These days lawyers are told to worry about a lot of things. They are constantly reminded to be better marketers, find ways to make their practice more efficient, and always answer their phones with a live voice (okay the last one is mostly by us). However, when it comes to the topic of workplace culture, most in the legal world don’t seem to be giving it much thought. Lawyer Eric Farber is trying to change that.
Farber serves as the CEO and chief legal officer of Pacific Workers’ Compensation Law Center. His focus on culture has helped him build a seven-figure firm that’s gone from four people to 40 in just five years, been an Inc. 5000 company twice, was named to the Bay Area 100 list of fastest-growing companies, and spent two consecutive years in the top fifty of Law Firm 500.
On February 25th, he released a new book entitled “The Case For Culture: How to Stop Being a Slave to Your Law Firm, Grow Your Practice, and Actually Be Happy”. The book can be purchased here. Our blog recently spoke with Farber about the project, and discussed in detail why he has decided to take on the mission of changing how law firms operate, and showing attorneys the value of putting culture first.
Answering Legal: Can you tell us a little about your new book “The Case for Culture”, and why you felt law firm culture was an important topic to write about?
Eric Farber: At its core, The Case for Culture is about putting people first. When you put people first, you can build real, sustainable growth in a law firm. Company culture has been at the forefront of progressive businesses for the past 20 years. However, when I set out to learn more about building great culture, I couldn’t find anything specific to law firms, or really any kind of small independent professional service businesses (CPA firms, doctors, dentists, etc.). We knew that having a great place for all members of our team would lead to great growth. It did. We certainly don’t have it all figured out, but we’re on the right track. Law firm leaders need to be better leaders, not just better lawyers. So many are fantastic lawyers but struggle at running a business.
AL: Why do you think culture problems tend to be so prevalent in the legal industry?
Farber: Law firms, like many service businesses with degreed professionals, tend to unknowingly create caste systems. They create a great divide between the lawyers and everyone else. This is a terrible way to operate a business. Everyone, from the person answering the phone to the most senior counsel is crucial to building a great culture and organization. Law firms need to recognize this. Everyone is important. They need to stop just focusing on the success of lawyers and focus on the success of everyone. This means personal and professional development for everyone. Stop the caste system. In our practice, the lawyers are out of the office so much of the time, that a large burden falls on the non-lawyer staff. If we don’t focus on them equally, our organization would fail.
AL: What would be your advice to lawyers that don’t view establishing a positive culture at their firm as a high priority?
Farber: Ignore culture at your peril. Firm leaders should be prioritizing culture above everything else. If you can get the culture right in a firm, everything else will fall into place. Often, they are primarily focused on just about everything else outside of the culture – marketing, process, simply getting the work done. When you turn your attention to the people and building a great culture, all those other things fall into place.
AL: How can those managing law firms go about evaluating their practice’s current culture?
Farber: A simple place to start are employee surveys. And whatever answers come back, don’t make excuses for them. You have to deal with them. As Jim Collins, one of the greatest management minds of all time, says, there are facts in your company that you will not like, often brutal facts. Ignoring them will not make them go away. You must confront them. Remember, no matter how you want to begin the evaluation, this is not a one time thing. You have to be constantly evaluating your culture and making changes towards better. Culture can sometimes be very fluid. You have to continually work towards creating and re-creating a great intentional culture.
I take people out to lunch as often as I can, or groups of people, and just ask how are things going? And then I sit back and listen. I’m also trying to get to know them as people. The core of any great culture is about caring. Culture comes from the latin cultus which means Care. I try to learn about their families, and why they are with us, as much as I can. Then you can ask about things that are real later. Your real job as the leader of the company is to take care of your employees, the employees take care of the clients and the clients take care of everyone. You can’t take care of the employees if you don’t know them.
AL: If a lawyer does identify that they have a toxic workplace culture at their firm, what steps can they take to fix things?
Farber: Toxicity is a symptom, not the cause. If you have a toxic environment you have to try to determine where it comes from. Often, it is you! You may think, “I do everything for my people already”. However, there are probably plenty of things you haven’t really done.
Here are some quick steps:
- Say ‘thank you’ often and mean it. Practice real gratitude with your team.
- Get (your staff members) together, people who play together stay together. You may think they all know each other just because they sit next to each other. But, they often don’t get the opportunity to learn about each other. Take them to lunch, or a happy hour, or a bowling night.
- Give out bonuses for doing great work. We use Bonusly to recognize people for doing great work. I can bonus people and the team can bonus each other. It displays in a Facebook type feed so the recognition can be seen by everyone.
