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‘Our people are our greatest asset’ – going beyond the rhetoric

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‘Our people are our greatest asset’ – going beyond the rhetoric

Simon Tupman is an international speaker, author and mentor to law firms. He is a member of the Law Consultancy Network. He will be the closing keynote speaker at the Law Society Management Conference in London on 19 May 2020. Here Simon takes Modern Law’s theme of ‘People are Priceless’ to discuss why it’s essential for law firms to create a motivational and engaging workplace culture.

In New Zealand, where I live, there is an old Maori proverb, ‘he aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata’; tna.’ Translated, it means ‘what is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.’

The world of legal services is quick to acknowledge the value of people to their business but evidence shows that in reality, firms place the interests of their people a very distant second place to those of the firm itself, especially its bottom line.

When firms say their people are their greatest asset but don’t actually care for them, treating them as ‘human resources’ rather than people, then it can shatter trust and create a toxic workplace culture of cynicism, anxiety and self-interest.

Research around the world consistently shows that the legal sector has an appalling track record. Depression, disengagement, stress, anxiety and sexual harassment are commonplace. Following a workplace review by the NZ Law Society in 2018, its then President, Kathryn Beck was prompted to state:

“… when nearly 30% of lawyers feel major changes are needed to the culture of their workplace, and when 40% of lawyers under 30 believe major changes are needed to their workplace culture, we must call a spade a spade – there is a cultural crisis in the New Zealand legal profession.”

The crisis is not isolated to the New Zealand legal profession. It is endemic around western countries and is being exacerbated by the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a technological revolution that is fundamentally altering the way we live, work, and relate to one another. Potential restructuring and job losses are increasing anxiety as people ask, ‘what does this mean for me, my future, my security and my family?’

The economic costs of this mismanagement to the economy are huge; in the UK alone, work-related mental illness across all business is estimated to cost the UK economy £30-40 billion pounds; the reputational damage to the legal services market is also considerable. In such circumstances, it is difficult to defend the traditional law firm culture and ways of working.

There is now an urgent need to change how law firms operate if they are to bring the best out their people, fulfil the potential of their business and relieve the strain on their people and the planet. The challenge is for law firm leaders to build a culture in which the personal and professional needs of all their people are accommodated.

In recent years, firms have introduced numerous benefits and incentives designed to improve employees’ working conditions such as health insurance, gym memberships, and days off. To militate against mental health issues, some firms have recently launched initiatives ranging from mindfulness apps and mental first aid training to on-site therapists. There is now a ‘Mindful Business Charter’, a set of 22 principles designed to tackle long hours and alleviate stress established by Pinsent Mason and Addleshaw Goddard in 2018.

While such initiatives are to be welcomed, on their own they don’t go far enough in addressing the central challenge now facing law firm leaders: what do we need to do to engage and inspire our people to work in order to achieve the firm’s commercial objectives?

Half of the answer lies in ensuring the firm’s commercial objectives are not just about safeguarding next year’s PEP (Profits for Equity Partner). People need to feel they have a vested interest in seeing the firm succeed even if they aren’t shareholders in the business. As Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks once said ‘people want to be part of something larger than themselves. They want to be part of something they’re really proud of, that they’ll fight for, sacrifice for, and trust.’ Law firms can take the lead from a growing number of businesses worldwide who have adopted a triple bottom line approach to their business (profit, people and planet), measuring the financial, social and environmental performance of the organization. The growth of B Corporations is an example of this. Closer to home, the Australian Legal Sector Alliance has over 40-member law firms who have made a commitment to promote sustainable and inclusive workplaces, community support, environmental conservation and responsible governance.

The other half of the answer lies in working to build a vibrant workplace culture in which people are fully engaged; in other words, they feel connected to each other and the objectives of the firm; their work is meaningful and they enjoy what they do. They are more motivated to achieve. The end result is a happier, more co-operative and productive firm.

The job of addressing this central challenge lies with the firm’s leadership.

First and foremost, that means the Partners. They, (rather than the Managing Partner, Practice Manager or ‘HR’ manager) are responsible for setting the culture, defining the standards and overseeing the environment in which people are being asked to contribute. It’s their business after all.

Therein lies a major problem. Many law firm Partners still do not appreciate the role of leadership, assuming it to be more about command and control rather than motivating and engaging people around a shared purpose and vision. As writer John Maxwell has written, ‘It’s not the position that makes the leader, but the leader who makes the position.’

So what can firms do to break the impasse? Here are 4 key initiatives to get the ball rolling in your firm:

1. Set your purpose. Answer the question, ‘why does our firm exist?’ Contrary to many Partners’ beliefs, it is not to make money. Every business has a purpose beyond making money. While profit is the life-blood of a business, it is not the reason for its existence; it is simply a measure of its viability. The primary purpose of a law firm is to serve the interests of its clients; by solving problems, helping businesses grow and families prosper, it helps society to function. Thereafter you need to ensure that every objective or initiative you embark on is consistent with your overall purpose. Working for a firm that has an overriding sense of social purpose is one the way people can find more meaning in their work.

2. Measure what matters. Being more productive in a law firm traditionally means working longer hours or billing more. Yet time or ‘presenteeism’ is not a true measure of productivity. Productivity refers to outcomes (results gained/value delivered) rather than inputs (time spent at the office and hours billed). In attempting to improve productivity while promoting work/life balance, many organisations have now introduced flexible work practices. One pioneer is New Zealand trust company Perpetual Guardian who successfully trialled and implemented a four-day week in 2018. Staff were asked to design a work schedule that would permit them to meet their existing productivity requirement on the same salary but with a twenty percent cut in work hours. As its CEO, Andrew Barnes writes in his compelling book ‘The 4 Day Week’, the results have been stunning: engagement, productivity and profitablity have increased, stress levels have decreased and work/life balanced enhanced significantly. The idea is catching on, even in legal circles – Portcullis Legals in Plymouth being one example.

3. Ask your people for their perspectives. Everyone has a role to play in building and shaping the culture of a firm. So it follows they should be a part of the solution. Ask them (either via an online survey or focus group or team retreat) for their ideas, suggestions and opinions about your workplace; what works, what doesn’t, what ideas they have to enhance the firm and their working lives. The answers can be revealing and instructive. By giving their people a say, law firm leaders have a much higher chance of building trust and engagement. Mistrusting employees may be sceptical about this approach, so it is essential that this process is seen for what it is: an endeavour to involve them for the good of the business rather than a witch hunt.

4. Invest in your people. If you want your people to succeed, you have to help them to build their capabilities by investing in their learning and development. As the old adage states: ‘if you think training is expensive, try ignorance’! Nevertheless, many firms still view training more as a cost, privilege or reward rather than a requirement. I have even had experience of team members being refused permission to attend a seminar, workshop or other similar learning opportunity, either because the firm did not support a learning culture or it was simply unwilling to invest the money. Nothing is more de-motivating to an employee than being told they are not allowed to learn new skills. I encourage firms to adopt a professional development programme that includes a blend of hard and soft business and interpersonal skills.

Law firms today have to compete for talent just as they have to compete for clients. Like clients, potential recruits have a choice as to where and how they work. Firms that can demonstrate they have a workplace culture that puts its people, not just its partners, at the centre of its decision-making will have the advantage when it comes to recruitment and retention. The evidence increasingly shows that when firms do this, they will easily outperform those other firms who are still stuck in the last century. Apart from being commercially expedient, it is simply the right thing to do.