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New Law: How investment in culture and people fosters innovation, collaboration and client service

Originally published on September 5, 2018 on Medium.

How does a law firm, known largely as a stagnant institution, nurture a culture of trust, openness, entrepreneurship, resilience and collaboration? Read on to learn how we are liberating ourselves — from the clock and the obligations of client matters — to focus on the meaningful and necessary work of building a durable culture, adding value to clients, and propagating positive social and environmental impact. Much of what we are practicing, as described below, is experimental and still evolving. This is our best effort to practice what we preach.

I had never given much thought to what it takes to assemble a top-flight team of values-aligned, talented, dedicated and compatible people although I’ve been fortunate and privileged to have both served on and helped assemble such teams. Our current team, assembled over the course of 1.5 years, is the most awesome (in every respect) amalgamation of backgrounds, passion, talent, and dedication that I have ever thought possible. To be honest, that this team has come together at all feels as much happenstance as serendipity. I know now, however, that there are carefully nurtured and delicate dynamics at play.

Our whole team recently came together in Boulder, Colorado for a 2-day retreat. We put up out-of-office memos, we turned off the phone and we informed clients and strategic partners that we would be inaccessible. For folks who still largely inhabit a world where “time is money,” this kind of planned down-time is relatively rare. Throughout our time together, we discovered we are rare in many respects.

I. Open Book Collaboration

Over the last year, I have been slowly opening up the books of the firm to our team. I started with a 2017 year-in-review. I went over our high-level financial performance, key metrics and qualitative aspects of our practices and performance. This was an opportunity to tell the arcing story of the firm’s history, the ebb and flow of various campaigns and big projects, and to use the financials as a canvas for telling the richer story. I was struck by the level of engagement and the curiosity of the team. For some, it was the first time they were ever exposed to financial statements at all, let alone those that affect their own employer.

I followed up this year-in-review with a set of 2018 projections. The most exhilarating part was when I…drumroll please…unveiled our “Moonshot.” By this point, three members of our team had only been with the firm for less than two months. How cool! To start a brand new job and to have a front-row seat to an organization’s launch point for the moon. To be clear, we were not a start-up at this point. This presentation took place around the 4-year anniversary of the firm. For most of that time, the firm had been just me and one or two part-time contract attorneys. I gave this presentation to six people. From one to six team members in less than one year. That’s a lot of growth!

Like most moonshot goals, we set ambitious goals for the next 4–5 years. I confessed not having a clear picture of what strategy or tactics we would employ to reach the moon. I only knew that the moonshot had to be inspiring, credible and imaginative. To my surprise, it was…for all six of us. That was one of the first real signs I had that we had the right people.

II. Collaborative Goal-setting, visioning and strategic planning

I more or less set the 2018 goals and strategy by fiat. The team was too nascent and without historical context to engage in collective planning. Plus, we were planning for a merger with the law practice of Linda Phillips. Thus, there were too many “unknown unknowns” to go through a strategic planning process for the 2018 fiscal year in early 2018.

So, with early 2018 strategy and goals presentation as a backdrop, we hit the ground running at the 2018 firm retreat. I gave a summary review of the 2018 year-to-date. I refreshed everyone’s memory of our 2020 moonshot and I presented a model for what the launch path would look like to achieve it. This gave the context everyone needed to fully and meaningfully contribute to a strategic plan.

We spent the better part of two days engaged in the profundity of firm culture, client screening, business development, vision and values and strategic planning. Some of us confessed our predisposition for “passion and purpose fatigue.” Some revealed a rejuvenated motivation to tackle big, thorny social and environmental issues, including climate change, economic inequality and social justice. Ultimately, we bonded over our shared sense of purpose and our commitment to our core values.

I have been deeply impressed and touched by the occasions and experiences that remind me of the timeliness of our core values. I developed those as a solo practitioner and entrepreneur, back in 2014, long before I knew 4 of my 5 fellow team members. We explicitly revisit and discuss these core values every week on our team huddle.

We re-committed to the moonshot goal. The energy of the retreat hardened our commitment to our team and to our purpose. To get there, we knew the challenge would be strategic planning in an environment where we, not unlike most businesses, are not fully in control of the key inputs. We divided up the pillars of our core business — Internal Relationships, Business Development, Client Service, Internal Systems (tech), Internal Systems (processes), and Inclusivity and Diversity — and assigned each component to one team member. We follow the Todoist model of accountability — every task must have a direct responsible individual if it is to be done.

