The biggest chokepoint in firms these days is the inability to align most lawyers- particularly younger lawyers- around behaviors that keep their firm most healthy. I’m often asked, “this remote/hybrid work model is shielding our people from the collective ambition and shared expectations that are the mother’s milk of firm success. How do we motivate our lawyers to really extend themselves for our firm, and what should those contributions look like?”
Falling short here reveals itself in a number of ways. Remote/hybrid work models can drive collaboration through the floor and weaken firm connective tissue. Younger lawyers at many firms know they are smart enough to contribute just enough- and no more- to keep their jobs, and they behave accordingly. The relationship between law firm and associate can be mercenary-like- “what can you pay me today? . . . ” and “what work can you produce today? . . . ” appear to be animating requirements. Also, beyond accessing shared administrative services, lawyers can have a hard time seeing how their output is enhanced by being part of a particular firm. In short, the compact between “law firm” and “lawyer” is flagging, and high performing culture suffers. In response, foosball tables and kegs suddenly appear in firm reception areas (a la Silicon Valley startups)- but doesn’t an enabling law firm culture deserve a more serious response than that?
Let’s step back here and look more generally at law firm culture. Firms that celebrate their “culture” occupy extremes on the culture continuum. Firms that are most proud of their culture often speak in terms of autonomy and entrepreneurialism (“we leave you alone”). Occupying the other end of the culture spectrum are firms that aren’t bashful about applying a slew of processes to help lawyers and practice groups support the collective health of the firm; these firms believe that selective top-down management can outfit their lawyers with tools that will help them be more successful.
So how can firms recover their mojo and motivate their lawyers to overperform and overcontribute? Well, step #1 might be to expunge any reference to wanting a “high performance culture” and rather speak in terms of building a “high commitment culture.” “Performance” implies a narrow outcome, often expressed in financial terms. “Commitment” is a broader concept that speaks to efforts, behaviors, and process- not just outcomes. “Commitment” is less threatening to lawyers and more in their control. We’re talking about trying to effect significant behavior change at scale with white collar professionals- non-heavy “carrots” tend to work better than do threatening “sticks.”
Supporting, motivating and activating remote professionals address a symptom of something larger. Step #2 in enabling overcontribution requires a holistic response. In my work, I encourage firms to:
- Assess current culture and the implicit expectations implied by it
- Reframe lawyer thinking from “current compensation today” to “qualitative career success tomorrow“
- Map long term career success to long term career control in very specific terms
- View leadership and mentorship as “gotta have” active disciplines that are taught rather than “like to have” skills that are learned at best passively
- Use the most innovative technology to fully optimize the remote experience and create true virtual physical presence
- Define selective and thoughtful expectations for physical office presence that are purpose driven (e.g., supportive of the highest form of mentoring, collaborative service delivery, espirit de corps)
- Set lawyers up for long term commercial success with structured skills building and enablement (“the happiest lawyers have the most clients- we will get you there . . . “).
- Nurture their professional identity with “lawyer’s lawyer” clinical trainings and matter involvements (e.g., trial academy, M&A pilot programs, required outreach to and training with non-law firm business providers to understand fully the business issues that give rise to legal “symptoms”)
- Make life easier for committed professionals with practical yet deep guidance around life issues – e.g., school choices, parenting, housing transitions, sabbaticals, etc.
- Be both honest about and supportive of how lawyers would like to ascend “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” as they progress in their career; provide practical answers to lawyers’ desire to make an impact over time
- Most importantly: document all features in a unitary written asset- a “playbook”- so there is no confusion about “the xyz Firm Way”
Most firms sound bite this problem as “what are we going to do about remote working?” but the implications go deeper and wider. Firms can create real distance from their peers if they marshal an integrated response- not a rules-based response for when you should or should not be in the office. Be serious and holistic, and you may find that foosball tables and kegs need not do all of the heavy lifting!