Running a law firm, like running any business, is hard work, but have you ever thought that your business can catch a virus? About a year and a half ago, I noticed that a lot of our firm’s employees were calling in late. I noticed that other employees were leaving early and that as of the first quarter of the year, we had more employees take paid time off than at any time in the 12-year history of the firm. I reached out to HR professionals to get an idea about what they thought was going on. They told me that they hadn’t seen anything like it.
Lawyers typically don’t talk about what is going on in their firms. Lawyers may believe that sharing this information would only help the competition. I thought that if I discussed what we were going through in our business, it might help validate what we are doing, and also might help other firms and their employees as well.
After noticing this negativity virus at our firm, we began to look at the concepts of culture and alignment in the business. Every business has a culture. Even if you think you don’t have a culture, you have a culture. Wikipedia says that “Organizational culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business.”
We began to think that maybe our employees do not like the environment. I spoke to several employees who told me that they felt like it was competitive and sometimes negative, with too much emphasis on the numbers and billing hours. This discussion led me to the topic of negativity in the workplace. I spent a weekend at my local used bookstore browsing the human resources section. I bought all the books I could find on workplace performance, negativity in the workplace and workplace culture.
I concluded that our firm had a negativity problem. Unfortunately, I realized that we are not alone. Studies have reported that up to 71% of employees in the United States are actively looking for other jobs. And 40% of associate attorneys are gone from their jobs in three years. In Managing Work Place Negativity, Gary Topchik writes, “when negativity becomes a routine posture for you, your coworkers, and the entire company, it can begin to eat away at performance.” Patrick Lencioni writes about this topic in his book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job. With my research and Patrick Lencioni’s fable for managers as a guide, I began to talk to our employees. I realized that in our organization, not every employee was affected, but we had pockets of the negativity virus. I also realized that we weren’t listening to our employees enough. In the digital world, it is easy just to email everyone, but one of the things I learned was that while some team members read them out of obligation, others skip reading them altogether. One honest team member told me, “You know no one reads your emails, right.”
We came up with a plan to address and treat the virus. Over the next two weeks, I met with the employees in each of our offices. We have 30 employees and four office locations. Again, using Patrick Lencioni’s book as a guide, we came up with a simple set of commitments for a team agreement. First, the office teams agreed that they would come in on time unless there was an emergency. They also agreed to notify the team and their office manager if they would be late. Second, they agreed that they would enter their billable hours on time. Third, we addressed the issue of making sure the work was stored on our central system so that the team could access it. We next asked our employees a series of questions and had them turn in a written response. The first question was:, Who does your work benefit? Lencioni describes it this way, “without seeing a connection between the work, and the satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee simply will not find lasting fulfillment.” The beneficiary could be your co-worker, a client or your family.
The second question was focused on employees gauging their progress. Lencioni describes this as “they [employees]cannot be fulfilled in their work if their success depends on the opinions or whims of another person, no matter how benevolent that person may be. Without a tangible means of assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their fate.” Some of these metrics for a lawyer could be, for example, the number of cases managed, new client signups, or positive reviews of that lawyer or their office.
We asked each office to come up with answers to these questions. Our goal was to work on these issues for two months and to track and measure our performance. If everyone followed these commitments for two months, they could earn an extra paid day off. If the office team didn’t follow the plan, the office could lose the day off. In our office team meetings, we explained that our goal was to create a good work environment, where everyone understood that their job affects each of their coworkers. It was not a competition between sections or offices, but a chance to all help each other out. I explained it as if they were getting on a bus. You’re not required to ride the bus, but if you stepped on the bus, you agreed to the terms. You could also choose not to get on the bus, but that meant that you would be leaving the firm. While a couple of employees were in court, so far each team member has chosen to commit. I can also report that about 99% of the people completed their assignments, either well before time or on time.
In the short time that we have been working the plan, it appears that worker productivity is up. I’ve seen a decrease in late arrivals and requests for time off. The added benefits have been a free flow of ideas to help benefit the firm. It could be that in the past employees didn’t feel like they had an environment where they could share ideas. Also, one of the offices decided to start cooking lunch together once a week, as a sort of communal experience.
Cy Wakeman, in the book No Ego, explains that a study surveying 800 leaders from more than 100 companies showed that leaders were spending nearly 2.5 hours a day in workplace drama. A Dale Carnegie study showed that 71% of all employees are not fully engaged. Our goal through the use of measurement is to make employees accountable and end the drama and negative behavior. Most people would say to pay your employees more or increase other incentives, but some studies show that that doesn’t work.
As a firm owner, I have learned some lessons from this experience. You cannot afford to ignore culture. You have to be on guard for the negativity virus; you have to listen to your employees; employees have to be accountable for their performance. As a firm, we are working on the program to improve our culture. We have increased employee accountability and ultimately give better service to our clients and earned increased revenue in the process. Maybe I will write again and let you know how it turns out. If you have a similar experience, send me an email and share with me what you are doing to treat the negativity virus in your firm.
About the Author
Patrick A. Wright is a founding and managing partner of The Wright Firm, LLP, in Dallas and Lewisville, Texas. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Law Practice magazine. Contact him at Patrick@thewrightlawyers.com.