Law firm managers complain that their employees expect too much and give too little; they want their employees - particularly the attorneys - to have an "ownership mindset." They want the attorneys to think strategically, take a long-term view, and think about how their activities impact the firm as a whole. But while the rare employee might come to an ownership mindset on their own, without cultivation from the top (and sometimes in spite of the actions of those in management positions in the firm), more often than not, employees will need some support to develop the ownership mindset.
If you want your employees to have an ownership mindset, you need to build an ownership culture within your law firm.
Here are three things law firm leaders, managers and partners can do to foster an ownership mindset within the firm:
Communicate about Clients and Goals
How can you expect your employees to have an ownership mindset if they don't know what is happening within the firm? If the firm doesn't foster communication between associates, employees and clients, or if partners hoard client contact, it is unlikely that the employees will have sufficient information about the client to think strategically about the client's current or future needs beyond the particular matter or matters they are working on.
Firms rarely share overall strategic objectives (if they've been consciously developed in the first place) with associates and other employees. Associates can't possibly identify opportunities for new business from existing clients or target new clients without this vital information. It's like asking them to hit a target without telling them what the target looks like or where it is.
I'm constantly surprised when I speak with law firm employees - and sometimes even attorneys - who don't know what kind of work the firm does or what kinds of clients the firm is seeking. Developing an ownership culture means educating all firm employees about everything the firm does and not just focusing on the individual job or department that employee is involved in.
Share Firm Financial Information
This is part of communication, but it deserves separate mention. Many firms guard all firm financial information as if it is a state secret. Even partners aren't always privy to all of the rates clients are being charged, information about which clients pay their bills in full and which ones tend to argue over fees, how much work in process isn't being billed to clients, which bills are being written down or written off, or what the firm's accounts receivable are. This lack of information is crippling to any effort to develop an ownership mentality. As an owner, you must be concerned with the bottom line and whether the firm is meeting its targets or wasting resources. Focusing solely on hours billed when clients are unsatisfied with the work or aren't paying the bills is a waste.
You don't need to share every bit of financial information with everyone in the firm, but sharing some key metrics can go a long way.
Give Employees a Stake-Reward Ownership Behavior
Law firms expect their employees to put the firm's interest ahead of individual interest, which goes against human nature. Owners have an ownership mentality because they have a stake in what happens to the firm, not just in the short term, but also in the long term. Their personal bottom line is tied to the firm's bottom line. Although every employee's job is dependent on the health of the firm, that dependency is too remote for most employees to grasp on a day to day basis - particularly if the firm is doing 'well enough,' but could be doing better.
Whether you give employees a stake financially or not, you can tie each employee's interests to the firm's interests if you take the time to define each employee's professional and career goals and work to align those goals with the firm's goals. Create rewards for behaviors that not only advance the employee's interests, whether those interests include specific financial targets, advancement within the firm, or learning opportunities, but also advance the firm's interests.
In short, you need to reward behavior that demonstrates that employees have an ownership mindset.
Unfortunately, I've seen too many law firms actually discourage the ownership mindset, rather than encouraging it. When employees have ideas about improving the firm or take initiative, those employees are often seen as "overstepping" their position, or as wanting "too much control," rather than as employees who are interested in improving the firm and creating a better future for everyone.
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