I had a very interesting chat with a solicitor whom I like and trust. It was on the back of my blog about interpreting the law firm as a factory – systems and routines in the place of individual brilliance.
My setup involves a set of processes for production of work, risk management, meeting regulatory requirements and everything. That’s all very well, he says, but how do you monitor it? Easy, say I – I spot-check files, the ledger, the case management system and the staff.
Old fashioned, says he – you need to love them.
Eh? I... guess I quite like them, but that’s about as far as me or they wish us to go. No no, he insists, you have to wrap them in a blanket of trust and warmth for the office to reach its potential. This is what they do at the cutting edge of big/successful business.
The jury is still out on the love-in, but I get the point. All staff, not just the fee-earners or solicitors, needs to be on-message, and willingly, not at the crack of a whip. They don’t just need to understand the processes, but the reasons why. This is not as straightforward as it sounds, and it is not even as simple as substituting the carrot for the stick. It may seem obvious that employees know that if they do their job well they are more likely to keep it, and even achieve advancement, and if asked they would also get the other analysis, that if they foul up then not only they but probably the firm will suffer. Less income means less profit and less for wages.
But that is a very basic and not particularly helpful balancing act. What is needed is for the employee to buy into a three-dimensional involvement in the life of the firm and the welfare of the clients. This, according to my friend, is what the big boys do.
Without wanting to do any product placement or advertorial, I use the example of John Lewis when arguing with old-fashioned solicitors about business. Those who think that being a solicitor in private practice is innately superior to ordinary trade or business should look at John Lewis as an operation. That company has excellent standards of competence, human resource management (everyone’s a partner), customer relations, quality, trust and efficiency. Is your firm as good as that? And what they do inter alia is to get the staff to be an active and willing part of the overall effort. If you care about the company and know what it is all about, you will be a better ambassador for it and help to create better profits and a better business.
And so with firms. My colleague’s model is not the Dickensian one of a managing partner going round looking to trip people up because they have not filled in the money laundering form properly or printed two copies of the 44 page lease instead of one, but one of a group of harmoniously motivated and knowledgeable individuals working together for the greater good – of clients and firm, as the two fundamentally have mutual interests.
That is not a setup that will invent itself. It needs nourishment. Good training, regular consultation, and personal interaction (i.e. meet with staff over coffee; don’t send imperious emails to dictate practice).
I confess I am by instinct a checklist man. It gives me certainty and measurability. I can see at a glance who is obeying the system and thus giving me reassurance and sleepful night. But (and so far I say in theory, as I have not gone far enough down this road myself to judge – yet) better to just know that everyone in the office knows and wants to do their best, meet the practical requirements, and build their part of a better firm. So I am giving it a go.
Opinions and views welcome.Austin