Doing Well by Doing Good: Law Firm Social Responsibility

Corporations increasingly subscribe to the principle of corporate social responsibility. CSR is based on the belief that a demonstration of concern for the environment, human rights, community development and the welfare of their employees can make a corporation more profitable. And if not more profitable, at least a better place to work.

Law firms can learn from corporate experience to create their own social responsibility programs. Such programs can help law firms to do well by doing good. They can strengthen the firm’s reputation and market position. They can help the firm identify with the culture and CSR activities of clients and potential clients. They can help lawyers and staff find more meaning in their work and improve as human beings.

In the words of the social responsibility Karma Committee at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck: Be kind. Be generous. Be concerned. Donate time. Donate effort. Donate money. Just find a cause and give. You’ll quickly discover giving is also receiving.

A panel discussion about how law firms can learn about CSR and introduce some of its elements into their own models was sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. The program was held May 8 at Maggiano’s Little Italy in downtown Denver.

Panelists included Sarah Hogan, vice president of Barefoot PR; Bruce DeBoskey, lawyer and founder of The DeBoskey Group, which focuses on philanthropic advising; Joyce Witte, Community Investment Advisor and director of the Encana Cares Foundation, Encana Oil & Gas (USA); and Amy Venturi, director of community relations & karma at Brownstein. Moderator was Cori Plotkin, president of Barefoot PR.

At law firms, the product is the people – the lawyers and support staff who provide high quality legal services. It is an easy fit. There are many ways that this ‘product’ can contribute time, talent and treasure to socially responsible activities.

Social responsibility: Focus and strategy

Law firm social responsibility is all about making a difference within the community and the profession, and within a firm. Even the best efforts will make no impact if spread too thin. You cannot maximize the value of your contributions or tell your story if your efforts are too diluted. To decide how to most effectively invest its resources, a law firm needs a social responsibility focus and a strategy.

Social responsibility efforts must be authentic. Law firms and other entities should always avoid ‘green-washing’ – telling a story that is aspirational, but not really true. Know yourself. Let your firm’s unique culture and skills determine which efforts to pursue and which to avoid.

When examining your culture, don’t limit yourself to partner input. Law firms are small communities, almost like families. Any effort to define culture and social responsibility should represent not only the interests of lawyers, but the interests of all levels of support staff. Efforts must be meaningful throughout the firm. The benefits to employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction can be remarkable.

DeBoskey outlined three types of community involvement and stated his belief that a good social responsibility plan includes elements of all three.

In a traditional model, an organization ‘gives back’ randomly to the community when asked – as a good citizen, rather than for any strategic purposes. In a social responsibility model, these efforts align with the capabilities of the business – like the legal skills of lawyers. Every non-profit needs legal advice.

At it’s most sophisticated, a social responsibility program involves using your core product – legal services – as a tool for social change. Volunteer with organizations like the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, or the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center.

A strong focus makes it much easier to make decisions. Encana, for example, focuses its charitable giving strategy on issues surrounding its product — natural gas. Brownstein will donate money only if the request comes from a client, or if one of their attorneys is a member of the organization and on the board.

Law firms looking for additional advice can find valuable resources within the Corporate Community Investment Network. CCIN is an association for professionals whose primary responsibility is to manage community investment programs in a for-profit business setting.

Many corporations and a few law firms have actually created separate foundations to mange some of their giving. A foundation comes with more restrictions and different tax methods. As entities with a life of their own, however, foundations are more likely than one-off efforts to continue a useful existence.

Social responsibility: Good policies make good decisions

Strategy and focus provide the foundation for an effective social responsibility policy. Most law firms are inundated with requests from good causes asking for their support. A policy helps you know when to say “yes” to and when to say “no.”

In the law firm model, where all partners are owners with a sense of entitlement to resources, it can be very difficult to say no. A keenly focused policy makes it much easier to do so and keep the firm’s efforts on track.

Encana, for example, uses a five-step tool to determine the level of fit between a request and the company’s strategic goals in the field of natural gas – with level five being the largest commitment and level one the lowest.

