Techniques for Maintaining a Collegial and Cooperative Firm Atmosphere and Concurrently Making Partners Accountable for Their Actions

by Joel A. Rose

Collegiality is a state of mind where one feels good about coming to work at your law firm as opposed to working in someone else's law firm.

To achieve a collegial and cooperative firm atmosphere, it is essential for lawyer management to proactively establish a culture which promotes collegiality and cooperation. Achieving these objectives requires hard work and sensitivity by the lawyer managers and are dependent on there being: (1) stability in the work place; (2) a sense of optimism as to the success of the firm and its partners, associates and staff and (3) the predictability in level of work and income.

The focus of lawyer managers must be on the creation of a work environment in which lawyers are comfortable in believing that their "backs are covered" and that personal issues can be shared and will be treated fairly, confidentially and empathetically by management at the appropriate level.

There should be deeply imbedded within the firm's culture a sincere respect for each individual, irrespective of job title or capacity. Also, partners and associates should have an opportunity to discuss matters of concern with lawyer managers without concern about retribution.

Creating a sense of teamwork

To create a sense of teamwork, there needs to be a willing and active participation at all attorney and support staff levels in the promotion of intellectual and personal  satisfaction so that days are not approached and do not end with a feeling of drudgery. This begins with partners' taking the time to express interest in each other's careers, families and lives and extending that downward to associates and staff. Institutional events, described later in this article, may be very useful but can be hollow if relationships are not continually strengthened through meaningful social and professional discourse.

Lawyers must sense a genuine interest by the firm in their growth, professionally, financially and as people. Lawyer management should encourage the leaders of substantive practice areas and workgroups to establish a mentoring system whereby each associate is afforded an opportunity, on a regular and frequent basis, to interact with partners (the "match" is important!) and to discuss professional issues and concerns, including, but not limited to the work environment.

Partners and associates must be appropriately recognized for achievement. This means public expression of appreciation and an attitude of open acknowledgment of effectiveness. To an attorney, a pat on the back is far more effective as a motivational tool than a smack on the behind (although the latter may be required on occasion.)  Also, attorneys have to feel comfortable in discussing at whatever level is appropriate any discomfiture with their position, the work assigned to them and/or the lawyers/staff with whom they are teamed. Here, as in every aspect of management, confidentially must be maintained. Such discussions are usually had with the Managing Partner or the head of the practice area or workgroup to which they are assigned (or have most of their interaction.)

Since professional advancement includes both development of and recognition of expertise as well as client development, partners need to be alert for opportunities for promotion of other lawyers within the firm. It is not just cross-selling but rather, demonstrating a sincere interest in the advancement of others to create a stronger whole.

Lawyer managers should institutionally follow the progress of its lawyers and proffer encouragement and continued assistance through a professional development committee and/or individual mentoring. Those lawyers who are less than capable marketers must be provided opportunities to interact meaningfully within the community. Care must be had to insure a real interest in a social/organizational setting before embarking on involvement. Those who can open doors for others should be identified and be prepared and commit to do so energetically

Techniques for creating and maintaining a culture of collegiality:

To create and maintain a culture of collegiality, the more enlightened lawyer managers think strategically about their firm’s future and plan for beneficial and profitable growth. They constantly reinforce a culture of collegiality by creating a collective vision, bought into by the overwhelming majority of the partners, especially the more influential partners, that emphasizes the firm’s overriding mission to provide its clients with a consistently outstanding work product and client service that within the firm’s culture promotes a civil, enjoyable and challenging work environment for the attorneys and staff. To accomplish this environment, lawyer managers must:

  • Make sure all lawyers and administrative support personnel are aware of the firm's vision, culture and what is required of each attorney for the firm to achieve its goals.
  • Make decisions that instill among the partners, lawyers and staff a sense of teamwork, camaraderie and collegiality in virtually everything the firm does. This includes rewarding lawyers and staff for excellent performance, not condoning obnoxious behavior from lawyers toward each other or subordinates, regardless of the contributions the latter may produce and establishing and reinforcing a zero tolerance sexual harassment policy.
  • Enhance the quality and timely communications with the partners, associates and staff about the firm, its policies, procedures and initiatives. This includes establishing and scheduling partners’ meetings, departmental meetings, marketing meetings and task forces, associates meetings and staff meetings on a regular and ongoing basis in order to move the firm to reach its vision and goals. It also calls for soliciting input from attorneys and staff on a regular basis and implementing the best ideas to improve client satisfaction and make the firm a better place to work; focusing on internal recognition of accomplishments of attorneys and staff; scheduling planned social activities for lawyers and staff throughout the year, i.e., Holiday party, firm picnic, birthdays and anniversaries, etc.
  • Establish with individual lawyers their realistic billable hour and revenue production goals and focus on their marketing activities for generating challenging, high value-added work, encouraging community and bar activities. They need to insure opportunities for deserving attorneys to progress professionally, while providing reasonable latitude for each attorney to operate his or her practice as long as firm objectives are met.
  • Emphasize attorneys working as members of a team, as opposed to “attorneys working in their respective silos.”  A collegial firm will have members who pass work around to the person best suited for the work, realizing that the firm will be more successful as a result.
  • Deal with partners, associates and other employees who are disruptive or not carrying their weight. It is curious how frequently I encounter lawyer managers who resent disruptive partners, but are unwilling to confront the latter because the former want to “avoid conflict,” even though their lack of appropriate and timely action  (towards the disruptive attorneys) upsets many attorneys and staff.

There are also external characteristics of collegiality that lawyer managers must be sensitive about. These include discouraging firm members from criticizing the firm or its members to non-firm members; making sure that firm members must conduct themselves in public as models of integrity and decorum.

Attorney accountability

Accountability of partners as a concurrent goal with the creation of a collegial and cooperative work atmosphere is an essential component for a firm to achieve its objectives. Lawyer managers must heed the early warnings of issues that challenge collegiality and cooperation indicated by circumstances that are not too difficult to recognize.

The first step for establishing accountability is for lawyer managers to create and maintain an atmosphere in which lawyers are provided sufficient responsibility and held to standards of their expected behaviors. The more financially and professionally successful law firms establish individual goals for each attorney for billable hours, worked and collected hours, accounts’ receivables aging, including the reasons for them and the responsibility of collection; origination; write-offs or discounted fees and non-billable time.

For the concept of accountability to gain traction in a firm, there needs to be consequences if attorneys fail to comply with the policies, procedures and initiatives agreed upon by a majority of the partners, or if the behaviors of particular lawyers are damaging to the firm and its culture.

Counseling by lawyer managers with those attorneys whose behavior may be less than satisfactory or their unwillingness to comply with firm policies and procedures is the usual approach for addressing a real or potential problem with an attorney. If there is not an appreciable change in that attorney’s there may be an adjustment to his or her compensation.

Compensation systems, together with collegiality and cooperation, should be utilized to foster accountability. Professional advancement has to include a measured and fair compensation system which adequately rewards those who adhere to the firm’s culture, satisfy or exceed the firm’s expectations and distinguishes them from those who don’t.

A common practice followed by lawyer managers is to establish a peer review evaluation program that provides lawyers with clarification of what is expected and how they measure up to the firm’s standards. This will serve as a check on those attorneys whose actions/inactions may be perceived by others as disruptive. Other firms attempt to apply peer pressure by publishing lists of lawyers who are dilatory in turning in timesheets, billing clients and following- on accounts’ receivables, personal business plans, etc.

Other more severe consequences for non-accountability often include reassignment of partner responsibilities; change of status of the partner, i.e., Of Counsel or non-equity partner status; early retirement or expulsion.         

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