Straight Talk your Way to Change (of some sort)

Far too much time in professional practice is spent looking at fees, billable hours and work in progress. I am not sure now if it was Peter Drucker who coined the immortal expression “What can be measured can be managed” but that is entirely apposite to law firms.

But when it comes to soft systems – people principally (and to a lesser extent information systems) – most partners work on the basis of management by abdication. In addition, and despite the risk issues, they feel they can afford to keep things at arms length on the basis that leaving someone to sink or swim is a way of providing a benchmark of success but too often it only serves to demotivate or demoralise.

For me the sine qua non of professional practice both within and outwith is … trust – trust in your people. Charlie Green and David Maister have written extensively on this fundamental area.

But one issue that I think could be addressed now is the issue of straight talk. This is dealt with in Stephen M R Covey’s, Speed of Trust under the 1st behaviour of the second Wave of Trust. As he says:

“”Talk straight” is honesty in action. It is based on the principles of integrity, honesty, and straightforwardness.”

Of course straight talk can be taken too far and is sometimes used as mask for cruelty, rudeness or a lack of thoughtfulness. But a lot of the issues that remain to be dealt with in law firms – under-performance of partners, profitability and the right people doing the right work – is just not being addressed as quickly or as meaningfully as it might otherwise be. In a sense this is perfectly understandable given the fragility of the economy; and no doubt those in charge will not want to rock the boat, particularly if in doing so there might be a domino effect.

You can picture it now: the partner who is challenged on his or her department’s profitability who in a fit of pique threatens to leave the firm and take their clients and/or their team with them.

But we all know that this is storing up problems for the future and things will be even worse if under-performance or a poor attitude has been tolerated in the tough times.

Most of the time the reason why people don’t like addressing issues in a straightforward manner is for fear of the consequences, and no doubt that means weighing up the pros and the cons. However, the need to develop this area, if a firm is going to embrace and progress change, should be considered a priority.

Whilst of course there is no easy answer to this conundrum, perhaps one way to address it is to make it clear that the atmosphere of suspicion, mis-trust and a ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture has to change if the firm is to grow sustainably.

Consideration could be given to saying that each party will be able to talk in confidence and invite constructive feedback on the nature and tone of what is being said. Now I accept that this sounds weak but like all soft issues there are no cut and dried solutions but rather a need to change the status quo gradually, thoughtfully and with tact. It is not sufficient to skirt round the issues and spin should be banned. But don’t be under any illusion when someone is tackled on an area which they know exists but has been overtly avoided for such a long time it will usually result in an extreme reaction. You have been warned. You also need to keep the conversation from straying into your or their autobiography, meaning that a lot of the old wounds are likely to be reopened.

Perhaps one way to address this is also to tie in the mode of communication. Too much of what we say, the non-verbal communication, has been completely lost with the over reliance on emails. Even telephone calls seem to be a rare occurrence. And it is certainly as well not to make a big issue of it. “Can we meet up for a chat” or more threatening still “We need to have a chat” is hardly likely to put the person at ease and produce the best outcome. Lawyers being lawyers will simply be primed for the worst.

In the long run if this area can be tackled and significant improvement made it will transform a culture that may previously have resisted change to one that encourages it.

Professional practice, perhaps because of the label, may fall back on the notion of “If it ain’t broke, why fix it” but we all know that that is simply wrong. The profession needs to modernise and whilst technology, outsourcing, efficiencies and a focus on value based billing are all important they will count for nothing if: (a) you cannot have an open conversation with your people about the need for change; (b) you are not trusted and your word is meaningless, particularly around job security; and (c) change will be harder to bring about or bring about in the time scale that you would like to see.

Next time you are tempted to avoid a subject area stop yourself and ask the question: “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Yes your mind might move to a doomsday scenario but the contra position has to be that those on the other side will not be so secure as you think and will or at least should recognise that without change the firm will simply not grow and that means going backwards. How quickly will not be determined just by the economy but more so by the emergence of other brands or business models coming into the market.

On a final point perhaps one of the reasons why straight talk is not part of the culture of legal practice is because of the lack of leadership. Can you imagine any of the great leaders being as indecisive as is often the case? My own experience is that by and large the most accomplished leaders that I worked under were the ones that I respected most for having the ability not to sugar coat, say it like it was and be clear in their point of view without being rude or nasty. I may not have liked what they had to say but I would much rather have heard it from them than some half-baked message being delivered from on high.

One thought on “Straight Talk your Way to Change (of some sort)

  1. Julian,

    You are surely right. Both about the importance of honesty to trust-based relationships, and its relative paucity in law firm organizations.

    In my own constructs, Covey’s principle of ‘talk straight’ shows up in the principle of transparency, in the trust equation’s two components of reliability (including integrity), and low self-orientation. We’re all in the same boat on this, along with you.

    Why law firms are poor at this is I think a mixture of lots of things. The insistence on maximum cognitive skills with little emphasis on social skills invites the impersonal into the field. Lawyers work with small teams, as compared with, say, accountants. Lawyers’ athletic interests bend to the solo (running, squash) as opposed to the team sports found in other professions. A lawyer friend of mine says “there’s no such thing as the concept of ‘truth’ in the law–there is only evidence.” There’s the tradition of the pyramidic structures that support leverage, the historical tradition of equating management with content mastery, and the up-and-out policies that support the structure. Billing by minimal time units is just a logical outgrowth of all the above, supporting the idea that financial value is a function not of people, but of their timesheets.

    The world is getting more, not less, connected. This probably means that the inability to confront personal issues will be come more, not less, of a liability. It is broke, it does need fixing.

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