Level five efforts integrate core product or service and often involve natural gas vehicles and energy efficiency initiatives using natural gas. These efforts contribute to best practices and leading trends in the industry, while enhancing the company’s reputation as a leader.

Level four efforts focus on strategic partnerships and often involve sustainable and long-term solutions like workforce development initiatives, signature programs (which can be repeated in other markets) and multi-year grants.

Level three efforts include strategic grants to assist with projects, programs or initiatives made to local non-profits aligned with natural gas.

Level two efforts include responsive giving, which is a one-time gift for a broad community effort that has local support. Participation of company representatives is required.

Level one efforts include the “t-shirt and banner” category, which contains one-day items like dinners, receptions, golf tournaments, events and races. These offer the least impact and awareness for the money, and therefore the least support.

At Brownstein, requests made to the firm are judged by two factors. The firm considers only requests made by clients and requests made by organizations where one of its attorneys participates at the board level.

Social responsibility: Engagement

Effective social responsibility programs involve not only checkbook involvement, but personal and professional involvement.

At Brownstein, the brand has always been about being out in the community. Six years ago, Venturi was asked to formalize this essential component of the firm’s culture into a social responsibility program that would further energize lawyers.

She started by spending 15 minutes with each of the attorneys, to discover their passions – which were used to identify a good non-profit match. After all, lawyers and staff will stay involved and do their best only when an organization is something that they care deeply about. If there is no engagement, the placement will backfire.

Finally, Venturi offers the lawyer’s services to the non-profit in some capacity – but it must be at the board level. Otherwise, she won’t make the match.

Project Karma is a Brownstein program dedicated to volunteer opportunities, and maintains a committee in each of the firm’s 12 offices. It sponsors informal lunch & learn presentations by local non-profits to encourage interest.

The message about active engagement by lawyers and staff must come from the top. Brownstein makes it very clear that the path to partnership for a new attorney is based not only on legal skills, but also on engagement and involvement with the community.

It is important to add a community involvement component to lawyer reviews, even if it is only one goal a year. That lets the lawyers know that you are serious. The Colorado Supreme Court asks every lawyer in to contribute 50 hours of pro bono work each year. Integrating these programs leads to win/win results for the firm.

Not every firm can match the efforts of a large company like Encana or a large law firm like Brownstein. However, there are good matches for firms of every size. Once again, it is all a matter of focus.

In fact, it is much easier to get five members of a small firm to focus on a strategic initiative than 500 lawyers in a huge firm. If a law firm has $10,000 to donate, that money goes a lot father and has a lot more impact to one organization than do $100 donations spread across 100 organizations.

Smaller law firms can also multiply its impact by partnering with others in an industry, like vendors or clients, to support a particular non-profit.

Social responsibility: Return on investment

Corporations measure the results of their social responsibility programs, and use these results to make decisions on efforts going forward. Law firms should do the same.

At the end of the year, Encana uses its five-level model (outline above) to analyze our charitable giving. How much was given at each level? Then the company sends a form to each non-profit, asking the recipient to evaluate outcomes (statistics for what was accomplished), process (did efforts meet the intended audience) and impact (what difference did it make).

Encana asks recipients to reply within 60 days, and uses this information to calculate return on investment. Those who do not report back are not eligible for further contributions. The non-profits might gripe at first, but they seem to change their minds once they’ve been through the process – finding that it has useful strategic value.

It is entirely appropriate to ask a non-profit to document the results they’ve achieved based on your contribution. It lets them know that you are truly invested in the organization. They will see you more as partners and engage you differently.

Most corporations have created and benefited from well-thought-through and strategic social responsibility programs. Law firms are starting to do the same. A program with tight focus and strict guidelines guarantees maximum impact and awareness in exchange for a law firm’s commitment of time, talent and treasure.

