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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The President of the Law Council of Australia today published a column in the ALMJ along the lines of the title of this blog post – as a request was made for readers to complete an important survey, and given the importance of the subject-matter and the tight time-frame I have taken the liberty of repeating the column verbatim below. Links to the surveys have been provided. [See also the recent LLB post referencing Jordan Furlong’s article in the latest Edge International Communiqué on this subject]:

You can possibly help women lawyers in Australia by completing the surveys referenced in this post – please see the clickable links (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

“In my first column for the January edition of the Australasian Law Management Journal I referenced addressing the high attrition rates of women lawyers as a priority for my tenure as President.

Since this initial column, the Law Council has made significant progress in this regard. On May 6, the Law Council officially launched the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS). Research shows that there are significant gaps in diversity in more senior roles in the legal profession. Although women are graduating with law degrees and entering legal careers at higher rates than men, significantly fewer women continue into senior positions within the legal profession.

The Law Council of Australia has engaged Urbis to undertake a national research study to address diversity within the legal profession. Through this study, the Law Council is seeking to obtain quantitative data and confirm trends in progression of both male and female lawyers, and produce a report outlining practical measures which can be implemented to address the causes of high attrition rates among women lawyers, and re-engage women lawyers who have left the profession.
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Many of us who were lucky enough to be part of successful law firms of 20 years or so ago will recall how, in each of those firms, a couple of partners stood out for having impeccable client development and relationship skills. At the time we probably  assumed it was just the way things were done. There’s something in that, but in fact we were witnessing and experiencing a combination of terrific talent, something of an art form, at work, combined with hard work, commitment, genuine interest in others (mainly clients) ahead of own interests, keeping in touch, remembering important occasions, sending them snippets of useful information, and so on. This was old style business and client relationship development at its best; quite an art. The question is; is this a dying art?

Internet-related marketing activities are getting a lot of attention, quite rightly, but as practitioners have only so much time available for marketing, there appears to be an opportunity developing to selectively revert to old marketing practices. As lawyers have moved away from more traditional relationship building practices they may be leaving a gap for a return to old tried and trusted methods. (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

Many of us have said or heard said how clients no longer like to be lunched or invited to too many social functions. A quick coffee has become the new ‘client lunch’. Anecdotal evidence suggests however that some clients may be missing the more personal touch of old. They also, it seems, like the trust and closeness of these personal relationships that are steadily built up and strengthened over time.

Law firm leader Scott McSwan of Queensland mid-tier McKAYS feels there has been a shift – he has always been willing to try innovative new ways of delivering service or differentiating his practice or firm (he was one of the first practitioners I knew who geared up a matrimonial practice to 10 to 1) – when he mentioned he had picked up on changing trends and a possible gap he felt existed around building client relationships I took note: ‘lawyers now have ever more kinds of marketing activities to manage, undertake and keep track of – particularly via the Internet and using social media channels. However, everyone has only so much time to do non-billable work and the more time that lawyers give to these other kinds of marketing, the less time they have to give to the more traditional kinds of marketing like client relationship building!’

And what are some of these new marketing avenues which are getting attention?
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A fundamental of a successful brand is building trust. You build trust when other individuals who experience your service, product and brand offering trust that you will deliver on what you offer to do thereby achieving what I term ‘Brand Fusion™’. In turn this builds loyalty, that much sought-after, but rarely achieved status. But, it can be won. It just takes effort and making sure you do in fact deliver on what you offer.

It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Why would firms not do this? However, it is surprising how few organisations and professional service firms deliver; those that do, you will notice, achieve lasting success based on sound fundamentals with a trusted brand at the top of the list.

Always deliver what you offer. So, if you say ‘contact us’, make sure your website and links actually make it easy and intuitive to do just that, ‘contact you’, and make sure it is a person at the other end! If it does not, don’t offer it, as you will simply annoy actual and potential customers and lose their trust, respect and this will hammer their loyalty.

Let’s consider one very simple and obvious example where countless organisations slip up. Ever had an issue with a product or service and tried to communicate this with the company or organisation concerned? Ever tried to get hold of a real human via their ‘contact us’ link? I bet you have! I have, often, and sadly I must say most companies come up wanting, particularly the bigger, most ‘successful’ ones. The reason is simple: ‘contact us’ in plain English means you can get in touch with a person in our organisation in this way. The reality of experience proves all too often this is not the case.

