David Beech, CEO at Knights 1759, Britain’s fastest-growing law firm, on why the pervading culture at most traditional law firms is ‘polluted’…
We’re all influenced by the culture we work in.
A chef cooking in a Michelin-starred kitchen develops different habits to one preparing food at the local Harvester. A City trader absorbs contrasting values to an FCA employee.
Legal professionals are no exception. We absorb and accept the norms and hierarchies of our places of work.
That’s why many new recruits who join us are ‘contaminated’.
They have absorbed bad habits from senior partners and managers, and worked within dysfunctional structures where team play comes a distant second to individualism. After they join us, it takes around three months for them to de-clutter their thinking and fully decontaminate.
That’s because the pervading culture at most traditional law firms is ‘polluted’. It is simply not honed for success in today’s competitive market, because it does not breed a team approach. Here’s why…
1) It does not empower
At many firms, senior team members cling to power. Too often they do not encourage junior colleagues to take decisions, usually for fear of losing control.
However, the effectiveness – and ultimately profitability – of professional services businesses does not stem from senior management. It comes from the people doing the day-to-day client work.
Senior managers should exist to support colleagues in their work, while also setting the tone and embedding a team culture. That means constantly listening to colleagues, talking with them and engaging.
Fast growth requires a culture that distributes decision-making throughout the organisation and places value on empowerment. The more people able to make good calls for themselves, the faster a business can move.
2) Money is regarded as the primary motivator
Money only ticks a box. It neither motivates nor inspires. Yes, it provides gravitational pull if it’s the right amount, but does the opposite when it’s the wrong amount.
If you pay people properly – what they’re worth – you won’t de-motivate. But you won’t inspire either. Too few law firms realise that inspiration comes from a great culture, exceptional leadership, fantastic colleagues, top quality support, brilliant clients and fulfilling work. It’s those things, not cash, which get people up in the morning, buzzing.
3) It encourages over-management
The UK legal industry loves to over-manage its best talent.
If colleagues are doing great work, leave them alone. Give them space to carry on. Focus on managing problems, not on managing positives.
Don’t manage for the sake of it. If people are doing well, ask them if they want support and remain engaged, but recognise that not everyone wants formal development, coaching, mentoring and form-filling appraisals.
4) Individualism is rife
For any business to thrive in a sustainable way it needs a team culture. That means leaving egos at the door and acting in the best interests of the business. Senior managers and partners need to focus on allowing talent to flourish rather than looking after Number One.
To use a sporting metaphor, too many senior lawyers put lots of different balls into play and hog them. The most effective approach is to play with one ball, passing it around the whole team. Clients belong to the business, not to the individual partners. As such, all revenue should come into the business, not to individuals.
At Knights we’ve doubled the revenue from several of our largest clients because they’ve recognised our team culture. Having a team on hand – rather than an individual – gives them more confidence.
5) Measuring everything is an obsession
The industry is preoccupied with measuring performance and strategy to the nth degree, which is neither healthy nor good at moving a business forward. An individual’s or an idea’s true worth is about more than a few key performance indicators. It’s about everything that person or idea brings. Listening to gut instinct is better at revealing who’s great, what’s working and what isn’t working than a detailed set of metrics against which everything is judged.
6) But… firms measure the wrong things
Partnerships also tend to measure the wrong things. Many reward according to the metric of fees per fee earner, which poisons team culture. It’s like paying a footballer more money if they score more goals – naturally their number of assists and general team play reduce as they try to score screamers from 25 yards each time.
Another counter-productive measurement is that of people’s non-chargeable time. This measurement is worse than worthless. People should be encouraged to choose the amount of chargeable time they put in and rewarded appropriately, on merit.
Measuring in the wrong way and over-measuring people fuels individualism.
The pervading culture in the British law industry does not focus enough on building a strong team ethos where each individual has the best interests of the business at heart. To thrive and grow long term, firms must combat the six problem areas above and work hard to stamp out individualism. Only then will they stop contaminating their professionals.
David Beech is CEO at Knights 1759, Britain’s fastest-growing law firm.
Written and edited by the BDLN