Law Firm Marketing – A Search for Leadership

The Partner Pole – Early Expressions of Law Firm Marketing

In ancient times the totem pole was a symbolic expression of past generations. It offered information about a tribe’s identity–a type of linear -understanding of generations that came before them and the leaders who showed them the way. It enforced group solidarity and provided a necessary relational context to their lives.
The totem pole was worshiped and ritualized. The history of a whole tribe could be understood by this one linear expression. Symbolic communication, as a group organizing method, is also found in law firms. Law firms proudly list their partners’ names on letterhead and post them on doorways. Often some of the names are symbols of the past–a lasting recognition of those who came before as well as those who are currently carrying the torch of the firm’s traditions into the future. This symbolic communication portrays the history of a firm’s leader-ship and is an indicator of predicted performance. But what happens when the firm’s past is forced to yield to the firm’s future? When it becomes necessary for the firm to reinvent itself and set out new organizing principles that match its vision–when the old belief system is no longer in sync with the needs and demands of changing markets and clients? Most firms are facing this challenge right now, and some are not even aware of it. The partners I spoke with clearly recognized the need to re-invent themselves or risk sacrificing growth and prosperity.

Are You the Leader?

Who among you will lead the charge? This is a very personal decision that should not be taken lightly. It will depend not only on your own willingness to take on the challenge, but also on the willingness of the key partners who make up most of the power base at your firm.

If you are up for the challenge, accept this knowledge and get on with leading. If not, find the person in your firm who is ready and able to lead and offer that person all the support you can. You’ll soon realize that the quality and commitment of your support for this person will be recognized as an important form of leader-ship in its own right.

The Genetics of Leadership

It’s been said that some people are born leaders. That may be true, but for most of us, leadership is an acquired skill that comes from our mind-set and our desire to effect positive change. Similarly, people are not born extraordinary. Instead, they choose to accomplish extraordinary things.
As recently as 2003, scientists discovered that our natural traits are not “set in stone.” (See Matt Ridley’s Genome and Nature via Nurture.) Rather, our genetic code–especially the code responsible for our brain function–is neither unchanging nor unchangeable. As we respond to the challenges and stimuli in the world, so do our genes. Depending upon our needs and the degree of our determination, different formulations of our genetic code are activated. This results in the emergence of a new pattern of genetic instructions. Contrary to what scientists formerly believed, our genes remain active, malleable and fluid throughout our lives.

Until these discoveries were made, the received wisdom was that the traits that enable us to think like lawyers or strive for excellence or find the courage and charisma to lead were handed out to us–or not–at birth. It was taken as fact that our neural makeup was primarily dictated by the genetic code we inherited from our parents. If we were fortunate enough to have inherited “smart” genes, it was anticipated that we were destined for greatness; if the opposite happened, we were destined to be the village idiot.

In reality, the reason so few of us break out of the mold is not due to genetics at all. It’s because of the fact that, strange as it may sound, most of us surrender to our strengths rather than engage our weaknesses. If we tend to be naturally gifted in mathematics, we gravitate toward mathematics. If we show an early talent in the arts, we gravitate in that direction. It’s simply easier to rely on our existing strengths than it is to develop new strengths from scratch.

Psychologist and theorist Carl Jung described this irony in his book Psychological Types:

“Experience shows that it is hardly possible for any-one to bring all his psychological functions to simultaneous development. The very conditions of society enforce a man to apply himself first and foremost to the differentiation of that function with which he is either most gifted by nature, or which provides his most effective means for social success. Very frequently, indeed as a general rule, a man identifies himself more or less completely with the most favored, hence the most developed function.”

Since Jung’s time, however, neuroscientists have discovered that the human tendency to follow the path of least resistance is not merely ironic but counter-productive. We now know that the brain grows stronger, developing at a much higher level, when we force ourselves to think in new and different ways.

Until now, you may not have thought of yourself as a leader. But that is no reason to believe you can’t become one if your motivation is strong enough. The first question to ask yourself is this: What does it mean to be a leader?

What Is a Leader?

The stereotypical image of a leader is that of a commanding figure, able to speak to large groups of people. We think of leaders as people who speak their minds and are charismatic performers, able to manipulate people’s emotions in order to get things done the right way–usually their way.

