A few weeks ago, some very kind people who have moved from a law firm to an in-house role shared their thoughts on the differences in the way that a law firm manages their staff, versus the way a company manages their staff.
The differences that came through in these responses were very clear, and the message consistent despite the different industries that these people had moved into after their law firm life.
The overwhelming response was that working in-house was an improvement for the respondents. Many also commented that they took comfort from the more formal management and career structure that applied to them in their in-house role. They also found it refreshing that there were clearer communication lines, even if the cost of that was more meetings and management presentations.
Law firms could learn a lot from these responses. Importantly, law firms need to start focussing more on their own lines of internal communications. In my experience at several different firms, of different sizes and structures, the biggest consistent issue that I have seen, and about which my colleagues have also expressed frustration, is the lack of clear communications between the various management levels at law firms.
Put simply, I believe that law firms do not communicate in any meaningful way with their staff. This lack of communication has serious consequences for the firm and the individuals that work for it. I also believe that failing to communicate with staff is the biggest cause of conflict, inefficiencies and unrealistic expectations in law firms, and unhappiness and dissatisfaction in lawyers and support staff at law firms.
What law firms fail to recognise is that with the ability to recruit, and profit from, the very best and brightest, comes a responsibility and a moral imperative to ensure that lawyers and support staff at law firms are cared for, listened to, and given the opportunity to discuss their concerns and ideas with the most senior members of the firm.
Instead, what we get at law firms are people working their absolute hearts out with no clear idea of how they are performing against expectations, and management decisions made by a small number of managers or partners at a firm, in isolation from the wider staff group. If management decisions are communicated to staff, these are usually done at at quarterly staff meetings, perhaps, or in all-staff emails, and this is always done after the decision has been made. Under this model, the ability for staff to contribute to the decision-making process, or provide their input, is impossible.
Law firms need to find a way to better engage with their unique, amazing employees. Equally, law firm employees need to start communicating their concerns and ideas to their managers, supervising partners and to the most senior people in the law firm structure. This can only happen if law firms make a real effort to improve their internal communication, and create an environment where discussion and debate at all levels is encouraged.
I cannot offer any meaningful solutions on how law firms can better engage with their staff, as each law firm and the staff at each law firm is very different. Again, there is no simple solution. But identifying that there is a problem with lines of communication in law firms, and truly and properly resolving to work together to do something about it, would be a great first step, and not one law firm I know has done this in a truly unified, committed and honest way.
So what can we all do about this issue now?
To all lawyers and support staff at law firms: Tell the most senior people in your organisation what they’re doing wrong. Tell them you want to work with them to fix these problems, and offer real solutions that go beyond simply asking for more pay or a bigger office (even though we all know you deserve it).
Law firm managers and partners: Get rid of the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Step down into the trenches with the junior lawyers and ask them if the way the firm is set up is letting them be the best lawyer they can be. Ask the support staff how they too can be supported, and what are the barriers preventing them from better helping or working with their teams.
To all at law firms: Work together to improve the way the firm communicates, even by a small amount, and I know that there will be financial, emotional and physical benefits for everyone.
If we do not take a first step, small though it might be, to improve the lines of communication and open discussion in law firms, and take it soon, then I fear that more and more lawyers will continue to be unhappy and unmotivated, that they will bounce between law firms (yep, that’s me) in the hope of finding something better, or that they will leave the profession entirely.
We can start to fix this issue now. Law firms just need to start talking more about talking more.