It’s good to talk: how news gets around BLP

Internal communications is one of the trickiest issues for any law firm’s management. But how to avoid an overly corporate approach?

In many ways over-communication is as fraught as under-communication. This is something that Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) has had to wrestle with as the firm expands. BLP’s experience makes for a fascinating case history.

With huge companies such as Whitbread, Thames Water and Royal Mail as clients, a radical rethink and restructuring of BLP’s internal communications was needed. But applying the practices of large corporations directly to law firms, with their less hierarchical management style, was going to be difficult.

The key to changing a firm’s communication system from the top down is to be disciplined. To that extent, several initiatives were rolled out to streamline the channels of internal communications.

An important premise was to reduce the number of emails sent to everyone within BLP. A solution was to combine all the main communication channels and business functions into a weekly round-up email.

Negotiations between communications and the management team were then held about how long people should spend on reading the weekly email.

The dilemma, says communications head Keith Hardie, is that, to the person making an announcement, the information is usually very important. If, for example, the lifts are closing down, the person closing the lifts would give two pages of information on the closure.

“The assumption on the sender side is that people have an infinite amount of time to devote to an issue, but on the receiver side the opposite is the case,” notes Hardie. “Without filtering the information people are swamped and don’t read the important things.”

It was decided that it would be reasonable for people to read weekly announcements for around five minutes. All information that needed to be communicated would have to be cut to fit within that limited size. And while the other emails that are sent to everyone in the firm have not been eliminated, the number has decreased markedly.

The firm also relaunched the internal magazine as a four-page monthly entitled BridgeNews, instead of the 25-page quarterly it was previously. It is now written by professional journalists instead of internal contributors and is much easier to read, claims Hardie.

BLP also launched a monthly briefing to team leaders and practice heads outlining ideas they should be talking about with their respective teams from firmwide and strategic perspectives. Feedback mechanisms are then provided for individual teams to send the information back up the communications chain.

Possibly the most important new facet of BLP’s internal communications consisted of cutting the firm down in size. In firms smaller than BLP, the communication systems often consist of the managing partner walking the floors and communicating firm strategy to everyone individually.

The alternative that BLP introduced was small, targeted presentations given by the managing partner Neville Eisenberg to everyone within the firm over several months.

Eisenberg held around 18 90-minute presentations and Q&A sessions for every department and practice area in BLP, which are intended to be repeated annually.

“For Neville it was a huge commitment in terms of time,” says Hardie. “But what we were trying to do was give staff a sense of the firm’s strategy and the direction the firm was taking and describing the role of each person within that.”

Eisenberg spoke about the success within each area and dealt with individual queries.

“Hearing that stuff and hearing Neville saying it makes an enormous difference to people in terms of engagement and motivation,” says Hardie. “Those are very powerful things.”