This popular stereotype is not only unrealistic, it describes characteristics that are undesirable in a leader and, if we dare to admit it, characteristics that make a leader quite dysfunctional. Real leaders are listeners; they don’t bark out orders from behind their desks. Such leaders find ways to develop strengths in the people they work with. They work through people, by understanding and evoking their intelligence, creativity and participation.

The ideal leader works for the firm, not the other way around. In fact, leadership is more a property of the firm than of the leader. In mid- to large-size firms, it is unrealistic to rely on one person to provide all of the leadership.

The most successful managing partners I have seen rarely dominate the group; rather they support the group by keeping it focused and on task.

Exceptional leaders work hard to remove barriers in communication among their key people. They see their role as smoothing out processes. They are facilitators, not dominators. They think about ways of making others more effective and productive, making it easier for them to do their jobs. And when their effort results in success, these leaders rarely take the credit, instead giving it to the group, where it belongs.

The single most important quality people look for in a leader is honesty. For most people, this is what determines whether a leader is worthy of their confidence and loyalty. With honesty often comes wisdom. For firms in the midst of great change, leadership requires a unique set of skills. Leaders must be able to work through teams of people, delegating work and rewarding performance while encouraging persistence. Such leaders encourage excellent performance at every level. Effective leaders are relentless in their determination to keep reaching for higher levels of performance. Interestingly, leaders like these seem to work best when the chips are down and change is upon them.

The Best Leaders Are Perspective-Driven

The most dynamic types of leader are perspective-driven. These in-tensely inquisitive people need to know what actually causes firms to grow and prosper and, just as importantly, what causes them to falter. They want to know what clients think about the firm–what clients actually experience when they visit and do business with the firm.
Perspective-driven leaders seek to discover new ways of serving, new ways of making clients feel valued, and new ways of earning trust. They seek what many managing partners would rather sweep under the rug. That’s because perspective-driven leaders know that the creative process depends more on differing views than conforming ones.
A common trait of perspective-driven leaders is that they are pain-fully honest and realistic when it comes to evaluating performance–including their own. These leaders do not claim to have a monopoly on knowledge. They understand that their point of view is simply that–their point of view.

They know that to completely understand a major challenge, they must turn to people who think in a variety of ways; thinking in teams is usually more productive than thinking individually.
Perspective-driven leaders do not let dissent or disagreement distract them from their goal of problem solving. In fact, such leaders are attracted to disagreement, especially from intelligent and competent people.

Listen to how one managing partner dealt with disagreement:

“Most of our partners were having a major problem with our top administrator, who was insisting that we convert to an entirely new computer system. The partners couldn’t see how the cost and expense of putting in a new system could possibly be worth the projected productivity gains. We just weren’t seeing what he was seeing–and none of us were willing to make the effort to see the problem through his eyes. No one doubted he was a talented and intelligent administrator. But no one here could possibly imagine that an administrator might be seeing something that we couldn’t.
I later realized that it was our arrogance that was get-ting in the way. When we finally put the system in, a year later, we were kicking ourselves for not having done it earlier. . . . “

True leaders value the differences among people–and more importantly, they respect those differences. The more a leader discovers what was previously unknown, the more opportunities can be identified. Leaders must be committed more to understanding the problem from an-other’s perspective than worrying about protecting their own understandng.

Playing at Top Performance Levels – Leadership and Marketing

Great leaders, like great athletes, are relentless and uncompromising when it comes to reaching top performance levels. It is this tenacious desire to be the best at one’s game that drives them.
Perspective-driven leaders recognize the limits of one’s own perceptions and appreciate the need to interact with different types of people. They realize that people do not always see the world as it is, but tend to see it from the perspective of who they are and how they view and inter-act with others. This is why such leaders encourage diversity. This is why you might hear an effective leader say, “Jay, you seem to see this issue differently than I do. Tell me how you’re seeing it. I want to see what you see.”

Most people in management roles would rather learn from what’s working at their firm than from what’s not working. Typical managers seek out agreement among their coworkers rather than finding opposing views. Perspective-driven leaders seek just the opposite–they are more interested in what’s missing from the firm that, if instituted, would make a qualitative difference and elevate performance.

