A strong and resilient house protected the pigs from the wolf.....Why law firms should care about team strength to protect their organization’s stability.
The story of the three little pigs is a famous tale of three brothers who each built their own home. Two of the pigs assembled their homes quickly, one making his home with straw, the other constructing his home with sticks. These two pigs were more concerned about going out to play than mulling over the sustainability of their homes.
The third pig, however, took the time to build a sturdy structure made of bricks and mortar. When the Big Bad Wolf came along, only one of the pigs was prepared. After the wolf blew the two fragile houses away, the pigs had to seek refuge at their brother’s house which was strong enough to withstand the attack.
The moral of the story? Building a sound and enduring structure requires hard work and the careful construction of the right components.
Law firms are organizations made up of various components or individual members. These individual members have specific roles and responsibilities and rely on one another to contribute to the operational and economic performance of the organization.
There are many examples that demonstrate a law firm’s operation is one big collaboration of individual efforts. An attorney relies on a paralegal to draft motions or a secretary to manage their appointments and deadlines. The accounting team makes sure the paralegals, secretaries and attorneys get paid for their work. A partner trains an associate, and the associate takes on work that may free the partner’s day up to generate new business. The better the members of the organization function together as a team, the better and more sustainable the law firm’s performance.
Just like a carefully constructed brick house offers protection from the Big Bad Wolf, a strong team assures a firm’s long term survival in a rapidly changing and highly competitive business environment. Because of this, we encourage law firm managers to consider team-oriented initiatives when working on improving their people, processes and tools. In many cases, it will require an adjustment in leadership philosophy to develop a culture built on joint goals and shared successes. This is not an easy task but does lead to long-term success.
How can a law firm develop or improve a team-oriented firm culture?
We recommend law firm managers work on the following areas:
View the infographic below to see how the mentioned areas of Institution, Tangibles, Intangibles can come together to form a strong, team-oriented law firm culture. And then continue reading below that to learn more about the various components essential to creating a solid, sustainable firm that can endure and propel past even the most aggressive threats.
Vision, Mission and Values
The institutional attributes of a law firm can be described in vision, mission and values, which inform the firm’s philosophy and purpose. A vision is a future-oriented declaration of a firm’s long term goals. The mission recognizes the firm’s purpose, the reasons for its existence. We see a firm’s values as their rules of the road and includes the things they do and don’t do when carrying out their commercial activities.
Any goals, strategies, and tactics (activities) most align with these values. These definitions are important as they give all firm members a clear picture of what matters most to the owners and managers.
Simultaneously, current and future goals and objectives connected to these attributes indicate the importance of organizational stability and economic results, and whether they are in balance or not. Such high level guidelines are helpful for employees as well as recruits to assess their organizational fit and are critical for the firm to establish a team-oriented environment and a connection with the firm.
A team is stronger when its members share a vision, mission and values. When these principles guide major decisions and changes, the likelihood that the affected employees agree and participate is much higher.
The tangible factors provide the framework for the organizational structure and operational system of a firm. Every law firm has a hierarchy, defined roles and positions, as well as specific processes and procedures. These factors can facilitate the establishment of a team-oriented firm culture by design, for example, by defining collaborative workflows, strategic groups and human resources functions.
The organizational structure and dynamics determine the functional interplay of the law firm’s members and staff. With the leaders at the top of the hierarchy it is important to make sure they fulfill their role. A fish rots from the head down. It sounds harsh but it’s true. Bad leadership will result in poor organizational performance, and is typically the root cause of a firm’s failure.
Leaders need a clearly defined role, including the development of a vision and accompanying strategic plan. They should also ask themselves if they are delegating to employees effectively and if their communication is productive yet appropriate.
A leadership style that reflects a team-oriented focus should include the following attributes:
Sharing of institutional attributes, goals, planned changes, and important economic metrics with employees.
Formal and informal feedback:
Feedback sessions with the help of surveys, interviews or meetings for both leadership and employees. This requires a consistent performance evaluation system. Additionally, approachable managers are important, so that employees feel like they can share their thoughts and ideas.
Explicit expectations to collaborate/ work as part of a team:
A definition of policies and guidelines in the employee handbook or as part of the values' definition.
