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Creating the Workplace We Want

Management and operation of a law firm has taken many forms over the years and we are exploring new, innovative ways to run our firm. We are experimenting with the use of democratic principles, Teal, and self-management to develop a style that works for us and our clients. Earlier this week, Jason sent an article around to the team that highlighted The Wellington Community Law Centre (WCLC), a New Zealand law firm that went from a traditional hierarchical management system to fully self-managed in six months. Our firm has been discussing and implementing self-management techniques and it was inspiring and encouraging to read about WCLC’s journey. While reading the article I was tripped up by the reference to “advice process.” I had never heard the term before and we haven’t formally chosen a decision-making process to adhere to, so I did a little research. In a nutshell, advice process is an alternative to top-down and consensus decision making. Instead of executives or leaders making decisions, the employee who notices the problem or opportunity is empowered to act on that knowledge and becomes the decision-maker. The decision maker must seek input and advice from the relevant team members, leaders, and stake holders, but is ultimately responsible for creating a proposal and deciding what action to take. The process resonates with me because even as the least experienced member of our firm, I feel empowered to make decisions and suggestion for improving processes or creating new ones. I’m comfortable approaching the more senior attorneys to discuss my ideas and get their feedback and I’m able to pursue projects that interest me and be an active participant in my career development.

My favorite quote from Geoffrey Roberts, the general manager of WCLC, was, “When you treat people with high levels of trust, then they will live up to that. They will give you much more than you can imagine. Anecdotally, I argue that high levels of trust result in high levels of engagement and flexibility.” Perhaps more than anything else discussed, I feel that building trust is critical. For me, feeling trusted makes me feel like I can make mistakes and that I will get productive feedback that will help me grow as a lawyer. Having trust also means that I’m not afraid to come forward when I have made a mistake or to be held accountable for a decision I made. One way our firm fosters a trusting environment is through quarterly retrospectives. Retrospectives give us the chance to reflect on what is and isn’t working – they also help remove the negative connotations from accountability. Instead of accountability being scary, it simply becomes an opportunity to celebrate a win or learn from a decision that didn’t work out.

As a member of a law firm that is treading an unconventional path, I love seeing what WCLC has been able to accomplish. It gives me hope for the future of the profession and it’s nice to know our firm is in good company.

Our Practice with Democratic Control: Developing a Style Guide and File Management System

I wrote last week about how I advised a friend how to experiment with and develop democratic processes without (yet) operating within a cooperative structure.  This week, we took our own medicine and experimented ourselves. Now, many readers will think the canvas for this experimentation is so “lawyerly” or trivial, but many others will immediately understand how meaningful and sometimes emotionally charged the subject can be.  Wait for it…we discussed and democratically determined our drafting style guide and file management system.

We have been working as a team on a uniform document drafting style guide and file management system for the last six months.  When the practice was just me, it was not as important to hold to standard practice because I, and I alone, had to work with whatever style de jure I chose to use.  With a team of five and a more established practice, it has become critical to adopt uniform practices regarding file management, file titling and document drafting.  Why, you ask?

 

  1. Quality. It is core to our values to strive to produce work of the highest quality.  Integral to high quality work product is a readable, consistent and polished format. Standardizing this across five team members for several dozen clients becomes a challenge without some proactive effort.
  2. Accessibility. Further to our core values is producing client-centered, people-oriented documents that are both accessible, professional, and cost effective.  This means foregoing Latin terms of art for more plain language terminology, simplifying organizational structure to make a document more easily navigable, drafting in a voice and style that reflects and enhances the client’s values as a reliable trustworthy party to another, de-cluttering documents by removing superfluous verbiage and definition, using clearly and consistently defined terms of art, and focusing on the ultimate users of the contract – the client and counter-party – but keeping an eye on the potential for a third-party interpreter (e.g.  a court).
  3. Uniformity. We are in the document game and file management is a real logistical challenge.  Version control, document collaboration, remote access, cloud storage; we are a contemporary firm dealing with many of the same challenges as our clients and any other organization for that matter.  For a variety of reasons that we’ll address in a separate blog post, we use a Microsoft Office365 SharePoint server for our file management.  It has become important for us to adopt a uniform file folder architecture and file management structure.  Debating the finer points of this structure has revealed that attorneys, and most people for that matter, have deeply held opinions about how to file, search for and retrieve files.  Surfacing these opinions and achieving consensus is important if we are to expect consistency and develop a streamlined and reliable system for file management.
  4. File naming. I’m sure readers from all backgrounds and in all professions can appreciate the deeply held opinions about how best to name files.  We are no different.  We are debating where and in what format to put the date in the file name.  How do we title a document?  Do we use version markers, or just rely on meta-data?
  5. Continuity. As our law firm grows, it becomes more difficult to keep up with the daily matters that our colleagues are handling. If we need help from a colleague (or if a new colleague joins the team), a strong document management system diminishes the need to explain the matter in detail and enables a smooth transition. Uniform file management can tell a story of the matter, creates continuity and, even though it takes a while to get used to, it can greatly improve efficiency in the long run.
  6. Security.  We take data security and client confidentiality very seriously.  We stay up to date with best practices and technological hygiene.  We have team members working in at least three time-zones and from places ranging from Nairobi, Kenya to Western Massachusetts.  It is crucial that our team members employ best practices to ensure end-to-end data security measures.  We openly discuss what measures are prudent to both comply with our professional responsibility and to go further to help preserve the balance of remote work with client confidentiality.

Our team has gone back and forth through multiple iterations of a written style guide.  We have spent valuable time, collectively, discussing the finer points of these matters on a Zoom meeting.  I was impressed, but not surprised by our team’s respectful discussion, openness to new ideas and the variety of opinions held.  It was so cool to see how one topic was of significance to one person and not another.  This created a quasi-negotiation format to the discussion, as we each implicitly yielded on less important matters for the sake of seeking adoption of more strongly held opinions.

 

Yes, as the principal of the firm, I can technically fiat the rules by edict and expect all team members to comply.  Such command and control styles of management often require more investment in oversight and enforcement. Fending off work-arounds and pushing consistent adoption become the conventional role for the manager.  The more contemporary (and dare I call it humane, effective, responsive and humble) style of leadership involves seeking input widely and developing consensus-based processes to widen the aperture on issues of broad applicability.  The role of this style of leaders is then to facilitate consensus and welcome input.  Once a decision is reached (and yes, this takes longer on the front end), the result is little to no time spent on adoption or enforcement.  The rules we have set for ourselves are self-enforcing; they are the product of our collective input and negotiation.  We all feel bought in. Today felt that way.

 

The most meaningful part of this exercise is not the end product or the ultimate decisions we reach on the finer points of file naming. Rather, it is that, in spite of our firm not (yet) being cooperatively owned, we embrace and practice democratic control and collaboration.  We expose the many mundane features of our work to daylight and discussion and we adopt practices with intention and an openness to constant improvement and adaptation.  We do this to ensure all voices are heard, all opinions registered and, most importantly, to maximize the opportunity for the best ideas to be adopted.

 

I’m sure we’ll re-visit many of our collective decisions and practices. As long as we do so openly, transparently, and collaboratively, the end product will be suited to our highest ideal and core value — democratization.