Open plan offices are not new, even for law firms, and no doubt there are a couple of examples in your region. The jury does still seem to be out though in regard to the pros and cons.

While there are those who proudly espouse the virtues of ‘open plan’ with benefits like:

  • better staff interaction;
  • everyone seen to be on the same footing;
  • more work gets done, etc.

others think they are a crazy idea. Arguments against tend to revolve around confidentiality, the need to work in peace, no interruptions and so on.


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Sometimes leaders  need to be tough on some of the little things. These can have significant ramifications which are not always immediately obvious. However, because the benefits are not obvious, or seem unimportant at the time, many leaders don’t address them, also possibly feeling that they don’t want to be ‘petty’.

However, as we saw in New York between 1993 and 2001 when Mayor Giuliani tackled the horrific serious crime rates in that metropolis – he surprised everyone when he focused first on petty crime. The result was that big crime was reduced by over 50% to the point where it became relatively safe for womenfolk to walk down the streets. The same can apply here.

Meetings are just one of the examples of where addressing a few little things can have a big impact elsewhere. Allowing partners to consistently be late for meetings, fiddle with mobile devices or take calls, even if done quietly, is tantamount to what is depicted here; chaos, rudeness and ultimately will cause a break-down of communication and respect. Leaders need to nip this in the bud and set the example in doing so as it can have all manner of (positive) impacts around a firm. (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

What are some little things which at first blush don’t seem to warrant making a fuss over? Let’s take meetings as an example – for instance, allowing:

  1. people to be consistently late for meetings;
  2. people to get away with simply not turning up and not notifying anyone in time or giving a reason;
  3. the checking of emails or searching the net on PDAs;
  4. people to keep their phones switched on, take calls or walk out to do so;
Just one example, but it is surprising how common this is in many firms.

What message are being sent by the transgressors?
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Many law firm partners want their firm to either be pre-eminent or to seek pre-eminence. Few realise that there is a serious price to pay.

Look at the vision statements of most firms and chances are you will find words like ‘successful’, ‘leading’, ‘premier’, ‘top’ or similar. Nothing at all wrong with that. But the key thing to realise is that to seek and achieve such lofty visions takes serious commitment, both at the top and throughout a partnership. Without that understanding and buy-in from all partners, leaders and managers in a firm, any visioning or strategy process will be flawed from the core and likely be doomed to failure.

‘Pre-eminence’ – ‘yeah, that sounds good, let’s go for it’ one will hear law firm partners say, but how many realise that there is a price to pay for such lofty visions? The reality is that most firms seek pre-eminence or some version of it. However, if they are truly serious about such a vision, they must realise it takes enthusiastic and consistent commitment and adherence by a majority of partners to a wide range of key things. The firms that manage to achieve this rise to the top and stay there while others muddle along.  (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

What then is this price to pay if you seek such status? In essence it goes to the heart and core of everything you do in the firm but here is a framework of some key things that I feel will be an essential part of any such quest:

  1. Leadership: strong, trusted leadership, not just at the top, but throughout the partners and managers, and a proper understanding of leadership and how it can be fostered and developed;
  2. Direction and Vision: clear direction from the key leaders and an agreed vision bought into and understood by all as to where they want the firm to go and what they want it to be. This takes a very clear understanding of ‘basics’ such as which practice areas, industry sector areas and geographic areas will be focused on and how the firm will differentiate itself through particular ways of delivering service;
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While ethics is – or should be – important in all businesses, it is especially relevant for businesses that are trust-based, such as legal practices. Cynthia Schoeman of Ethics Monitor joins us as a guest today to provide her expert views on this important subject.

Leadership commitment to ethics is a primary factor in establishing an ethical culture in a trust-based organisation like a law firm. Leader behaviours effectively demonstrate to employees, colleagues and clients what will or won’t be tolerated. (Sean Larkan 2012).

The services and advice offered by the legal profession require a high level of client trust both as regards expertise and integrity. This exceeds the level of trust required in many other businesses, for example, in the retail industry where a customer’s interaction may only entail a transactional purchase.

