Many people are struggling with how to create and sustain a positive culture in a virtual law firm.
Today I want to give you some clear strategies you can use to create and sustain an intentional culture within your firm that will thrive within a virtual business. Let’s discuss how you can nurture effective communication and become a better leader.
In this episode we discussed:
- Clear strategies for intentional communication.
- Institutionalizing a culture around your virtual law firm that will make you more effective as a business leader.
- Installing some form of communication.
- How connecting daily, creates stronger interpersonal communication and engagement.
Allison Williams: [00:00:05] Hi, everybody, it’s Allison Williams here, your host of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast, Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help you to grow your revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.
Allison Williams: [00:00:30] Today we’re going to be talking about intentional communication.
Allison Williams: [00:00:42] So today’s topic is one that I decided to cover because what I see a lot when we are talking about virtual law firms, in particular, is the fact that people are really struggling with how to create and sustain a positive culture in a virtual law firm. Now, we have already covered some of the pragmatics of virtual law firms and some of the, the real nuts and bolts things that you have to do in order to be virtual, right? So I’m sure you all have heard not only on this podcast but in other places, some of the brass tacks components of what’s necessary, everything from having a paperless office to having a location where you get mail and checks, to making sure that your I.T. infrastructure is set up to accommodate that. But what I think is most challenging for people and part of the reason why a lot of lawyers just said as soon as their governments were allowing them to go back into an office rather than sheltering in place, they immediately said, Yeah, that’s what I want because I quote miss people or because I just find that my team is more productive in the office. There are reasons for that, right?
Allison Williams: [00:01:56] And part of it is the lack of intentionality that you will normally find when people believe that all that they have to do to have a virtual law firm is set up, the, the nuts and bolts of how to get the work done right. There’s not enough focus on the culture, both creating it and intentionally sustaining it. So I wanted to give you guys some, some clear strategies that you can use on, why. First of all, understanding why a virtual law firm requires a level of intentional communication that’s not the same as a brick and mortar law firm. Why it’s important to differentiate it and then second, how you can institutionalize a culture around your virtual law firm that will make you more effective as a business leader.
Allison Williams: [00:02:47] All right. So first, we’re going to talk about why communication is different in a virtual law firm than in a brick and mortar law firm. So I want you to think about in your law firm as a brick and mortar law firm, it could be what you currently are doing because you have a brick and mortar law firm that you want to take virtual or maybe you have always had a brick and mortar law firm, and now you are contemplating allowing some of the loosening of the reins, if you will. That happened when we were required to shelter in place. You want to sustain some of that, but you just don’t know how, I want you to think back to when you were all physically in an office. One of the things that lawyers complain about the most in an office is the proverbial water cooler, right? The idea that we get together at some point in time, something happens and you know, someone has to rise from their desk to leave their desk and the work that they’re doing to go out into a common area that could be they want to get a snack, or it could be they have to go to the bathroom, or it could be they have to go have a communication with someone. Right? That water cooler is in this instance, I want you to think about it as the place where people gather to waste time. Right? And the idea of gathering to waste time is something that a lot of business owners struggle with, and they really say, you know, I don’t want my team wasting time. I don’t want them standing around, quote-unquote doing nothing. I pay them to legally assist, or a paralegal, or to market, or whatever it is that the employee is doing. But what is missed in that is that watercooler time is not purely wasteful time. Right? It’s time not doing the directly compensable work that you are hiring the person for. But there are a lot of values to having the proverbial water cooler, including that it tends to be a place where people can be cohesive in engaging with each other. That cohesion is what will ultimately make people most successful in terms of necessary activity, right? In terms of being able to keep and sustain a relationship with other coworkers. And that sustainable relationship is what gets people into a sense of collective community and belonging to something greater than themselves, right? So in other words, if you just hand over 20 to 30 cases to a lawyer and say, here these are your cases, go work them and that person doesn’t have a tie back to other people who are not just doing work on the files with them, but doing the work of the business that has a higher purpose than simply servicing an individual client. Then what tends to happen is people do start to feel isolated, right?
Allison Williams: [00:05:46] But when you are at the water cooler, that’s when people reengage and reconnect. And so the challenge that virtual law firm leaders will have is to make sure that that water cooler and the absence of it when you don’t have a brick and mortar business is something that you actively address, not something that you say, Oh, great, they’re more productive now that there’s no water cooler, that may be part of it. But on the flip side, there’s a downside what was lost by losing the water cooler?