Management and team meetings at an appropriate frequency to discuss performance, satisfaction, challenges, opportunities, ideas for changes in the operational processes or tools
Each position in the firm needs a proper description of duties and responsibilities paired with SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely) performance expectations. Firms may even elect to include a section in their job descriptions that explains the value of a position’s contributions.
When leadership defines and communicates specific roles and gives consistent feedback, employees can put their performance into perspective and properly understand their contribution and purpose in the firm. They are much more likely to trust their superiors and identify with the firm’s mission and values when they perceive their leaders as fair and transparent.
Detailed descriptions for each position that are connected to process and contributions to service delivery (value chains). Besides staffing and task distribution, these descriptions help avoid duplicate efforts from multiple employees and enhance recruiting efficiency.
These expectations are coupled with job descriptions. Managers need to know and define what specifically they want to get from their employees to provide them with clear guidelines and a sense of purpose. Performance expectations also help during the evaluation and feedback phase. Comparing expectations with results is necessary to objectively evaluate performance also assures employees that such evaluations are fair and consistent across the firm.
Besides role definitions for lawyers and staff, firms should also develop clear hierarchical and functional structures including strategic groups and units. This will make it easy for everyone to understand who to connect with if they need support. Establishing self-managing teams will flatten the firm hierarchies and provide employees with more opportunities to participate in the decision-making process. Increasing employees’ sense of responsibility, autonomy and flexibility has a positive effect on natural motivations, which we discuss in the Intangibles section.
An HR role or department focused on areas including employee engagement, talent acquisition and retention, staffing and training and development can help ensure the proper implementation and sustainability of these practices.
Besides the formal definition of roles and responsibilities in the firm, it is important to determine a system for people, processes and tools, the resources used in operating the firm’s business.
Law firms cannot function without people. Processes and tools are used to help people perform their jobs. It is management’s responsibility to ensure the productivity of their employees and should therefore pay attention to the factors critical for their team’s success. As all duties necessary to operate a law firm are split between the employees, firms should examine how does the staff interact and collaborate. Consider also the initiatives already implemented or in planning to ensure that all staff members can function at their highest level.
To deal with these questions and other people-related concerns of establishing a team culture, law firm managers should consider the following initiatives:
Promotion of cooperation and communication:
Ensure the organizational structure provides a framework for a team-oriented firm culture and actively promote the benefits of the firm’s approach. It is important that the leadership or management team leads by example and supports policies to improve collaboration and communication. A human resources role can also assist in this area, as well as provide training sessions for team-building. The goal is to develop a sense of team value among the employees that includes effective delegation, collaboration, sharing and communication at a high level.
Dynamic and flexible team-structures:
Whether on a firm level, practice area or strategic group level, consider the skills, abilities and preferred operating modes of the team-members and assign a role that fits. E.g as part of a firm’s marketing efforts, some attorneys may be more comfortable networking, others prefer writing or social media activities. The goal is to provide an optimal level of flexibility to tap the most potential from employees, while maintaining an efficient organizational and operational structure. In other words, people should do what they want as long as they produce individually and as part of the system.
Structure goals to include team-specific expectations, e.g. by practice area, strategic group or functional division (marketing, accounting, human resources) in larger law firms. This incentivizes teams to collaborate in a way that all members can perform their role at the level needed to achieve the goal.
Initiatives to promote motivation and achievement: See Intangibles section below.
Typically, job duties are defined for employees to operate certain processes. In a law firm, these range from legal research and litigation to invoice payments and office administration. The first step to make sure employees do their assigned job right is to define and document their role in the relevant firm processes. This will also cut down the time new employees need to learn their duties. Managers should make sure this knowledge is available to all involved staff members.
Another consideration is the optimization of processes. With clearly defined processes, managers can assess whether there are any unnecessary steps or duplicate efforts in these workflows. Mapping processes at this level makes it easier to load balance the work and connect duties into a seamless and productive chain of activities and processes.
To sum up process-related concerns, consider these opportunities:
Clearly defined procedures and duties:
Graphical or written process descriptions, which we execute as part of a mapping exercise, that includes the role and value add of each position and participant. Not only does this help new employees quickly learn their duties, it also helps them visualize their individual contributions and how they are all interconnected as part of the law firm operation.