A high level of trust is very advantageous for the success of a legal practice. Among other benefits, it deepens and strengthens relationships and fosters client loyalty. Given this correlation (between trust and success) it should follow that building and maintaining trust is imperative.

There are many ways in which a practice can generate client trust. It builds trust when the practitioner assigned to the matter has the necessary knowledge and experience, and when he/she acts with integrity, in accordance with the law, and in the best interest of the client.
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Like finding the toilet roll  empty, or getting a puncture, some things never come at a good time. But, of course, these things do happen so most of us have learned to respond with equanimity and of course maybe even do a little forward planning!

The same applies to losing a really top calibre lawyer or support staff member (especially to the dreaded opposition); just when you thought he or she was well settled and was going to be part of your landscape forever (‘even though I hadn’t told her, I thought she had ‘future partner’ written all over her’). It is always unwelcome, sometimes seems a bit unfair (‘we always treated her so well and she seemed so happy’) and the timing is always bad (‘I have just introduced him to the the new oil and gas matter and client loved him‘).

When something unwelcome happens, like losing high calibre staff, the challenge is always to retain some equanimity and try to understand it for what it truly is, and not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean not acting, or simply doing a few operational things as a knee-jerk reaction on the surface of things. It requires in-depth strategic analysis, careful review and thoughtful implementation with a view to re-building trust in your employment brand. (Sean Larkan 2012)

Especially for firms that put a lot of time and effort into their people, events like this can cut to the bone.  It can be very demoralising and quickly impact confidence. Sometimes it seems incomprehensible as you feel you are doing things right.

Real concerns should arise when it starts happening with some regularity and becomes a pattern. It is not just an isolated incident based on exceptional circumstances. Word about things like this – key staff losses – can spread like wild-fire, and this can have a severe impact on a firm’s employment brand and on engagement levels. Social media, Linked In facilities for recruiters, plus recruitment agency networks ensure the market knows about these patterns long before most firms even realise its happening. This is when leaders and managers need to take remedial action and get to the bottom of it.

As much as these events require a decisive response from leadership, the danger is that it can often cause knee-jerk reactions and the implementation of solutions which may seem okay on the surface, and may even appease (including one’s conscience), but in reality don’t do much to change anything substantive for the long term.

In the work I have done with firms around people strategy and we consider these strategic issues, two things come up as common threads:

  • when times are good – staff recruitment is going well, staff calibre is good and turnover is down – firms assume it is because they are doing a heckuva lot of things right (and have earned this status because of all the good things they are doing around people). Interestingly, dig deeper and you may find this is not in fact the case.  They may have hit a lucky streak (it happens) or be regarded as the ‘flavour of the quarter‘ in the recruitment channels (it happens). Further investigation can reveal that  many of the people fundamentals have not in fact been properly addressed;
  • when times turn bad (sometimes, unaccountably, not long after they were good), firms are invariably surprised and anxiously cast around for causes. They tend to hone in on what appear to be the obvious reasons (e.g. a few partners with poor records of managing staff, benefits needing tweaking etc), try to address these and too quickly conclude ‘job done‘. Unfortunately, superficial, knee-jerk responses usually achieve very little, even though they may keep a board and some partners happy for awhile. Chances are that down the line the same problems will still exist, the reason being that they are founded in culture and well established cultural norms which and run deep to the heart and soul of what the firm is or isn’t about. They therefore need much more thorough, thoughtful treatment.

When this sort of pattern arises around losing key staff it is a sure signal that firms need to take very careful and serious stock of what they are or are not doing in relation to their people. It’s a big job, it is complex and touches on so much of what a firm is or is not; it  should quickly becomes priority numero uno.

I would start by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • are our partners and managers more focused on meeting their own targets and performance criteria than they are on delegating good quality work and providing good access to clients, good feedback and other support staff crave and need to grow;
  • what is the state of our employment brand? Do we have a brand strategy? Do we understand brand and what constitutes our employment brand? Do we achieve Brand Fusion™ i.e. ensuring what we promise and say we do in regard to people, we actually do and deliver?
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