons, do not work out.
But firing someone who doesn’t fit isn’t always the best route to take. Instead, designing a plan that encourages employees to leave the firm rather than be terminated could be a more effective technique. Here are some strategies for dealing with employees who are underperforming or just don’t seem to fit:
One of the most common ways to deal with underperforming employees is to set up performance improvement targets. This strategy involves requiring an employee to complete a project with a measurable outcome and then evaluating the results. But before you set up a performance target, schedule a face-to-face meeting with the employee and ensure that they understand that their job could be contingent on meeting set goals.
While incentives are often used to motivate employees to meet productivity goals, they can also be used to encourage an employee to leave a company of their own volition. Disengaged employees are usually aware they are failing to perform at their full capacity and may be more likely to resign if given an enticing offer. You can also offer to keep them on board for a specific period or provide outplacement and career counseling services to assist them in locating a new job.
If an employee is not a fit for their position, you can remove the position entirely, merge two roles together, or transition the individual into a different job, if feasible. But regardless of which technique you choose, the need for an employee transfer or exit should never come as a surprise to the employee – your feedback throughout the process should be ongoing and documented.
Generally, terminating an employee should be resolved for specific circumstances such as theft, fraud, or a physical altercation. Although employees are hired “at-will” in most states and employers have the right to fire them at any time, for any (or no) reason at all, if you are considering terminating someone employed under the terms of a contract, you will need to follow the terms of the agreement.
The firm will also need to fulfill certain legal obligations when terminating an employee, such as providing them with their last paycheck, information about their benefits, including COBRA, unemployment options, and the transportability of other insurance. With these best practices, you’ll be more likely to avoid facing a disgruntled worker in court, which may adversely affect the morale of other employees and the reputation of the firm.
4. Keep Your Team Engaged
Gallup describes engaged employees as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” According to Engage for Success, a non-profit, voluntary movement launched in 2011 by former British Prime Minister David Cameron, the level of employee engagement can be measured by several factors, such as:
- Are they getting up in the morning feeling excited to go to work? Engaged employees look forward to helping their team succeed.
- Do they understand their role within the organization? Employees who feel engaged see their place within an organization’s purpose and objectives.
- Do they have a clear understanding of how the organization is fulfilling its mission? When an employee is given a voice to offer ideas and views that are considered when decisions are made, they feel engaged.
- Are they being fully included as a member of the team? Highly engaged employees receive regular, constructive feedback and are recognized for their achievements.
Employee engagement varies from excellent to nonexistent. When nurtured, an employee’s level of engagement can increase dramatically; when it is not a priority for the organization, it will likely decrease very quickly.
The Levels of Employee Engagement
According to What is Employee Engagement? What, Why, and How to Improve It, there are several different levels of employee engagement. These include:
- Highly engaged – employees who have extremely favorable opinions of their organizations, are strongly connected to their teams, and their presence often raises the engagement level of those around them.
- Moderately engaged – employees who see their workplace in a favorable way but recognize things that could be improved. Those who are somewhat engaged in their workplace may also be at risk for underperformance and are usually less likely to willingly take on more responsibility than workers with a higher level of engagement.
- Barely engaged – workers who are indifferent about their workplace, only do what they need to get by, and lack the energy required to improve their work quality.
- Disengaged – employees who have a negative view of their organization, feel disconnected from its mission and purpose, and have no commitment to their position within the organization.
While essential, employee happiness is not the same as employee engagement because it does not indicate how invested employees are in the firm or how hard they’re willing to work to help fulfill its mission.
Why is Employee Engagement Important in Law Firms?
Performance is proven to be related to engagement. According to a recent Harvard Business Review report, 81 percent of the nearly 1,000 executives surveyed said engaged employees perform better. But just as highly engaged employees positively impact those around them, disengaged employees can have a negative effect on their colleagues.
In a competitive legal market, law firms often become focused on compensating for productivity and sacrifice. As a result, they sometimes fail to reward behaviors that boost employee engagement, such as positive interactions with colleagues, training, and mentoring. Although many law firms recognize the need to improve employee engagement, they often struggle to identify specific methods and metrics to tackle and solve the problem.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for every law firm regarding how to engage its employees. However, the answer likely lies in the answers to two critical questions: 1) How does this firm define success? and 2) How does this firm reward or penalize behaviors considered necessary to succeed?
According to the Association of Legal Administrators’ Legal Management magazine, employee engagement “should be governed by flexibility to meet the needs of both the firm and the individual associates. This does not mean a firm must cater to every feel-good-whimsical demand, but rather work with individuals to identify the business imperative for granting a request, offering a benefit, or creating a program. After all, a law firm filled with associates who are the best versions of themselves is destined to become the best version of itself too.”
Written by Jan Hill