Revisit processes and improve if necessary:
Use management meetings and feedback sessions and surveys to discover and discuss improvement needs and ideas. It is important to include the people involved in these processes at all levels in the review sessions.
Training programs for efficient collaboration:
Pre-defined training steps for efficient on-boarding, integration and development of employees. Long-term training plans for attorneys and paralegals that outline skill development steps, progress timeline, mentoring, and teaching responsibilities can build more effective teams faster. On the administrative side, detailed process and procedure outlines are helpful to get new employees up to speed quickly and enable hiring inexperienced people who often perform better because they were not poorly trained at another firm.
Introduce firm members to the roles and jobs of others to develop an understanding for their potential needs or struggles and an appreciation for their contributions. This is helpful when it comes to communicating and collaborating as part of a team. Team members are more likely to provide each other with information in the proper format, understand when and when not to bother one another and narrow the gap of misunderstanding each other. The better an attorney and a billing manager understand each other’s work, the more likely they will cooperate to enhance the effectiveness of their timekeeping and billing process.
The third string are the tools, typically software and machines, which are used to support the people of the organization as they carry out the tasks involved in the various operational processes. Managers should determine the effectiveness in terms of their potential to increase in productivity.
Another important consideration is the capability of employees to use the available tools. Tool-specific considerations of team cultures include:
Ensure that all the tools necessary to fulfill duties in an effective and efficient manner are available to employees: Considering developments in the industry, as well as feedback from employees can give firm managers a good picture of possible upgrades to consider. In today’s environment, these mostly involve technology improvements.
Integrated software to increase productivity and to facilitate communication and collaboration:
Consider implementing cloud-based software applications like practice or case management programs, as well as messaging and video call applications.
Practice management applications can integrate all the software needs of a firm into one system that includes case management, email and calendaring, document management, accounting and reporting. Proper implementation of these systems can significantly improve collaboration and result in a more informed workforce, enable remote or flexible work environments, and potentially increase the available labor pool exponentially. Simultaneously, management can collect valuable operational and financial performance indicators and make better informed decisions.
Dedicated office space like conference rooms to facilitate in-person team-work
A smooth interplay of the three operational factors, people, processes and tools is a significant contributor to effective teamwork.
The intangible factors of a team-oriented work environment are more difficult to address than the organizational structure or the operational systems of the firm since they are concerned with the completely individual characteristics of the team members. These factors are not built on pre-designed structures or frameworks, but continuous personal interactions and assessments. They are concerned with why employees do their jobs and work for the firm. Motivation and achievement are the two attributes that give the answer to this question.
Motivations are emotional and hard to articulate but significant for individual and team performance. To address this aspect properly, managers should assess what type of motivation actually drives employees compared to the motivational climate currently promoted in the firm.
There are two main types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation means employees perform a task to earn a reward, including monetary and non-monetary incentives and verbal appreciation, or in the negative form, to avoid punishment. In this context, team-oriented rewards like origination sharing, practice group or firm result-based bonuses, or rewards for firm-specific strategic contributions including marketing, recruiting and firm management can increase extrinsic motivation. Together, such rewards help reinforce a team-focused approach in the work environment.
Bonuses and non-monetary rewards:
Team-based performance bonuses (by practice or strategic group, department or for the whole firm) and other rewards including public recognition, time off, trips and travel, etc.
Rewarding contributions outside the scope of a firm member’s primary job description that benefit the firm. For example, attorneys who help with recruitment, firm marketing (website development, sponsored events, etc.), firm management and other areas. This should also include successful improvement ideas for processes and tools employees recommend.
Depending on a law firm’s compensation system, origination sharing can be an important consideration for a compensation approach that can reward origination success while also promoting teamwork. Not all attorneys are rainmakers. Some might be uncomfortable in networking environments, but are great at getting legal work done efficiently.
This ties to a point we made in the operations regarding dynamic and flexible team-structures. People are good at different things, yet they all can contribute to firm performance, which is an important consideration when making compensation decisions. When determining how much weight to give origination credit, law firms also need to consider the value created by attorneys who excel at handling matters and attract new work from satisfied clients.