While I have the feeling that most law firms don’t perform badly on this example (mainly because you can in fact get hold of a human being when you have an issue and more often than not even the head of the firm). For the sake of the profession, long may this continue. But you need to remain keenly aware of getting even these simple things right and all the other stuff that you ‘promise’ to potential clients and recruits. You then need to test everything else that you ‘offer’ and make sure this is experienced at every touch-point by everyone who comes into contact with your organisation. The truly great organisations do this, even the big ones. That is why their brands engender trust and loyalty. Remember, people who trust a brand ‘buy now and ask questions later’. 

I have recently experienced two encouraging exceptions to this:
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In the fast and easy world of email communication (where over 80% of us consider email to be critical to our success and productivity and how most of us communicate) it is sometimes tempting to respond to an annoying partner or manager communication with a quick-fire email. Most of us have fallen into this trap.

As a law firm leader one of your best returns on investment can come from appointing the right support services manager. A good manager can easily make a partner-like contribution or more to a firm. They do need to be the right calibre, the right fit and possess good levels of emotional intelligence and initiative. They also need support from firm leadership – mentoring, an interest taken in them personally and professionally, responsibility, authority and accountability.

Most of us probably assume the managers we recruit are honest – however, a new report shows an alarmingly high percentage might embellish their attributes to get themselves recruited. The worry is, picking this, and will it stop there? (iPad graphic by Sharon Larkan 2012 ©)

One thing I always assumed was that people filling such roles would be honest, especially as they had often been through other law firms. I never doubted it. Maybe this view was a bit naive! The findings of a recent research report point to a startlingly high percentage of Australian managers who are apt to embellish their resumes and talk up past work experience.

SHL, a global talent assessment solutions consultancy, reported in a recent Australian Law Management Journal article, found that nearly 40% (24% in New Zealand) will lie on their resumes and are 3 times more likely to lie about their qualifications than other workers. The areas that are most often faked are work experience, referees, earnings and qualifications.  The key findings relevant to law firm leaders are:

  • 39 per cent of managers have lied on their resume
  • 18 per cent of managers made up or exaggerated their work experience
  • 13 per cent of managers changed information about how much they earned at their last job
  • 10 per cent of managers made up references
  • 18 per cent of managers lied about their age.

Obviously this is a wake-up call to everyone who employs senior managers. If they are prepared to be dishonest about something as obvious as their personal achievements and attributes, with a real risk this could be found out, what else are they going to fabricate during the course of their employment? Also, this is tricky from a practical perspective – how do you test for honesty?

What are some things we can do to protect ourselves?
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In a recent post I highlighted the importance of leader accessibility, responsiveness and reliability, effectively saying nothing beats these for importance. A reader suggested I follow up with a note on how a leader can achieve accessibility – here goes with my thoughts.

Accessibility is not simply a question of saying you adopt an open door policy – it is about your partners and staff feeling and believing you are accessible. It is what they think and not what you believe you are or are not doing that matters. If you are not sure, you should seek feedback. Chances are they will have a different perception on this to you. For a start don't just open the door, walk out the door to connect with others.

I remember when I was in a managing partner role I thought I did a pretty decent job of being accessible and getting around to see people – I am willing to bet though that plenty of the staff and partners didn’t think so. The reason is I have since realised its not what I thought about this that mattered, but what they experienced and felt. Too often we look at these things from our perspective and although we may feel we ‘get it’, we often don’t. It is all about the perception of others. Everyone amongst those others is different. Everyone thinks differently. So, I don’t think I gave it quite enough thought at the time and should have. I suspect many leaders don’t. They should. It is that important.

You will quite often hear law firm leaders say things like ‘I have an open door policy’ and so on. This is a good start, if it is true and if that results in people actually feeling they can come through that door, or approach the leader in the passage or canteen and discuss what it is they want to discuss or better still, offer up some innovative or strategic ideas for the firm. Too often that door can stay open all day but people will simply not cross the threshold as they don’t feel comfortable.

Rather than simply having an open door policy the key is to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable communicating and sharing their thoughts.  It seems to me to be more about stepping outside the door and being accessible outside rather than sitting in your office with the door open and assuming others will regard you as accessible based on that assumption and gesture.
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My wife and I bought a small farm three years ago. As the grazing was leased out to a beef farmer the quality of the boundary fencing was paramount. The lady we purchased from told me up-front (and has reminded me ever since!) – ‘now Sean, remember to walk your fence-lines‘.  She was essentially saying check them regularly for breaks, leaning or weak posts, or other issues, but also to see what was really going on around the farm – ‘you never know what you may pick up‘.

This advice reminded me of my days helping to run large law firms – I happened to enjoy walking around, at least weekly, talking to staff and partners in various sections of the firm – apart from being enjoyable, it was amazing how much one picked up and could convey in those informal interactions.

