Making the List – Practices That Lead to a High Measure of Satisfaction

By Mary Overgaard

Lawyers love to appear on lists. One need only look at the “Among Ourselves” column in the OSB Bulletin to view the variety of activities, service and accomplishments of members of the bar. We serve on boards, commissions, charities, organizations and groups that promote professionalism and enhance the communities in which we live.

But each year there are two lists on which few lawyers appear. Every year Fortune magazine and Oregon Business survey businesses to determine the 100 best places to work in the country and the 100 best places to work in Oregon, respectively. In 2004, three law firms made the Fortune 100 list. One of those firms is the Northwest’s own Perkins Coie, with a major office in Portland, and the other two are Alston & Bird of Atlanta and Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. Three firms also made the list of the 100 best places to work in Oregon: Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, Sussman Shank and Markowitz, Herbold, Glade & Mehlhaf.

Surveys of bar members often show high levels of dissatisfaction among new lawyers and old hands alike, in both large and small firms. As a member of the Oregon State Bar Quality of Life Committee, I decided to take a closer look at those firms making the lists. Did they possess a “secret recipe” for success that made their personnel rank them as among the very best?

Here are some of the common practices and beliefs that led to a high measure of satisfaction among lawyers and staff.

Intention and Planning
All six firms interviewed indicated that the partners of the firm had made a conscious decision to make the firm a positive and desirable place to work. Lawyer and staff satisfaction was as highly prized as customer satisfaction and revenue generation. That is not to suggest that customer satisfaction and revenue are not high priorities in these firms; each one is a very successful and prestigious member of the legal community.

Perkins Coie partner Steve Hedberg in Portland explains that about 10 years ago his firm made a conscious decision to become pro-active rather than reactive — that a law firm is about people, and everyone affects service.

Alston and Bird associate Leslie Mathis and human resources director Linda Newman of echo the theme of a strong commitment to the culture of the firm and that the law firm is really about people. Alston and Bird’s efforts, which come from the highest levels in the firm, and their willingness to take risks, have both paid off in the form of a 93 percent employee retention rate.

Jeff Misley of Portland’s Sussman Shank explains that the top management of his firm “doesn’t believe a law firm can’t be a great place to work.” And, he adds that within that culture, management tries hard to make their office a good place to work.

Cynda Herbold, partner in Markowitz, Herbold, Glade and Mehlaf, says that it has always been important to their firm to take care of its employees. They pride themselves in having employees who really want to work at the firm, as evidenced by low turnover and long tenures. This was a top priority of the late Barrie Herbold, one of the firm’s founders.

Mark Long, managing partner of Schwabe Williamson and Wyatt, adds, “I’m surprised there weren’t more law firms on the list. If you are dealing effectively with clients, you should be dealing effectively with employees.” He explains that his office works to give people a sense of their role in the overall mission of the firm.

We are one team
After making a specific decision to be a good place to work, the top members of each of these six firms then committed to a cultural shift, which emphasized the firm as a team. Support staff are treated as critical team members with all employees working to achieve premier client services.

At Perkins Coie, lawyers receive “360-degree upward” evaluations, in which they are evaluated by their support staff as well as their supervisors. A lawyer not dealing effectively with staff members will be required to take corrective action. Failure to accept this cultural imperative is considered serious and can affect an associate’s future at the firm.

The important concept of staff respect is echoed by Jess Misley at Sussman Shank and Cynda Herbold at Markowitz Herbold. A shared sense of mission at all levels creates a client-driven, rather than lawyer-driven, environment for improved client service, as well as staff morale at Schwabe Williamson and Wyatt. Markowitz has an annual all-staff retreat, for instance, to take time to set goals, bond and become one team.

Of the six firms who offer sabbaticals, each of them also offers sabbaticals to support staff members. Business meetings and social events include staff at these firms.

You won’t hear “My girl will do it,” as Mary did when she started practicing 30 years ago, at one of these firms!

Money isn’t everything
Those firms looking to the dollar as the ultimate reward are looking in the wrong place. While no one works without competitive compensation, on any human resources survey of employee motivators, money is never first. Usually it ranks about fifth, with “access to upper management,” “inclusion in the team” and “being appreciated” well ahead.

