We must all adjust to the new law-firm paradigm of trimming expenses while increasing production with fewer employees.??Effective talent management is key, and running the risk of losing valued talent is not an option. It follows that we must find new ways to compensate employees. Shifting an employee’s focus to “quality of life” rewards and away from financial rewards works well with the new normal.
At the same time, it is a truism that law firm life has become more challenging. Tough economies bring added stress to??both leadership and employees, but a firm’s business staff, whose pay generally falls at the lower end of the compensation spectrum, is especially anxious. Adding to their stress level is both the continuous introduction of new technology, which, although both necessary and valuable, has resulted in higher professional-to-staff ratios and the?? realization that the jobs they once thought were secure are being eyed covetously by unemployed professionals who, in this tough economy, are willing to accept work for which they are over-qualified.??
Interpersonal work relationships have also suffered. Although we are more connected than ever through technology, the days when everyone knew everyone else in the workplace seem to be a fading memory. Communication has shifted from face-to-face conversations to email and text. With this change, some of the genteel qualities that attracted many to the legal profession have also faded. Of course, these changes were not deliberate but rather the side effects of either harsh economic realities or, as some contend, the result of making public salaries and profits. Whether that is true or not is beside the point. Both factors challenge our ability to create a congenial work environment, and what matters is what we do now. Instead of looking backward while wringing our hands, we should be working to find ways to reward and incentivize employees nonmonetarily, while doing as much as we can to bring back some of the collegiality and collaboration that were once the cornerstones of a law firm environment.
Although this may seem an insurmountable task, it can be done.??A congenial work environment is a current need, not a relic from yesteryear, and it can be achieved. The road map for doing so is quite simple and direct, and, with sufficient encouragement and strategic planning, the buy-in from leadership and employees should not be difficult.??Below are some suggested initiatives that may prove successful. As you consider them, keep in mind that the end goal for each initiative is to “compensate” employees while building a real sense of workplace community.
The process begins with some groundwork. Although all law firms are alike in many ways, their business staffs are all unique. Substantial differences can exist due to geography and the prevailing cultural and social mores of the larger community. It is crucial, therefore, that, before initiating any changes or new programs, you take the pulse of your staff. Discover what matters to them, and be sensitive to their circumstances and anxieties. Meet with your employees in small, role-diverse groups so that you can get a sense of what is on their minds and what their ideas of a better work environment might be. It is not uncommon for employees to want to discuss stagnating paychecks, but this is often due to a lack of perspective. Be open and honest. Listen. But do let them know that your firm’s decision to give smaller (or no) pay increases comes out of its desire to create more opportunities for more people. Then move on to nonmonetary initiatives. The goal is get creative — as a group — about building a positive work environment.??
Here are a few ideas to help start the conversation and get you on the road to success:
• Flex Time. If it is true that “time is money,” then a reward of additional time off should be something of real value for increasing employee morale. Review your current staffing and determine where you can make flex time adjustments. You are likely to find some employees who are amenable to working fewer hours in order to reduce their child care and commuting expenses. Accommodating those employees can help them save money in the long term while allowing your firm to increase its ratios. Summer Fridays also provide opportunities to boost employee morale. Empower your administrative assistants to work out a schedule that fairly gives each of them the ability to take off several summer Fridays afternoons in exchange for covering when their colleagues have a designated early Friday. The same holds true for holiday weekends.??
• Wellness Program. Take an active interest in the health of your employees. It’s a simple fact: healthy employees come to work every day; employees with preventable or chronic conditions do not, which adversely affects your firm’s bottom line.??Your wellness program doesn’t have to win awards, and it doesn’t have to be a raging success on day one. Start with baby steps, perhaps a health screening or seminar on a topic of interest in the office. Then move up to offering healthy food choices for in-office lunches and making sure the office candy machine has smart nutritional options. Graduate to designating a meditation room or offering a weekly yoga class. Your wellness program can be as vast as your imagination. And, while you may not immediately think of an office book club as part of a wellness program, it can be. By its nature, a book club attracts a diverse group of both attorneys and staff who can share nonwork-related ideas in a relaxed setting, and books can be purchased in bulk at steep discounts.??
• “Freebies.” Be a connoisseur. Are you currently taking advantage of valuable free perks that are available to your employees? Most insurance providers provide, as a service to their customers, several free seminars each year on topics of interest to employees, such as elder care, stress management and even financial planning. Local nutritionists and personal trainers wishing to promote their businesses are often eager to give presentations.
• Skills Enhancement. In this age of technology, there is always something new to learn. Improving your business staff’s technology skills is a good investment for many reasons. For starters, improved staff skills go directly to your firm’s bottom line as employees are able to take on more responsibilities, do their work more efficiently and be more productive in general. Gaining new technical knowledge also improves morale because it empowers employees and gives them confidence in their ability to do their jobs well. And skills enhancement need not just be about learning more computer skills. Consider bringing in a professional to lead a public speaking seminar or have an expert in to speak about the how-to (as well as the do’s and don’ts) of communicating in the era of social media.
• Celebrate. Recognize your employees’ achievements, both professional and personal, by bringing everyone together every month to recognize important milestones. These can include employees’ tenures with the firm, education accomplishments, weddings, births and graduations. Present celebrants with gift cards. Even if these are only of nominal value, employees will come away with a sense of having been recognized and appreciated and of being connected to the office. On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, recognize the veterans in your office and give them the opportunity to share their experiences. Honor the service and passing of veterans to whom your employees are related.
• Historical Sharing. When was the last time the leadership of your firm spoke to your employees about the firm’s history? Would a random survey reveal that most of your employees have no idea how your firm came to be? Employees who feel connected with the firm and its beginnings are more likely to commit themselves to the firm’s goals. Gather everyone together to share your firm’s unique history. Business staff should also be included in celebrations of significant case results, successful transactions and political appointments. These gatherings are great opportunities for sharing the firm’s goals with everyone in the office.Never lose sight that building and growing a law firm is a team effort.
Expect to meet with some resistance. Business staff, for example, may object that the money spent on extracurricular programs could have been given out as salary increases. Show them that is not true, and explain again how building a team atmosphere benefits everyone in the firm, including them. Likewise, firm leaders may not deem the programs worthy of their time. Explain it is their duty to the firm to participate in and support these programs.
Clearly, the new law-firm world order is here to stay, and we have no choice but to confront it. In saying that, I’m reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of Bilbo’s adventures in The Hobbit:
“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.
Are you ready to lead the way forward? •