Managing Partner Jackie Gillespie at QualitySolicitors Howlett Clarke shares what ingredients are needed to create a firm culture that works internally for staff and management, as well as externally for clients.
QualitySolicitors Howlett Clarke had the opportunity to revamp its culture when three equity partners left in quick succession, leaving myself and my co-partner. The firm is the oldest in Brighton and enjoyed a good reputation, but was very traditional in its outlook. In fact, at one time in our history we were the only law firm in Brighton!
With a more dynamic and flexible management structure we were able to decide what we wanted the firm to look like in five years’ time and put in place a plan of action to get us there. The firm had come from a culture of being very good planners, but we also needed to pair that with proactive actions in order to better achieve our targets.
Both my partner and I come from working class backgrounds and wanted a law firm that was genuinely accessible, unstuffy and provided a service that considered the client as a person rather than a legal problem. We all know from our own experiences dealing with some organisations how it feels to be treated as a number. Lawyers have a reputation of being aloof, but that’s not who we are.
In our firm, the culture was formed by an agreed plan of who we wanted to be, what clients we wanted to attract and what type of fee earner we needed to get us there. As with any change, disruption can be expected along the way. Some staff have chosen to continue their careers elsewhere, but those who’ve since joined the team have really bought into the values of the firm.
To keep our clients happy, we always strive to go that ‘extra mile’; we survey all clients upon case closure and the feedback we get now is how surprised they are that we actually do care. We look after our employees by providing flexible working arrangements to suit their personal lives as well as the needs of the business. We also supply fruit, massages and ensure there are lots of occasions for all of the team to get together socially.
We value a team effort and the belief that everyone has an equally important role to play to make the firm successful. Both my partner and I sit in the open plan office and encourage open communication. Our previous premise was a series of offices and corridors and this led to individual silos – you could go a long time between seeing some people. Change was needed.
Feedback from the staff was invaluable to us then and is now. We collate feedback in various forms; staff representatives, marketing champions for each department and a suggestion box in office kitchens.
When we went through a period of rapid change we, the partners as business owners, made a very conscious decision about the type of firm we wanted to create. This ruffled some feathers, but we’ve been better off for it and each remaining or new team member has really bought into the firm’s values.
Dissenting staff are few and far between these days, but when this does occur a partner responds in the best interests of the firm and our clients. We start by having a direct conversation and linking back to our purpose, how we’re working to achieve that and where the staff member fits within that plan. By talking with people and also taking on board their comments, it cultivates a mutually open environment and we are not above making changes where we believe positive input has been provided.
Performance management is tricky as motivators are different for different fee earners. We have found that if you continually educate fee earners on the need to ensure cash flows through the business, and to put the business first, then this becomes the norm allows all staff to see the bigger picture.
The culture within this firm has evolved over time and we have seen in the past how damaging it can be when firms with very different cultures merge and there has been no clear guidance from management on what the firm is supposed to look like.
QualitySolicitors Howlett Clarke is still evolving its culture as we become more confident in who we are and what we are striving to achieve. Top tips for building a culture would be to have a plan. Start with open questions: Who are we? What do we want to achieve? How do we think we will get there? The rest will follow.