Allison Williams: [00:06:17] The second thing to consider when we talk about why it has to be different when you are communicating in a virtual law firm versus communicating in a brick and mortar traditional law firm is that you don’t have the same level of site, right? We take in data from our senses and our site is our strongest sense overall. And so when we are in an environment with other people and we can simply walk outside of our office or walk down the hallway and gaze and pick up on things, we oftentimes are not aware of how much information we’re actually picking up through the, the happening upon people in a workplace.
Allison Williams: [00:07:05] So I want you to think about it again, going back to when you were in that brick and mortar office. If you were to go outside, you could see that your legal assistant seems to be distracted, seems to have some things on her mind, perhaps she’s not really paying close attention to her work. And that could be because she’s having problems at home, or because someone is sick, or perhaps her spouse lost his job, right? There could be any number of things going through her mind that have her attention drawn outside of the workforce, you don’t have the ability to stop and check-in with her. When you aren’t seeing that, she needs that check-in. Unless, of course, you’re scheduling it intentionally, right? Because just knowing that, just knowing that you would have the opportunity to see that if you were in a workplace together doesn’t inherently compel someone to immediately start creating sight unseen moments in the virtual law firm. So you have to be proactive about that before you actually get to a place where you lose all sense of what’s going on with your people because you’re not with them anymore, OK?
Allison Williams: [00:08:17] The third thing that’s really important when we think about why a virtual law firm is different than a brick and mortar and why we must be intentional in our communications around it, is that it’s really easy in a virtual environment to ease into isolation. It is very, very common that people who are working at home don’t have the same level of interaction with the team as they have when they’re working in an office, even if they were the type of person who would come to the office. Log in to, go into their office, go shut the door, log into their computer and put their head down, right? Just knowing that there are other people who are a few feet away with whom they could have a conversation if they needed to. Is a feeling of community that you don’t typically have when you have a virtual environment unless, of course, you are again very intentional about how you are creating it.
Allison Williams: [00:09:16] So we’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back, I want you to really take these three thoughts into consideration, right? The absence of water cooler, the absence of being able to see other people in the workplace and the ease with which people can fall into isolation when they are not in a brick and mortar workplace. And we’re going to be talking about how to address those strategies, those problems when we come back from our commercial break.
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Allison Williams: [00:11:06] All right, before the break, we were just talking about why it is so different, the level of communication that you have to have in a brick and mortar business versus a virtual law firm. And now we’re going to talk about some strategies that you can use to institutionalize intentional communication in your virtual law firm. So the very first recommendation I have for you is that you install some form of communication, right? We, we in the office, we typically are going to have an intercom system or we’re going to have an interoffice messaging system, text messaging in offices or we might just again be so close in proximity we can literally step outside and see each other. But here, when we’re in a virtual environment, there needs to be some form of a mechanism through which you can communicate. A lot of people are favorable to Microsoft Teams. I’m not a big fan of it personally, but I know a lot of people that use it because it comes with their Microsoft Suite. And since they’re already using Outlook, switching over to Teams or adding Teams is not problematic.
Allison Williams: [00:12:12] Slack is the channel that we use, the process that we use in my law firm, but I know a lot of people that use Slack or teams, and the benefit of it is that you can segregate out your communications by topic and so you can actually create very specific channels to talk about very specific things. And so when it’s time to search a previous communication, you have a much easier time finding what you need. I know some other law firms, including some of our clients here at Law Firm Mentor, actually use WhatsApp to create groups where they can divide the communications and use their phone the same way that they would be texting in groups on their phone with friends and family, they similarly do that with coworkers but through WhatsApp. However, you choose to set up your communication mechanism, you need to have that mechanism and you need to encourage people to actually use the mechanism. Ok, so it’s not, It’s important to not only have that very specific form of channel through which people can communicate, but you need to do things to prompt communication. So that could be anything from, from asking questions periodically throughout the day, or, you know, posting reminders of things throughout the day. Sometimes it can be just simple things like, you know, Hey guys, our health insurance renewal plan documents will be delivered sometime over the next month be on the lookout for that, or it could be something related to what’s going on in the environment outside of your physical office, such as, you know, hey guys, we’re expecting a snowstorm later this week. I hope everybody is, you know, has got your salt and your sand and your snow tires, and you’re ready to go for some hectic weather, right? It’s engaging.