A business litigation firm in rural New York was experiencing a serious decline in new business. When the partners got together to discuss the issue, they thought it would be useful to see what other firms were doing that they were not. Giving associates bonuses had always been discretionary, based on their overall performance. But the partners realized, when they compared their compensation packages with those of other firms, that theirs lacked a specific and immediate reward structure for associates.

One partner said, “We found that associates were especially motivated when they knew exactly what they would earn from new income they brought in and when they could expect to receive their share. We were amazed at how quickly they responded.”

This firm was acting proactively. They sought not only what was working, but also what was not working in their new business efforts. When they discovered that there was a decline in associate-generated revenue, they looked at what was absent–from the associates’ perspectives. Discovering what was absent allowed them to take immediate action to remedy the situation to everyone’s satisfaction.

Knowing Your Game

Perspective-driven leaders consider the challenge of finding what’s not working at their firms to be particularly interesting. That’s not to say they don’t acknowledge their firms’ strengths, but they are much more intrigued by their weaknesses. Why? Because they understand that removing weakness builds strength and increases performance. It is like finding the beautiful elephant in the block of stone. When you eliminate what’s not working (what’s not the beautiful elephant), you often get closer to what is working.

For perspective-driven leaders, finding what’s missing in their organization is like working a puzzle. The more pieces they find, the more complete the picture becomes and the easier it is to find the next missing piece.

It’s no different from the mind-set of a great athlete–and athletes don’t get any greater than Michael Jordan. Even at the height of his career, Jordan was notorious for studying his game tapes the day after he played. To him, reaching higher levels of performance meant learning as much as possible about how he played. It wasn’t vanity that drove him to study his game. It was his desire to see what he could not see from his perspective on the floor during a game. By changing his perspective, he could see things that he might have missed before. He might notice, for example, that in fast breaks in the last quarter of a game, he tended to pass the ball more to the left than to the right. Was this a mistake on his part? That’s not the point. What great athletes like Jordan look for is more knowledge about how they play their game. It’s finding that next piece of the puzzle that lets them get closer to seeing the complete picture.

Powerful Leaders Are Great Listeners

Perspective-driven leaders have many traits in common. One is being masterful at communication. This does not mean just being an effective speaker–it also means being an effective listener. The way one listens is said to be more important than what one says.

Providing consistently high levels of service requires constant listening to feedback from clients, and the people listening must be the most senior members of a firm’s leadership. Unfortunately, for the more senior partners, it’s too easy to avoid such listening–they become insulated from the front lines.
The inertia of this avoidance is enforced by those who wish to “protect” top leadership from unpleasant experiences such as speaking directly with dissatisfied clients. This happens in even the most well-intentioned firms. To counter it, firms must be proactive.

The best firms, for example, are obsessive about conducting in-depth debriefing sessions after a matter is concluded. These meetings are essential to ensure the firm’s ability to track its progress in serving clients, and clients also appreciate and admire the firm’s frank and honest willngness to improve its relationship with them.
Most leaders pretend to listen. Perspective-driven leaders, on the other hand, are fully engaged in the listening process. They are tenaciously committed to understanding the perspectives of others. To them, listening is not just waiting for someone else to finish talking or a com-petition between views. Nor is the goal of listening necessarily to reach agreement.

Rather, astute listening is the process of working through issues and separating the emotional from the logical while discovering more about the assumptions used to draw conclusions. Good listeners care less about being “right” than they do about building strong coalitions among their people.
Often people listen in order to validate their own replies. Few actually listen to understand another person’s perspective, and even fewer try to understand the person behind the perspective. Listening has become a -unilateral waiting game. We nod our heads to look attentive and interested, but inside we’re working up a clever reply. (“Finish up, so I can tell you what I think about it!”)

Sadly, most of us don’t bother to really understand the people we listen to. This is not just a trait of lawyers, but lawyers in particular should not settle for how “most people” communicate. Providing legal service demands that we strive to reach a much higher standard than “most people” in interpersonal communication. It is not by chance that we are called counselors-at-law.

