High performance culture in law practices

When you watch the All Blacks play, you know you are watching a high performance team with a high performance culture.

 Emily Morrow

The players move seamlessly, interacting with each other in a fluid and highly competent way and communication occurs accurately and in real time. And, of course, the All Blacks win more than their fair share of games so the bottom line is clear.

When you observe a group of lawyers practising together, the presence or absence of a high performance culture is less obvious. In fact, what does it mean to have a high performance culture in a law practice? As with the All Blacks, having a high performance culture can make all the difference in the success of a law practice. Having some understanding of what this means and how to achieve it matters.

I wish I could tell you in one or two sentences exactly what a high performance culture in a law practice means and how to achieve it. Sadly, that is not so simple to do. However, I have noticed certain approaches correlate with very success in the practice of law. The choices the lawyers (and other staff members) make in how they work and interact with each other are the critical factor. In such practices, the right things happen in the right way at the right time and are done by the right people. As with the All Blacks, there is a deceptively simple, seamless fluidity that results from a lot of hard work and consistent focus. I know it when I see it. Such practices have a high performance culture.

The benefits of a high performance culture are, however, obvious – profitable productivity, steady workflow, happy clients, high retention, high morale, successful teams, excellent communication internally and externally, great leadership, a stellar reputation and being an employer of choice, just to name a few. That said, how does a law practice make this happen?

High performance culture – characteristics and choices

What I have noticed is that, in terms of cultivating and sustaining a high performance culture in a law practice, the lawyers interact with each other consistent with the following choices and attitudes:

  • Intention - Intention is the active commitment to create a high performance culture and the fully conscious decision to choose ways to do so. Intentionality requires a consistent alignment between what lawyers say and what they do. If, for example, a managing partner extols the virtues of collaboration but micro-manages and undermines solicitors’ self-confidence, this disconnect is inconsistent with the development of a high performance culture.
  • Identification - Assuming there is real intention to create a high performance culture, then everyone must be able to identify what needs to be done to actualise that intention. This does not just happen; it requires discussion about how things will be done, who will do what, necessary resources and so forth. Unfortunately, conversations of this type rarely occur within law practices, if for no other reason than that they involve non-billable time. Firms that accurately identify what needs to change to enhance their workplace culture invariably benefit from the process. Such discussions are often best done in the context of a partners’ retreat or similar gathering devoted to this topic.
  • Centrality - If a law practice commits to creating a high performance culture and has identified what needs to be done to achieve it, then everyone in the firm needs to make this a top priority and act on it. It needs to be a central, organising principle for the practice. Management and the partners will need to articulate a vision for the firm’s culture, how that will be actualised and practical next steps.
  • Recasting - Even in the most high-performing organisations, things go wrong. Law practices that choose to convert problems into opportunities, and to transform trauma into something important and a source of energy, weather setbacks most successfully. They recast problems into meaningful opportunities. For example, the unexpected death of a partner or a natural disaster can either cause a firm to implode or strengthen the working relationships amongst the partners. It’s a choice, and it can make or break a firm.
  • Flexibility - Those law practices that choose to approach their work by creating multiple scenarios and being open to new possibilities are more likely to develop a high performance culture. Conversely, rigid, brittle and inflexible thinking (particularly amongst senior lawyers) tends to correlate with low morale, high anxiety and diminished internal firm functioning. A significant “red flag” for me is when partners and management discount what non-partners think unless it aligns with the partners’ perspectives. This almost always correlates with a low-performance culture.
  • Appreciation - High performance culture correlates with a real focus on expressing appreciation when others do something that contributes to the overall wellbeing of the practice and the individuals within it. At the same time, the praise is honest and realistic, rather than disingenuous flattery. Everyone knows that others are paying attention to what is being achieved and giving constructive feedback about what is working well and what might need to change.
  • Generosity - This is an interesting one. We all give money, time and energy to others, but often with the expectation that we will benefit from having done so. In a high performance culture, individuals are generous with their time, energy, creativity and other capabilities but they do so without an expectation that these actions will necessarily benefit them later. There is a real altruism in the way things happen. People do what will support the success of others because that is an integral part of the culture.
  • Accountability - Accountability is the choice to assume full responsibility for your actions, thoughts and feelings and the refusal to blame others for things that are your responsibility. Accountability is important both at the individual level (that is, each individual knows “the buck stops with me in terms of what happens here”), and also at the organisational and leadership levels. However, there is a real difference between being fully accountable and assuming unnecessary blame for something that is not your responsibility. The former is commendable. The latter can be crippling. In a high performance culture, people understand the difference between these two, act accordingly and are more likely to take appropriate risks without the fear of being scapegoated. When things go well, you own that, and when things don’t go well, you own that too, but you will have the opportunity to address the problem constructively.
  • Truthfulness - Truthfulness is closely related to integrity and acting consistently with one’s own personal and professional core values. It requires that individuals be honest with themselves and not engage in denial and self-delusion. As lawyers, we often formulate arguments to support our position in an adversarial context on behalf of our clients. However, if we use that same capability to justify things to ourselves and deny reality, the outcome can be problematic.

Although law practices with a high performance culture invariably do well financially, this tends to be less of a goal and more of a natural outcome.

Such firms are employers of choice, regardless of whether they are located in major urban centres or in smaller towns. They routinely get recognised for excellence and innovation. They are the real stars, but they do not take it for granted.

Interestingly, the research on happiness and wellbeing has confirmed that many of the same characteristics and choices associated with happiness also correlate with high performance organisational culture. For example, in the book How We Choose to be Happy, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks identify similar choices that the happiest individuals make personally and professionally. It is fair to say that, in addition to being highly profitable and productive, law practices with a high performance culture also are just plain happier places to be. I also suspect that health outcomes in such practices are also likely to be better (in terms of fewer sick days, lower absenteeism, reduced stress-related ailments, less depression, lower substance abuse rates etc). Unsurprisingly, virtue often is its own reward.

Achieving a high performance culture within your law practice is a journey, not a destination. You never fully arrive but you will know if you are on the right track. An important first step is to have the intention to create such a culture and begin to discuss how your practice might achieve it. If leadership and management have a shared vision for what a high performance culture can mean in the context of a particular practice, they can make it happen. I know – I have seen it happen.

Emily Morrow, BA (Hons), JD (Hons, Juris Doctor), was a lawyer and senior partner with a large firm in Vermont where she built a premier trusts, estates and tax practice. Having lived and worked in Sydney and Vermont, she now resides in Auckland and provides tailored consulting services for lawyers, barristers, in-house counsel, law firms and barristers’ chambers focusing on non-technical skills that correlate with professional success: business development, communication, delegation, self-presentation, leadership, team building/management and strategic planning. Emily Morrow is a skilled and experienced retreat facilitator for law practices. She can be reached at www.emilymorrow.com

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