“Soft is Hard” – No Really, Really Hard for Lawyers

Billing.

Unpaid bills.

Work in progress.

One would hope that lawyers understand these issues.

Hard metrics: Have you billed sufficient to justify your position in the firm? Will you meet your targets?

Budgets.

Return on investment.

Profit and loss account.

Balance sheet.

These might not be so readily appreciated or understood by some lawyers (“numbers were never my forte”) but, again, they are Hard metrics that inform the investment strategy, budgeting and strategic direction of the firm.

But move into:

How personable are you?

Do you provide your clients with a WOW/MEMORABLE/DISTINCTIVE service?

Or how do your lawyers treat and or perceive the support staff in the firm?

… [A]nd the picture looks entirely different.

For a start, they don’t assume the same level of importance, if at all.

Yesterday, I attended one of the road shows given by the President and Vice-President of the Law Society. The Vice-President, having fielded a whole series of questions on the Conveyancing Quality Scheme and Jackson reforms, then regaled her audience on the experience she had had as a “[quasi] mystery shopper” when visiting, unannounced, various law firms. Her remarks were less than flattering, and she reminded everyone that developing soft skills were just as important as everything else.

Whether this is newsworthy or not, it reminded me again of the famous Tom Peters expression “Hard is Soft. Soft is Hard.” He has been saying for a very long time that businesses (and that includes law firms) need to pay far greater attention – perhaps maniacal attention – to the soft skills.

Where would I start in trying to address the paradigm shift in behaviour that needs to take place?

Not the appraisal. That has become a tick box exercise.

Not with expanding the blame game: It is too easy to (implicitly) criticise someone because they are not friendly enough or their style of management lacks emotional intelligence.

No, I would start with changing the behaviour at the very top.

The touchstone for me is EXCELLENCE – to produce the most memorable and, dare I say, the very best client and employee experience in the whole world (a point taken from Seth Godin’s book, The Dip).

If not excellence, then what will be your guiding light when you are confronted with the hard issue of dealing with behaviour that, up to now, has been tolerated? Of course, if no one at the top wants to change or cannot see the logical progression of legal services having to become more consumer focused, then stop reading now. But don’t expect the attitude of “we have always done it that way” to be a platform for growth, retention or distinguishing your firm from your competitors.

The message has to be driven by the partnership, and they have to accept that some of their cohort is less than perfect. You need to stop pretending that you don’t have a problem or that you can pass it off with some lame excuse like “The reason we tolerate their errant behaviour or lack of empathy is because they are good in other areas”.

You may ridicule this suggestion or think I am living in cloud cuckoo land, but in Legal 2.0 – the new world of ABS etc – this sort of behaviour is going to limit your firm perhaps more than you are currently willing to accept.

For a start how can you expect your staff to develop new styles or behavioural traits when you are ignoring the very people who can make the biggest difference? Or to look at it another way, if someone messes up, isn’t their escape route the antecedent history of the partner(s) who they have thought it was OK to ape at least in part.

Training is key. Even for those people who you think are beyond help they should not be crossed off your list.

I have witnessed how firms have grappled partner issues, and no one is pretending that it is easy but sweeping the issue under the carpet is not going to make it go away.

This exercise needs to filter down through the fee earners and just because they do not bring in as much does not mean that they should have the benefit of a lesser form of training or expectation around their behaviour.

Soft skills are multifarious but get them right and they can have a dramatic effect on making the firm a more humanising place to work. People will feel valued if only because you are sending out a message that being good as technicians is not the only thing to work on. Being a good leader, manager and person is equally important.

As I have said before, it is a close call whether you put your clients first or your people – for me it is your people, just – but your new regime has to be tempered with the ‘take, take, take’ side of the equation with the ‘give, give, give’ component. This is not just a question of satisfying that crying urge that lawyers all seem to have “What’s in it for me” but rather trying to paint a picture of how the firm will look if there is a greater emphasis on developing the soft skills from top to bottom.

Law firms are prone to playing a wait and see game. Presumably they want to see someone else slip up or fall from a great height but there is always the risk than in adopting this defensive strategy they miss out on the opportunity to be known for something different (I would love to say remarkable but I know it isn’t going to happen).

However you engineer this, it is not too late to introduce a programme of excellence for soft skills. You might decide that it is so important that you create a separate department: The Centre of Excellence for Soft Skills but the point is you need to stop muddling through, fire fighting and make your activities count.

The quicker you can move to a focused, client-centric approach the more likely it is that you will retain your clients and employees and put yourself in the best possible position to challenge the retail focused brands that are looking to acquire a substantial part of your market.

~ JS ~

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