People need to be understood. This need is second only to their need to survive. They need to participate in communication that affirms and validates them as people. Listening is perhaps the single most important aspect in client communication. No matter how much time it takes, it is worth every moment. Furthermore, it is said that it is only after we listen and listen well that we earn the right to be listened to.

It is through listening that you will begin to discover what your clients truly value. Only when you know what each client–individually–values can you hope to provide them with the type of excellent service that builds loyalty and praise.

Listen to the Clients You Already Have – Basic Law Firm Marketing

It is not the hundreds of potential clients that might one day become revenue opportunities that count. It’s your existing clients that are your greatest assets. Investing in them by listening to them will generate your greatest return.
The traditional 80/20 rule applies to most large firms: That is, 80 per-cent of a firm’s revenue comes from just 20 percent of its clients. So marketing well must begin with your existing clients. Listening to these clients, reassuring them and making sure that they are well-served at every level must be your first priorities.

Henry Dahut is an attorney and marketing strategist who works with some of the largest law firms in the world. He is the author of the best selling practice development book, “Marketing The Legal Mind” and offers consulting services in the area of strategic branding and law firm marketing. Henry is also the founder of the legal online help-portal GotTrouble.com – the award winning site that helps people through serious legal and financial trouble.

Common Qualities of the Best Law Firms

In my 12 years of practice, I have been employed with a wide variety of law firms. When I decided to open my own practice, I started thinking about the qualities that make up the best law firms. In determining the best law firms do you include things such as employee benefits, firm culture and employee turnover rates? Or do you focus on the qualities that affect a law firm’s most precious commodity – the client? My take on this is that the best law firms employ quality attorneys and staff with the highest of ethical standards and the desire to fight within their ethical bounds for their clients.

One key factor in having a successful law practice is an effective leader. A good leader will have a vision for the firm’s direction, a commitment to serving its clients, and a desire to find like-minded people that believe not only in the clients, but the brand of the firm. I have found in my practice that effective leaders can quickly change with success and growth. They often lose touch with the very people that helped them grow into a successful powerhouse. It is easy to go from a scenario of weekly partner/associate lunches to rarely, if ever, seeing a partner in the office. Effective leaders at the best law firm have a good understanding of the legal work coming out of the office, the overall satisfaction of its clients, and an awareness of the employees’ overall job satisfaction. With success and growth, it is easy to lose touch with these important factors, but good leaders will remain cognizant of these factors, even with exponential growth of the firm.

The best law firms also have compassion for their clients. When attorneys at these firms meet with clients, it’s never about sharing the attorney’s successes. Rather, it’s listening to your clients concerns, determining their overall goal through representation by the firm, and showing empathy towards their situation. Many attorneys look at their clients and see dollar signs. They look at the opportunity to bill or the total fee they will earn on a contingency for a huge settlement. These attorneys fail to recall one of the most basic ethical consideration of attorneys, acting in the best interest of the client. Because at the end of the day, all the billable hours in the world won’t make a practice successful If you don’t satisfy and take good care of your clients. Firms with this mindset often have high turnover rates because they make billing THE priority. They burn their attorneys out and bring in brand new attorneys and start the process fresh with them. This can easily lead to dissatisfaction by clients. They may not know from one month to the next which attorney is representing them.

Another key quality of the best law firms is a narrow focus on a particular area of law. The days of general practitioners is (or should be) gone. Laws are complex and can change in an instant depending on legislation or new case law handed down by appellate courts. The best law firms have focus on one area of law and become very good at it. They are aware of recent changes as well as developing changes in their area of practice. With such a narrow focus, they can change strategy in an instant and become the authority to their clients by showing their knowledge in a particular area of law. Beware of the lawyer who claims to practice in all areas of civil litigation. While it is possible, consider that opposing counsel may have a more narrow focus. They may have that golden nugget of information that can make the case a winner for them and a loser for your client.

There are a number of other factors to consider when trying to determine the best. That may be the discussion for a future article. But those discussed here are, in this author’s opinion, the most important factors to consider when trying to figure out what makes a firm one of the best.