These firms have recognized this fact and make conscious efforts to include non-monetary rewards as part of the work experience. Handwritten thank-you notes top the list of non-monetary evidence of appreciation. The thank-you notes are unique to the individual’s personal achievement, never “canned” and appear as an unscheduled reward for a job well done. Showing this personal appreciation to staff is as much a part of the job for lawyers at these firms as is pleadings and court appearances.

Unexpected rewards are also part of the operation. Perkins Coie sends around a treat-filled ice cream cart on a hot day, and has a firm production coordinated by what firm members call the “Happiness Committee” that is a biannual hit. Markowitz Herbold follows the lead set by Barrie who would bring in homemade goodies, making sure there are surprises in the lunchroom from time to time. They will also host spur of the moment Friday lunches to get people together. Sussman Shank hosts an ice cream social to begin the summer with fun and has a staff appreciation week that includes Starbucks, massage, movie tickets and, of course, thank you notes. Flowers will appear on support staffs’ desks on days other than National Secretaries Day. Birthdays are celebrated with parties at Schwabe, once again acknowledging the individual and his/her value to the organization.

These firms approach 21st century ideas for employee flexibility like yoga masters. All allow part-time employment and many have part-time partners. Flexible work schedules are also cheerfully accommodated.

At Markowitz Herbold you can be a part-time shareholder. One-half of their staff works something other than 8:30 to 5. At least a third work less than their 37.5-hour week, and one part-time associate works eight months a year. In the past they had one associate who worked one week on and one week off.

Sussman Shank allows two legal assistants to participate in a job share where they both support the same lawyers half the time. The firm also wants to ensure that their employees don’t miss those little league games — and that their associates get to be parents as well as lawyers. Several associates and one partner work less than full time.

Perkins Coie allows part-time work with no pay “haircut” (or added discount in compensation) that many firms impose on part-time employees; in other words, an employee who works half-time at Perkins Coie would receive 50 percent of full-time pay without any financial penalty tacked on. All have generous maternity and paternity leave, and one of the larger East Coast firms even has its own day care facility.

In addition to flexible work schedules, all six firms have been aggressively investing in technology and telecommuting to enhance flexible schedules. The Blackberry, for instance, has been a key device supporting flexibility for lawyers in a fast-paced environment.

Communication is the key
Communication is not left to chance in these firms.

How the firm works, what the culture is and how things are going are all made very transparent. Information sharing with both lawyers and support staff is the norm, not the exception.

The firms also have specific plans to acquaint new lawyers with their way of doing business, including assigned mentorships where mentors are encouraged to have regular contact with their new charges, such as lunches, regular meetings and other informal and formal contact.

All members of the firm, lawyers and support staff, get regular performance reviews. Some have turned to technology for part of their process to ensure consistent feedback. Others have peer review teams with upward and downward reviews.

Employees at Sussman Shank, as well as in other firms, are asked for feedback in matters such as choosing benefits and in-house training offerings. Firms strive to provide the benefits that enhance their employees’ lives, not just a standard package that may or may not be meeting their needs. The focus is on gathering feedback on what is good and not so good.

It’s all about the work
Finally, all of these firms believe that good morale improves service to their customers, enabling them to get clients and work that is challenging. Schwabe managing partner Mark Long says that their firm has worked to create a client-driven environment. Steve Hedberg of Perkins Coie believes that their team approach enables them to attract clients who offer unique and interesting legal issues for their lawyers and staff to tackle. This approach gives employees a sense of their role in the overall firm mission. Taking the focus off the lawyers and putting it on to the clients enables all of the team members to enjoy their work more.

Could other firms make some changes and make the list? There were some suggestions that smaller firms don’t have the resources like larger firms to provide the perks many find valuable. But any size firm can say a genuine “thank you” for a job well done, treat all employees as vital members of the team and develop a culture of client service.

Mary Overgaard is a former member of OSB Quality of Life Committee and chaired its articles subcommittee. She is a human resources manager for Multnomah County.
© 2005 Mary Overgaard