We’ve all had it happen. That valued, productive employee walks in and gives her notice. As managers or owners of the law firm, we’re naturally shaken. Then we spend lots of time thinking about it, and wonder what we could have done differently. We viewed this employee as valuable to the firm, but did she know we felt that way? If we’re being honest, we have to ask ourselves… did we really know her well enough to understand what happened to the professional relationship ? Did we do our best to maintain an honest and open dialogue with this employee?
Through lessons learned and “rear-window” experiences of losing good employees throughout my 36-year career working with law firms, one thing remains crystal clear: as owners and managers, we must spend time with our people. We have to learn and understand what motivates and inspires each person in our firm and have a sense of what keeps them coming to work every day. I know this takes time from our regular to-do list, the clients, and other responsibilities. The harsh reality is that we can’t afford to not pay attention to this stuff. The key is to create an environment where employees are excited to come to work, do a great job as a representative of the firm, and be successful, contributing, well-rewarded members of the team.
With the generational differences, changes in the industry, technology, and all the other outside influences, hanging onto good people and keeping them happy is not easy. While the legal industry is constantly changing, what remains consistent is that managing employees is complicated, time-consuming and, at times, quite frustrating. However, building a solid, mutually respectful relationship with the people in your firm will have immeasurable positive results. I’ve seen loyalties of a lifetime remain, even after the employment relationship ends via retirement.
Everything we read about HR management encourage us to spend more time with our good people and less with those who are not contributing in a positive way to the health of our organization. (Dealing with the latter is a different article for another time.) Turnover is expensive in every sense of the word; no matter if it’s your choice or the employee’s.
So, now that we need to hire a new person, let’s hit the reset button. Maybe we can look at this a little differently and consider some other ideas.
1. Join the team.
What are we looking for in that perfect employee? Is it personality or is it experience/skills? The answer is “yes.” I know that is an annoying answer; one my husband generally gives me when I ask an “or” question. But really, it is a mixture; my advice to this question is look for both. My tendency is to hire people just like me, but so many great people in our organization are completely unlike me. We need very specific experience in our firm because of our specialty, but a new employee has to get along with everyone here, too. For us, the right personality is someone who truly wants to be part of our organization and is excited to be here; someone with that “fire-in-the-belly” kind of eagerness.
Idea: Consider a different hiring approach. For example, we recently decided to involve more people in our interview process. We asked for volunteers, coached them on good interviewing techniques, and listened to their evaluations. It’s been a great experience for everyone. We get to share the credit for finding just the right person, and those involved are now invested in the new employee’s development and success. I call it hiring by village, but it works well. Trust that your employees want to find a great person to join the team just as much as you do.
2. Welcome aboard.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that what we as a firm do in those first 30-60 days with a new employee can truly set the tone for their ongoing experience with us.
Idea: Consider setting up a mentor system. It doesn’t have to be extensive or take huge amounts of time. New people want to feel a connection within the organization, and I’ve found that especially true now with the millennial generation. The sooner you pull the new person into your fold and make him feel like a part of the team, the sooner you’ll notice the return. His productivity kicks in quicker, he will feel more comfortable and the loyalty clock starts ticking sooner. We spent significant hours putting together a mentor program for our attorneys several years ago, but we’ve amped it up recently and now kicked off one for the staff as well. A new employee who joins our firm is assigned a mentor from the first day, among many other relationship-building tasks we’ve implemented. We’ve seen some great results, in fact too many to list in this article. In a sense, this is a fun, but forced way to get more people involved in “raising up” this new employee. You’ll be amazed at how willing your employees are to help with this process.
3. Leaders need to lead the way.
Idea: Schedule regular time with your people and make it a priority. This also doesn’t have to take huge amounts of time. You take coffee breaks, eat lunch, and may enjoy a beverage after work—take one/or more of your people with you. And shake it up—next time take someone you don’t know very well. Be purposeful. If you’ve got an employee who does something exemplary, spend a little time with her. My managing partner encourages me to take this employee out and do something with her during the work day that is meaningful. Does she like art galleries, pizza, bookstores or pedicures? This sends a big message that she is important to you. You don’t have to break the bank, just make some effort. (Although I will admit that “employee gifts” is a line item in our budget.) Even a broadcast email to everyone about her recent accomplishment can boost her confidence, demeanor and shows (everyone) that you noticed and that you care. From my experience, I can tell you for sure that the little things you do as a leader, really do matter.
4. R(eturn) O(n) I(nvestment).
For many employees, how they are treated every day far exceeds the importance of the weekly paycheck. The legal industry pays very well and if you have some seasoned people, no doubt many of them have hit the salary “ceiling.” Cost of living increases and bonuses are great and certainly are good motivators for many. If you don’t offer these, you should consider it. We have some healthy (objective) bonus programs based on production, and they have served both the employee and the firm very well over the years. But, equally important is the culture. The more I talk with younger employees, the more I learn that employees don’t all want the same thing. Our young-parent employees want something very different than those who are looking at retirement in the next few years.
Idea: Take an honest look at your organization and ask—“do we recognize and value differing needs and desires here?” If you can start to make a right turn in that direction, your “people ROI” will begin to pay off immensely.
5. Celebrate successes together.
I don’t mean just raising a glass of champagne on a case won or a new client brought into the firm.
Idea: Give that hard-working employee who accomplished something great a piece of the action. It doesn’t have to be money (but that’s always nice too.) Allow him to second-chair the case, work with the client or give a presentation… anything to demonstrate your appreciation, confidence and respect.
Even little achievements matter. We have a six-month probationary period for all new employees. Recently, we started acknowledging that end date with the new person and more importantly, celebrating it. We meet with the employee, offer congratulations, present a small gift and talk with her about accomplishments, lessons learned over the past six months, and discuss our mutual goals going forward. I’m amazed at the sense of relief in her face when we do this. Having spent so many years on this side of the desk, I sometimes forget how stressful it is to be new on the job and wonder… “How am I doing?” Of course, ongoing communication during this period is vital too, but this example is about showing the new employee that you’re paying attention and excited for her to cross that important goal line.
My team will often hear me say that “change is hard.” The change I’ve had to accept as a manager is that there are sometimes better and more innovative ways. The term “we do it that way because we’ve always done it that way” won’t fly anymore. We have to be willing to listen, learn and sometimes take a little leap of faith. Our people, of course, are our greatest asset; now we just need to truly invest in them. Education and training is not enough, we have to also create a strong connection on a personal level.
Don’t be afraid to look in the mirror and ask the critical questions. We don’t have control over many things in our industry. However, we do have the ability to treat our people well, from the first moment they arrive until we shake hands and offer hugs at their retirement party!
About the Author
Darla Pierce has been the executive director at Gevurtz Menashe, P.C. for 24 years. In her role, she wears many hats, but admits that the “people part” of her job is the most rewarding. She can be reached at email@example.com or 503.227.1515.