Allison Williams: [00:14:07] And when you are in this type of environment, a virtual environment, you want to be intentional about what is posted there so that you can solicit people to comment, which is going to be our next recommendation. So I just want to stay with Slack for just a moment before we move on, though, and talk about something that you can do a very specific strategy that we use here in my law firm in order to trigger people to communicate with each other in Slack and I will be very candid, I did not take this on my own, I did not come up with this. I actually got this from the business coach that we use for my, my lawyers here at Law Firm Mentor, Ivy, Slater of Slater Success and Ivy gave us the recommendation. Brilliant that I, I still use. I love it. It did so much more for us than I could have ever imagined. But what we do is a morning motivation, we have a morning motivation channel and everyone in the law firm is put in order by first name, in alphabetical order, and every person in rotation gets a turn.
Allison Williams: [00:15:13] And when it’s your turn, you have to post something and present it to the firm, for us to think about that really frames the day, and then we talk about it, right? Or we give examples of it. So let me give you an example. Sometimes people will post jokes or funny memes. Sometimes people will post philosophical questions or interesting thoughts and ideas that came up over the weekend, it could be any number of things. Every once in a while, it’ll be a fun game that we all participate in, like a riddle or a Limerick, something that engages the mind. But everyone is required in the firm to acknowledge and engage with the morning motivation post every single day. The beautiful thing about that is that it requires us to be on the lookout for whatever is coming from the morning motivation channel so that we can engage with it. And sometimes just going in there to read the funny memes and the, the favorite songs, right? We learn so much about each other through that process of talking about things. Sometimes we’ll have people post their biggest win and ask people, You know, what’s been your biggest win of the month? Sometimes people will post questions and comment upon life.
Allison Williams: [00:16:33] Most recently, I shared on Facebook that unfortunately, we had a series of COVID-related deaths, and I knew each of the people who died. I had three people died. Luckily, these people were not personally close to me, but they were close to people I’m close to, so I had to give some emotional support to others. But I remember I posted on Facebook, you know, that life is precious and that this really struck me that these young people, all of whom I had the occasion to engage with. And by the way, when I say young, I’m talking about under the age of 60, that’s, that’s now my new young, right? 60 is the new 40. But as a woman in her 40s, when I hear of someone in their 50s dying, it strikes me because, you know, that could be me any day now. And so I commented that life is precious, and several of my employees are our Facebook friends with me online and they somebody actually reached out to me and said, You know, this is something that I actually thought about posting in the Slack channel, because this person had also experienced several deaths related to COVID in over an extended period of time, but still several people. And it got this person to thinking about the way that COVID is affecting us all. And, you know, the person essentially asked, Would it be appropriate if she posts this in the selection aisle? And I said, Absolutely, right.
Allison Williams: [00:18:03] So I want you to be thinking outside the box in terms of getting people to engage but the beautiful thing about this particular strategy that was given to me by another very smart coach is that it first gets people thinking, gets people looking to communicate, and it also triggers engagement. People comment, share ideas, share thoughts, share examples from their own lives. The other thing that this does is and this was a very ancillary benefit, is that we have a general channel in Slack. You know, it comes with the, the setting up of, of the Slack channel, and every morning people jump in and say good morning to each other, and I don’t even know that I’m going to own a little bit of my own challenge here. You know, I come into the office really early. So even when I had a full farm full of people, I would not necessarily stop and go around and say hello and good morning to everyone. Not because I wasn’t caring about them, but because once I get into work, my mind kind of stays on work, right? My head is down in the keyboard and I don’t lift typically until I have to go to the bathroom. But now, because we have this slack channel, I’m very intentional about saying good morning to my team every single day. And most people in the law firm at some point in time during the morning are going to stop and say Good morning to everyone. It really does create a strong feeling of cohesion.
Allison Williams: [00:19:28] In fact, we have been virtual now since the early part of 2020. And notwithstanding that every time we have a firm gathering, every time we have a holiday party, every time we get together, it feels like a big family reunion. People are excited and happy to be with each other because they have been engaging and talking to each other, not just to do their work, but simply to be a part of the virtual community that we’ve created.