For each strategic plan component, we are following a standard 1-page format that involves:

· A vision statement.

· 3–4 high level elements of the component plan.

· 3–4 high level goals per element.

· 3–4 key performance indicators for each goal.

Each strategic plan component can include tactical detail in endnotes or subsequent pages.

Over the next 5–6 weeks, we will rotate presenting on drafts of each of our plans, providing feedback, iterating and ultimately consenting to the final assemblage of the plan.

We will be experimenting with a few new things:

· We will budget for conferences and events up front and allow team members to self-select which conferences they want to attend, with input from the team.

· We will budget for firm-wide and individual training. Each team member will have a time and monetary budget that they control. The aim is to increase competence and interdisciplinary knowledge and experience.

· We will budget for innovation and technology. Team members will have individual budgets they control for experimental projects and technology, to make the most of each team member’s creativity.

III. People Policies and Work Expectations

We hired our first employee in June of 2018. Despite having long practiced employment law, it is quite different to be an employer than to advise employers. I found myself in the seat that our clients usually occupy. I had to get comfortable with all that hiring employees entails; payroll, fixed costs, workers compensation, leading, supervision, and, most importantly, creating a culture and work atmosphere that enabled the highest contribution from people.

To do this, I resolved certain things:

· First, I would resist the inimical truth that setting compensation is an inherently imperfect science. I made the typical “negotiation” process collaborative, open and transparent. I showed prospective employees all the numbers and the revenue and cost model for the position. Their contribution and commitment is valuable to me and the firm and I want each team member to know that.

· Second, I didn’t want to baby-sit employees. I wanted to only hire people I trust unconditionally. I wanted to set each employee free to do their best work and to be happy. I tell team members that they can work any time, any where and in just about any way that suits them, as long as they get the job done to their highest ability given the circumstances and resources available. One team member chose to work while visiting a friend in Scotland. Another worked remotely from South Africa while visiting family.

· Third, I wanted to practice what we preach. The conventional 2080 work hours/year is…unworkable. It roughly translates into more awake time at a desk than with family. This is not how I choose to live my life, and so it would be hypocritical to impose this on co-workers or employees. Therefore, we set an expectation of a 1600 hours of work/year. Not just billable hours; that’s total time. This translates into approximately 31 work hours per week for 52-weeks, or 33 hours per week for 48-weeks. What employees chose to do with their time outside of the 1600 hours is up to them. We expect our team members to recharge themselves and to take time away. We put in place safeguards against burn-out.

· Fourth, we mean what we said in #3. We have an unlimited vacation policy. As long as employees meet expectations and add value to the firm according to prescribed metrics and quality goals, our team members are in control of their time.

· Fifth, we pay at or above market rates to our employees and contract attorneys. I regularly review market data for firms of our size, practicing in comparable areas of law, and practicing in similar geographic regions. We provide health insurance to all full-time employees, a 401k plan, paid professional development, a remote work stipend, and paid access to a rich technology platform for collaboration.

· Sixth, we create the conditions for innovation and entrepreneurial risk taking. By maintaining flexible and reasonable work expectations, we can afford to enter into creative and alternative fee arrangements with clients. We are experimenting with fixed fee, monthly subscription models, and other non-time-based billing practices. Our aim is to enhance value to clients while creating a fun work environment.

Divest…and now what? Tips for Local Investing

If you’re one of the many who have been moved to take matters into your own hands and ensure that your retirement accounts are divested from sin-sectors, such as fire-arms, alcohol, tobacco, petroleum, mining, or other companies and industries that extract from the earth, people or communities, you may be asking “now what?”  The divestment movement reached a fever pitch when organizations like 350.org and communities around the country compelled foundations, universities, pension funds, and municipal treasuries to take a critical eye to endowment investments to ensure they weren’t invested in companies and funds that were causing or exacerbating climate change.

If the latest bout of news has you thinking about doing your part, we’ll happily take a break from our usual work to help share tips for how to proactively invest in greater alignment with your values.

Take note: we are not financial planners or advisers.  You should consult a licensed financial planner and tax adviser when considering acting on any of this information. This blog comes from my personal journey to invest retirement savings in my local community and in companies and funds that I believe are part of the solution.  We are not experts at this and others have written more prolifically about the subject.

