15 March 1999
One of the most important elements which makes a law firm successful is internal communication.
The profession has always lagged behind industry. For decades, companies have pinned their productivity figures to shop floor noticeboards, and internal newsletters long preceded the microchip and the robot. Managers have been subjected to regular, written assessments for a generation, and now 360 degree reviews - where subordinates can gripe as well - are becoming the norm. On top of this, the Companies Acts have required increasingly transparent and published financial information for a century.
But solicitors were above it all. Not for us current business practice. Everything about the finances, the processes, the aspirations of the firm was kept opaque, obscure and remote. Even partners were treated on a "need to know" basis.
Two pressures have turned all this upside down - in the best firms at least. First, the realisation that law firms are businesses, of an unusual kind certainly, but businesses nevertheless, susceptible to most of the disciplines that dominate business practice in the wider world. Secondly, we now have our own professional press, sniffing and probing into every crack of our working existence. So firms need to be transparent with their people about what is going on in the practice before they read about it in the press, particularly if what they read is wrong.
My firm welcomes this new mind-set. We have a very straightforward approach. We want everyone to know promptly whatever it is about the firm (and about their progress in it) that interests them. There are only two exceptions to this. They are: not volunteering the firm's profits (while accepting the anomaly that they will read other people's estimates of them, however misleading, in at least four publications); and not divulging how those profits are divided between the individual partners. Everything else is open, and open to discussion.
"Everything else" is a lot. Regular reviews are conducted - of support staff as well as of fee earners. There is an AGM for solicitors, at which we look back on the highlights of the previous year and discuss the portents for the current one. There is a quarterly and surprisingly uncensored in-house magazine, News at Ten, which mixes the serious with the flippant but lets its readers distinguish which is which; a weekly information sheet, distributed firm-wide, summarising new instructions, matters completed, lectures given, contacts made, articles published; weekly monitoring groups, at which solicitors report on current and prospective workloads; and a good deal more.
This transparency is essential to the modern practise of law, important to the cohesion of a firm and much easier to apply than any other approach. It is strange that, not too long ago, there seemed to be other ways of doing things.
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