Allison Williams: [00:19:53] All right. Strategy number two, daily connects. Now, daily connects are really important. Ok. What daily connects are, is you should, we’ve talked about having defined communication strategies and policies in your law firm, you need to have defined time for people to stop and talk about their work. So that delegation is not something that happens kind of on the fly when I’m running from thing to thing and I got to get it off my desk. But instead, you stop and you have meetings with your team to delegate work. You have time where you are meeting with people in the office to talk about big-picture strategy in your department. So the marketing assistant is not waiting for something to happen for her to or for him to market the law firm. The marketing assistant is proactively meeting with people on a schedule to get things to market. Similarly, the lawyers are not waiting until their schedules are overflowing or their desks are about to explode before their meeting with the paralegal, they have scheduled meeting time to do that.
Allison Williams: [00:20:58] The daily connects, however, allow for every person that is engaged with another person to do their work. They can stop and say, Have we gotten everything under our belt? This is not the weekly meeting, right? You’re still going to have your weekly meetings that would still be scheduled the same way it would be if you were in your brick and mortar. But the daily connects allow you to stop and talk to your team member to make sure that things are flowing smoothly. A lot of times we pass information now back and forth by email and sometimes by text message when we are sometimes even by Slack, right when we are in this virtual environment, but stopping to actually make sure that at least one time a day you are touching base with the people that are facilitating your work, allows you to have a much higher level of confidence that the work is actually getting done, right? It doesn’t feel like it’s going off into the black abyss, never to be seen again until it’s either done or not done, and a deadline is either missed or met. Instead of having that blind trust and faith that we all would like to have in our team members, this reinforces that faith so that when people are, for whatever reason, not able to get to something falling down because they’re emotionally overwrought because of COVID, that has happened a lot more because they misunderstood something that came in a written communication, didn’t follow up on it, misread something you have an opportunity to course- correct every single day.
Allison Williams: [00:22:24] Ok, these daily connects don’t have to be lengthy. This can be literally a two or three-minute Zoom meeting. This does not have to be lengthy, but what you’ll find is that this can add to that quote water cooler time that you’re missing when you’re not in the office together. So it allows people to engage with each other. And what you find is that that does create stronger teams, it creates stronger interpersonal communication, and it gives people a greater sense of getting things done because they know either at the end of the day or the beginning of the next day, they’re going to have that daily connect with someone. Think of it like a scrum meeting, so for those of you that are familiar with the idea of having a stand-up meeting where we all gather touch based on what has to get done for that day, that’s what a scrum meeting is. This is basically a version of that, but in abbreviated form and electronically by Zoom.
Allison Williams: [00:23:17] Ok, third and final recommendation for intentional communication in your virtual law firm. Praising your team member, your team members, I should say, needs to happen to the company on a schedule. Ok, now this is what I like to refer to is catch someone doing something good and promote it.
Allison Williams: [00:23:40] And when we are in our brick and mortar business, right, I’ve always been very much a proponent of scheduling praise because I think a lot of people, even though you believe when someone does something worthy of praise, I give it to them. There are a lot of us, a lot of lawyers in particular, but I think it’s even more hardwired into solo and small law firm attorneys. A lot of us didn’t have those atta boys and atta girls to fuel us, right? A lot of us became lawyers because we had to get things done, whether someone was giving us the atta boy or the atta girl or not. And so it’s almost a mark of esteem in our profession that no matter what’s thrown at us, no matter how stressful it is, no matter how challenging it is, we hunker down and get it done. And the problem with that, like, there’s a value to that, but there’s also a dark side. The dark side is that we not just work with other lawyers, and not everyone had that experience as a lawyer. So there are some people that that’s not true for. But when we have that mindset, we oftentimes assume that, because we, the entrepreneur, were able to walk to school every day uphill in the snow on our hands, blindfolded with rocks on our feet that somehow our staff were in the exact same position and they would be motivated the same way. And that’s simply not true. Right?
[00:25:11] Most people need positive reinforcement. They need those attaboys and those atta girls, and a lot of us need it, and we’re just not willing to ask for it, right? So I want you to get into the habit of not just praising your team, right, but looking for ways to reinforce behavior that you desire. In fact, it is much easier to fuel positive behavior and thus eliminate or reduce negative behavior by virtue of having someone so fixated on getting that next atta boy or add a girl that they don’t have time to be doing the things that you find problematic that are a problem for your business.