Intrinsic motivation means employees perform a task for its own sake, as the task itself is personally rewarding. While extrinsic motivation is easier to control and articulate, it is important to understand the level of intrinsic motivation among employees. Since it is controlled by the self instead of external factors, it is more powerful and sustainable.
Motivations are individual and they may differ for all employees. One thing, however, is certain: all members of a firm must have a motivation to contribute to the success of the organization. This consideration plays a critical role in leveraging team-spirit. Fostering intrinsic motivation can have a significant impact on employee performance. Intrinsic motivation is highest when employees understand the value of their contributions.
While managers cannot control the natural motivations of their employees, they can assess how well a person can embrace their role and the firm’s goals. Ways to foster intrinsic motivation include:
Through skill development and training programs, an employee’s confidence in their capabilities is strengthened. Confident employees are more able to provide useful improvement feedback and better service clients.
A feeling of meaningfulness of their work and contributions to the firm is an important motivational factor for employees. Through communication of the firm’s vision, mission, values, goals, and successes, employees can better understand their purpose and value.
Providing employees with a certain level of decision-making power will strengthen their sense that they are trusted and valued. Through training and development plans and consistent meetings, managers can transfer decision-making power to employees with more confidence about the outcome. Additionally, guidelines with decision-making permissions can reduce the need for supervision and micromanagement.
Understanding and appreciating employees’ individual work approaches can have a positive impact on their contributions. Giving employees the freedom to work how they want- as long as the approach is in line with firm values and policies- is a great way to capture their best work.
Contribution to the performance of a group the individual employees like and respect is an invaluable motivator. This is more likely the case when the group members understand each other’s roles and contributions, support each other and share their successes.
For more information on intrinsic motivation please review our article Boost firm performance with intrinsic motivation.
Achievement is directly connected to motivation. Whether extrinsically or intrinsically motivated, without a sense of achievement, morale will deteriorate rapidly. No employee would enjoy describing their work as Sisyphean task, an eternal repeating cycle, without the feeling of a productive and valuable accomplishment.
Therefore, managers should make sure achievements are recognized and appreciation is communicated for the sake of extrinsic motivation. Additionally, the presentation and explanation of individual or team-level outcomes, results and successes will allow team members to understand the value of their contributions, which promotes intrinsic motivation.
Since each member of the organization only contributes a part to the success of the firm, the power of extrinsic motivation for the sake of team-building is balanced. Individual performance rewards, while necessary and fair in proper proportion, are by definition, not team-oriented. Team-based performance rewards can reinforce a team-oriented approach but often focus on the outcome, instead of the process, which is unreliable because the level of team-spirit is directly connected to the reward.
Yet, intrinsic motivation comes through contribution rather than rewards and therefore more stable. For example, people often appreciate a good team win, but can become insecure if they have no sense of how they contributed to the win. When motivations are evoked by the shared experience of contribution and achievement as part of an organization, it can have a significant positive long-term effect on team spirit.
Team strength and sustainability
Law firm owners and employees know they cannot operate or achieve the results and successes of their firm on their own. They rely on others daily so it only makes sense to develop an environment of shared achievements built on collaboration, defined roles, expectations and rewards.
The institutional principles of vision, mission, and values provide the direction and guidelines for the organization. Firms who want to improve their organization’s cultural health and sustainability are encouraged to design or create and communicate these principles to their teams.
Structuring the organization and operations to support and promote the development of team strength is ideal. Motivation and achievement are what keeps the team strong in the long run. Even though the institutional, organizational and operational design helps a firm to improve their employee pool’s organizational fit, it is important to remember that motivation and achievement are individually experienced. Managers must consider these emotional experiences as assets of their firm’s operation that require maintenance and reinforcement on an interpersonal level.
Effective managers (lawyers and staff who successfully manage practices) understand how to best motivate their employees and how to promote a sense of achievement among their teams.
Thoroughly planning and building a house ultimately paid off for the three little pigs. While two of them didn’t care about the stability and resilience of their houses, the third one understood the importance of a strong and sustainable structure, which would ultimately protect them from threats like the Big Bad Wolf.
Just like the pigs have their homes, managers have their organizations that require the same care and forethought. While the institutional principles of mission, vision, and values provide the foundation for a team-oriented firm culture, the tangible factors constitute the structural bricks, and the intangible factors add the mortar that holds the team together.