New model law by William Robins, Keystone Law

This article was also featured as an opinion piece in the February 2016 issue of Briefing. To read the issue in full, download Briefing

Do you know what your employees are doing right now? You’re paying them well, and – at further cost – providing them with all the support they need. But are they fulfilling their end of the bargain?

Above all others, this question occupies the minds of those managing law firms. Software companies spend millions developing software that can track an employee’s every move, and dashboards allow managers to slice the data in every conceivable way. Barely a week goes by without some firm announcing draconian measures for employees who do not record enough time. But does this stop the discussions in the boardroom? Does this stop the worry?

Now imagine a firm where this anxiety is a thing of the past. The expensive dashboards have been done away with, and lawyers happily manage themselves. Too good to be true? You’d be with the majority if you think such an idyll unattainable, but it’s surprisingly realistic.

The answer is as simple as it is elusive. Indeed, it’s elusive precisely because it is so simple, just completely counterintuitive. In order to incentivise lawyers to do a better job and make more money, you don’t need to manage them more. You need to manage them less.

Think about it. What’s the most common employee incentive? It’s the bonus, the bargain that if you do well – work hard and meet targets – you’ll receive a reward. Scientists have looked at the efficacy of incentives for as long as there have been incentives. The results of every study says the same thing: incentives work for simple mechanical tasks, but as soon as the desired outcome involves the building of relationships, creative thinking and care, the effect is undesirable. Incentives actively reduce creativity, divide lawyer and client, and create a culture of competition, politics and stress.

But good law firms are full of good employees, from reception desk to the boardroom. And the reason these people work hard, go the extra mile and delight the client isn’t for the money. It’s because they believe in what they’re doing. They feel part of the firm, but also part of the client’s project. They invest in the matter.

So, consider now a firm whose management style seeks to bring the interests of client and lawyer into line. Consider a firm that embraces agile working, not because it increases PEP, but because it provides a better client experience. Consider a firm willing to put itself not just behind the interests of its clients, but also, collectively, behind the interests of employees. It’s a quantum leap, but it can unlock client engagement, increase productivity and improve the quality of legal advice. And here’s the real trick – if that happens, the firm makes more money, with happier lawyers and at reduced (management) cost. What was it they say in that Dr Pepper advert again? 

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