Allison Williams: [00:25:49] Now, that doesn’t mean that when you have an underperformer, you just let them underperform and you praise the things that they do well. You do have to address the underperformance. Obviously, we are a skilled profession. You must have a certain level of skill in your business in order to be ethical and to mitigate the risk of malpractise or grievance. However, when people are incentivized with that positive reinforcement that praise, they oftentimes usually will do much better. And so for those of us that are not hardwired to praise every time, something that we see is a small thing is done well. I want you to get into the habit of putting it on a schedule. You can do this by simply going to your calendar and just putting a private note on there, right? You don’t probably don’t want to have your team seeing this, but put a private note on there that says, you know, praise and then put, put it in order, right? You’ve got five people employee one, employee two, employee three, employee four, employee five. Put them in an order every Tuesday and Thursday or every Tuesday and Friday, you’re going to oscillate between the various people in your rotation and you’re going to find them doing something right. This does not have to be something major. It doesn’t have to be that you are the owner of a criminal defense law firm and your associate won his first murder trial. Right. I want you to think about small things, things that you want more of the fact that someone proactively called a client to wish them happy birthday, or the fact that someone was able to diffuse an upset client when they stopped by the office or when they emailed or called and demanded a short term meeting. The fact that somebody was able to find an esoteric case right on point, or the fact that someone was able to pick up on a scheduling conflict that had it not been resolved, an attorney would have missed an important meeting or perhaps missed a court appearance. Those sorts of daily routine activities that we expect to be par for the course of high-level performance in our businesses are the things that you want to be praising, because when people are on the hunt for that next piece of positive reinforcement, they ultimately will do much better.
Allison Williams: [00:28:08] Ok, today we have been talking about virtual law firm and in particular intentional communications that will facilitate the community and culture of a virtual law firm. Now, if you have either transitioned to a virtual law firm or are looking for ways to institutionalize some of these positive cultural policies in your virtual law firm, we can help you with that. Just reach out to a growth strategist on our team and have a conversation about how this could work for you in your law firm.
Allison Williams: [00:28:40] All right, everyone, I’m Allison Williams. You’ve been listening to The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. I’ll see you on our next show.
Allison Williams: [00:28:54] Thank you for tuning in to The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast to learn more about today’s show and take advantage of the resources mentioned, check out our show notes. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, take a moment to follow the podcast wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating and review. This helps us to reach even more law firm owners from around the country who want to crush chaos in business and make more money. I’m Allison Williams your Law Firm Mentor, everyone. Have a great day!
Allison C. Williams, Esq., is the Founder and Owner of the Williams Law Group, LLC, with offices in Short Hills and Freehold, New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney, and is the first attorney in New Jersey to become Board-Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in the field of Family Law.
Ms. Williams is an accomplished businesswoman. In 2017, the Williams Law Group won the LawFirm500 award, ranking 14th of the fastest-growing law firms in the nation, as Ms. Williams grew the firm 581% in three years. Ms. Williams won the Silver Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. In 2018, Ms. Williams was voted as NJBIZ’s Top 50 Women in Business and was designated one of the Top 25 Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners. In 2019, Ms. Williams won the Seminole 100 Award for founding one of the fastest-growing companies among graduates of Florida State University.
In 2018, Ms. Williams created Law Firm Mentor, a business coaching service for lawyers. She helps solo and small law firm attorneys grow their business revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money. Through multi-day intensive business retreats, group and one-to-one coaching, and strategic planning sessions, Ms. Williams advises lawyers on all aspects of creating, sustaining, and scaling a law firm business – and specifically, she teaches them the core foundational principles of marketing, sales, personnel management, communications, and money management in law firms.
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My Favorite Excerpt From The Episode:
TIME: 00:20:00 (32 Seconds)
What daily connects are, is you should, we’ve talked about having defined communication strategies and policies in your law firm, you need to have defined time for people to stop and talk about their work. So that delegation is not something that happens kind of on the fly when I’m running from thing to thing and I got to get it off my desk. But instead, you stop and you have meetings with your team to delegate work. You have time where you are meeting with people in the office to talk about big-picture strategy in your department.