Friday, December 19, 2014

How Do You Deal With A Losing Season?

It pains me to say it, but the Jets stink this year.  Our QB is not cutting it, our secondary doesn't have the chops to cover the best guys in the league and - even in the areas where we have talent - no one is performing.  Losing is a vicious cycle, particularly for the Jets.  The owner doesn't know how to assess the team’s chances for success and relies on the scoreboard as his only critical metric.  So when they lose, they throw out the wheat with the chaff.  While this makes the fans happy, it ensures that they will never have the continuity they need to win in the future.

Law firms are not different:  When times get tough, partners are tempted to look at billed hours and fire those who aren't making the cut.  This might be the right thing to do in the short term, but often it's the worst thing that you can do for the long run.
The time to trim staff is when you are structurally overstaffed, or when you have team members who are not performing and are unlikely to improve.  Firing attorneys when business is slow will leave you short-handed just in time for the upswing.  Instead of tying your staffing to the state of your pipeline, create a process for dealing with the peaks and valleys of your practice.

  • Set Goals.  Create a staff strategy with set billing targets, share it with everyone in the organization, and hold team members accountable for meeting their goals.

  • Stay Aware.  Force everyone (including yourself) to record time contemporaneously with legal service - you need to know what's happening every day.  This will allow your staff to stay more in control of their hours, and for you to assist them in real time, instead of at the end of the year when the time has passed and it's too late to do anything about it.

  • Review.  Evaluate progress with weekly staff meetings and quarterly attorney reviews.  Obviously performance assessment, which should be done formally on a semi-annual basis, is an important part of the puzzle.  Small firms often place too much value on this measure, holding onto those staffers that have the promise of success due to strong educational background or experience, or because they possess more dynamic personality, instead of focusing on those who are experiencing success.  Small firms need attorneys who will contribute to the mission - which is slightly different than that of a large firm - and a touch of entrepreneurialism is a critical piece to building a team that can survive business cycles.

  • Provide Paths to Success.  Create a mechanism for attorneys to seek more work (e.g. rainmaking incentives, business development mentorship, or the prospect of partnership).  Empowering your staff to participate in business development activities is an important part of placing them in control of their success.  Assisting them in identifying prospects, providing materials, hiring business development coaches, having regular meetings to track business development progress, providing staffers budget for entertaining, sharing your business development process and progress, and incentivizing their success are all important ways to foster participation in the area of generating business.

  • Check In.  Create warnings early enough so attorneys can do something about their productivity, and provide positive feedback when they are meeting expectations.  Small firm partners often guard information about staff performance closely as a product of habit.  Creating a system to provide team members with access their performance standing not only improve performance in the long run, it also provides successful staff members with the confidence to continue to excel.

  • Prepare.  Have a slowdown strategy.  Optimize your employment agreement and compensation structure with a policy that gives you a way to adjust compensation when your pipeline slows down.

Don't fire your coach, your coordinators and trade away your talent.  Dig into the process, and know that you have a team that can weather a bad year, so you can win the super bowl next season.  

David DePietto is the founder and CEO of NexFirm. He Can be reached at dd@nexfirm.com