Remember to walk the fence-lines of your firm – talking to partners and staff – you will pick up on issues, identify achievements and be showing an interest in those who make the wheels go round (Sean Larkan image ©: Austral Eden region, NSW)

I did notice though as I got busy, or we had to deal with one or other crisis, this practice somehow seemed to slip into the background, priority-wise. Sometimes too, one may be tied up with a merger – ‘important stuff‘, and it always got priority. It always took time to get back to the walking around ritual, each time reminding myself – ‘can’t let that drift’.

I had this message brought home to me again last week when the editor from the publisher of my upcoming book on law firm branding arranged a new time-table for me. I had fallen behind my schedule – she said with my consent she would ‘walk my fence-line’ i.e. keep closer tabs on me. What a nice way to say ‘listen, I am keeping an eye on you – time to start delivering‘!

There are a number of benefits flowing from walking the fence-line:
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You can be the brightest spark in the office but if people can never get hold of you, or after they do you take ages to respond or are simply unreliable, no-one is ever sure you will do the job, professionally you are going to do yourself in.

Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the workshop, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image - Old Dairy Gerringong - ©2012)
Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the shed, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image – Old Dairy Gerringong – ©2012)

I know of one professional who is highly sought after due to his niche practice and ability. As a consequence he is very busy and time-poor. So busy in fact that he has an automated message responding to his emails, always, saying ‘sorry tied up doing x, y or z. Your enquiry is important, I will revert etc’ – unfortunately, you usually don’t get a response from him, not even later. You soon get the message, his work is more important than your enquiry or message. He has made himself inaccessible, is unresponsive and in your mind will probably not be reliable to deal with. In fact he also appears to be discourteous.

On the other hand we all know professionals who are busier than most, but who still manage to be remarkably accessible, courteous, responsive and reliable – some come to mind for me – Michael Katz, chairman of Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, Rob Otty, Managing Director of Norton Rose RSA, Jordan Furlong my partner in Edge International, Giam Swiegers, National CEO of Deloitte, Australia, John Poulsen managing partner of Squire Sanders (formerly Minter Ellison, Perth), Roger Collins Chairman of Grant Thornton Australia and Derek Colenbrander CEO of CareFlight Australia.

One of the most enjoyable responsibilities I had as a former managing partner of large firms was to do a short introductory talk to new recently-joined lawyers. The discussion, which we tried to make interactive, commenced by asking what they felt they would need to do or be to succeed in a large firm environment. As one would expect coming from the brightest law school graduates, the responses were varied and fascinating. However, not many picked up on these seemingly obvious attributes: accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It was possible to emphasise these, providing examples, without names, of lawyers who did not have the best university pass or who were not regarded as the best technical lawyers in their practice area, but who rose to greatness and built substantial practices, at least in part due to these characteristics. I also emphasised that a big part of their early success would depend on their courtesy to staff, mainly support staff.

Your personal brand:
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So far we have considered some 18 leadership lessons from Steve Jobs from Parts ONE, TWO and THREE of this series and how they may be relevant for legal leaders – all based on the Walter Isaacson article it the HBR. There are some things however I wouldn’t recommned for legal leaders.

He was feisty, scary, tough on people, very often unreasonable and downright rude – people at Apple didn't want to get in the lift with him! But he did have another side. . . . . ..

So what are the personal style and leadership characteristics of Jobs one would not recommend for legal leaders?

  1. being more about me than about you
  2. not caring about others’ feelings
  3. aggression and anger openly used in discussions with others
  4. out and out rejection of ideas – ‘that is crap
  5. strong language
  6. expecting/demanding the impossible
  7. being devious in demanding things from others
  8. being more selfish than selfless
  9. not taking a genuine interest in the personal and professional well-being of others
  10. simply expecting others to be able to handle his style and approach

and so on, you get the drift, but he, unlike most of us, could pull this off because of who he was and what he had achieved. He could afford to hire highly paid, highly capable, tough people who could handle it all and it worked, brilliantly. In my experience many senior leaders like managing partners don’t exhibit these tendencies, and I don’t think it would go down too well or be swallowed in a legal environment.However, pause and look around the office and there are usually some leaders who do – they need to be addressed on this as it can be a deadener to your employment brand if it is not.

And now, one last thing. . . . many of you will know Steve Jobs often ended off his renowned presentations – many of them quite long – with a pause, raised his finger, turned to the audience and said ‘ah, just one more thing . . . ‘ and then launched into discussion about a key development. This was the item that usually stuck in everyone’s mind.
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