First, here are some great resources for further reading:

  1. Equal Exchange: Investing in the Solidarity Economy.  Check out and consider joining the Equal Exchange Action Forum.
  2. Michael Shuman’s 24-top tools for local investingMichael Shuman has a forthcoming book that is an excellent guide to investing IRAs and Solo 401(k) savings locally.
  3. Green Money Journal.
  4. An Introduction to Financing for Cooperatives, Social Enterprises and Small Businesses.
  5. The Self Directed IRA Handbook, by Mat Sorenson. 
  6. Self-Directed IRAs and the Slow Money Investor.

Second, here are some of the things that I have done:

  1. Move your money out of an investor-owned bank and into a community credit union.  After the Occupy efforts dwindled, one of the things that my family felt it could do was move our banking to our local credit union.  Credit Unions are cooperatively owned banks – they exist to serve their members, not Wall Street shareholders.  There is a huge multiplier effect when you bank with a local credit union. Fees and interest get reinvested into the community.  We bank with Elevations Credit Union, the largest credit union in Boulder County. It turns out Elevations C.U. is also the largest originator of mortgages in Boulder County, making it one of the most important pathways to home ownership.
  2. Check out the newest credit union in more than 30-years to open in Colorado, the Clean Energy Credit Union.
  3. Give preference to mutual insurance companies.  Again, mutual insurance companies are cooperatively owned insurance companies.  Mass Mutual, Northwestern Mutual, Liberty Mutual…get the picture?  Many insurance products are simple commodities and can be purchased through any broker.  It may not seem like a radical act, but choosing a mutual insurance company over an investor-owned insurance company is a big deal. It sends an important signal and it helps demonstrate the power and reach of economic democracy.  I just clicked “submit” on our director election e-ballot; how often do you feel you have a say in the governance of the company that holds your life insurance policy?
  4. Join a local investment club.  My local favorites are the Colorado Co-op Investment Club, and the Slow Money investment club network.  If there are none in your area, start one!  Just make sure you’re aware of and tending to securities laws.  My friend Joe Reimann is a super nice guy and quite willing to help.
  5. STOP TAKING UBERs and LYFTS. Better yet, #deleteuber and #deletelyft.  In many big cities you can easily find a taxi company or a ride hailing service that is cooperatively owned.  For example, in Denver/Boulder, we helped Green Taxi Cooperative form and obtain regulatory approval.  The upshot is that you’ll be riding with a licensed, insured, professional taxi driver, not a college kid who has been up for 36 hours straight and is trying to earn some extra money between classes.  If you really want to put your money where your heart is, then ask yourself whether you should hail a ride from companies that average $3.37/hour wages for drivers.  I say #gocoop and #gocooptaxi.
  6. Check out the Calvert Impact Investment Note. Note, the investment is not for everyone and this is not advice or a recommendation.
  7. Check out “Change Finance Diversified Impact U.S. Large Cap Fossil Fuel Free ETF (NYSE: CHGX)”.  Among the many cool things about this fund is that it is organized as a public benefit corporation.
  8. If you’re like 98% of us, you’re not an “accredited investor.”  This means that until recently you were all but forbidden from investing in privately held companies.  This all changed with the JOBS Act. Title III, in particular, paved the way for non-accredited investor crowd-funding. Subject to certain investment limits, ordinary people can invest directly into privately held companies. This means it is now easier than at any time in the last 80-years to actually invest in your favorite local business.  You’ll have to invest through an online portal, and there are many out there.  Check back soon; we’ll be publishing future blog posts about crowd-funding, direct public offerings and other ways to invest in local businesses.
  9. Set up a self-directed IRA and/or Solo 401(k) plan.
  10. Last, but not least…shop local and shop coop.  Local buying and community purchasing is by far the most effective and direct way to support local business, keep money local and vote with your feet (or is it dollars?).  Why shop at Home Depot when you can shop at a local Ace or True Value Hardware store? Did you know that both of the latter are cooperatives? Each store is independently owned and the store is a member of a wholesale purchasing cooperative. This allows each store to achieve economies of scale with other coop member stores. This aggregated purchasing power translates into better prices for customers.  Locate your closest food coop! If one doesn’t exist, help to start one.

The bottom line is that once you divest, you’ve got to INvest.  It can be overwhelming with so much to learn and so many options to explore.  Remember, you’re not alone.  It doesn’t just take a village…it takes a community.  Good luck and please share your tips and experiences!