One of the most prevalent things that creates a toxic culture is employees lack of direction and autonomy over their role in the company. Usually process and procedures in law firms (especially small ones) suck, so people learn the job from the person next to them or even more often on their own. People want to do a great job, they want to be taught how to do something so they have a way to measure themselves. If they do well, they want to know. If they aren’t doing well, they want to know how to improve. They also want to have a say in the process if they think it’s bad. Get a process in place for constant suggestions, reward process fixes and give constant performance feedback. At our past holiday party we gave away five-thousand dollars in a process improvement contest to remind people how important it is.
AL: What kind of culture have you tried to instill at the firms you’ve worked at over the years?
Farber: For a large part of my career I had what business people call a “high-priced hobby”. Even though I employed people I was far more a solo than we were a firm. I did join a firm for a year that had about 12 lawyers including the partners. I could see right away that it wasn’t the right place for me. They asked me to be the managing partner. It took just a few partner meetings to realize no one was on the same page about anything and as soon as my contract was up I was going to get out, so I politely said no.
Pacific Workers’ was a different story. I set out to create a great law firm by creating a great business. I spent an enormous amount of time studying what that actually meant. The more time I spent reading, listening and learning, the more I learned that today’s business leaders preach culture as the number one thing to do. Culture is a very broad word. There are so many pillars (as I call them) to a great culture. To say that Pacific Workers’ has a particular kind of culture is wrong. We have a culture of discipline, a culture of growth, a culture of personal and professional development, a culture of caring, caring for each other, the clients and the community.
AL: What positive effects have you seen from taking the time to create the right culture at your firm?
Farber: Well, I attribute just about everything that has happened to our culture. When we really started evaluating and focusing on the culture, everything changed. We saw a drop in turnover. Turnover is a financial killer, so this helped fuel growth. We then saw huge growth, it was fairly incredible. We were growing at an incredible pace. We went from four people in 2014 to close to 50 now. The effects are the results, incredible growth for everyone, happy people and a huge increase in the bottom line.
AL: Is there anything you tried in the past with establishing culture that you found didn’t work that well, and have since corrected?
Farber: We have tried a dozen things (or far more) to improve our culture that didn’t work and fell flat. One that stands out was when we tried earning extra days off for the non-lawyer team members. If they hit certain goals they could get up to 4 extra days a year for personal development. Meaning a day to do something good for themselves. The benefit was added after I had read about a Harvard Business Review study. Case managers, especially ones in injury firms, are in many ways social workers. Every day they are helping people who have been injured, often times out of work because of the injury. This is difficult work. The study measured the effectiveness of giving this type of worker a day off versus the opportunity to join a company event like working a day at a homeless shelter. The study found that people in social work type jobs are already in positions of helping people. Sending them to a homeless shelter to help is simply more of the same. It suggested that personal days to work on themselves might be more beneficial. Unfortunately, at the time we didn’t really have the right people in our company. The few who made the goal simply took it as a day off and blew off the personal development part of the program. It was an initiative that ended pretty quickly. Despite the study, we have found that our current crew seems to really enjoy heading over to help at the church homeless program our firm supports. At the end of the day, it’s always about having the right people.
AL: How can law firms identify problematic employees before they hire them?
Farber: This is a huge topic that I probably can’t address fully here. But, I can give a few tips.
- Get a predictive hiring process in place. We use Hireology, based on Adam Robinson’s fantastic book, “The Best Team Wins”. Robinson’s methods really opened our eyes to hiring better. Focus your hiring on soft skills like positivity, empathy and grit. If you ask the right questions you will figure out if someone is positive or not.
- Shut up and Listen! When you are interviewing, people need to be quiet and truly listen to what the candidate is telling you. We ask broad, open-ended questions that are followed up with “describe” or “tell me more”. We don’t engage in lengthy back and forth conversations. We let them talk. Personally, positivity and empathy are the strongest traits I am looking for. I can teach someone how to write a brief or file a document or what a statute of limitations is. I can’t teach them to care about people.
AL: How much time and effort should be dedicated to correcting the behavior of those who don’t seem to be buying into a law firm’s culture? Is it generally better to just let these types of employees go right away?
Farber: Really depends, this is not a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on what the specific issue is. Are they chronically late or are they breaching company principles and values by lying and covering things up? People who lie (or breach other firm principles or values) have no place in our organization and if something like that is proven true, they are shown the door immediately. If you don’t fire for a serious breach of principles or values, you have no principles or values. People who are not focused and making mistakes will be coached. If they continue to make the same mistakes without caring about their progress or work quality, they will also be shown the door, but that’s after we exhaust all efforts. If they are making real effort, we continue to coach them. It is our firm’s obligation. We promised that in the interview room. Simply, we are a place of second and third chances for the right people.
AL: How can transforming a firm’s workplace culture lead to a happier life for its attorneys?
Farber: In one word, freedom. If you have a great culture, the firm starts to run itself, and you can finally do the things you love to do. If you want to work cases, work them. If you want to get away a week a month and work staring at the beach, you can. It allows you and everyone else to work to live and not live to work.