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‘Different personalities' add to culture

Efforts are wasted if management doesn’t lead by example
By Saul Chernos
September 30 2016 issue

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Family law can be highly charged, given that clients are often on edge with deeply personal issues. So might light-hearted banter, a strong sense of camaraderie and a no-work weekend in the Big Apple be just what the partner ordered to keep a firm running smoothly?

Lisa Gelman, who oversees 11 other lawyers at Gelman & Associates, thinks so. In building her practice, she’s taken careful, deliberate steps to nurture a culture designed to keep her and her staff spirited and on top of their game.

With six offices in and around the Greater Toronto Area, maintaining a strong team spirit might seem challenging, particularly when the firm embraces diversity, with people of varying ages, ethnicities and personalities. Yet, Gelman sees the firm as a family that works and plays together even while its members help clients whose own families are in crisis.

“We celebrate everyone’s birthdays and work anniversaries,” Gelman says. “We all bring our eccentric, different personalities, and we can poke gentle fun at each other and have a good time.”

Recently, 18 members of the firm, including support staff, spent a few days in New York City. “It was just to have a fun weekend away,” Gelman explains. “We want people to enjoy working here because they’re spending most of their lives at our firm.”

Gelman has been deliberate about developing the kind of atmosphere where employees can dress business casual and talk openly if they wish about their personal lives and yet where they present themselves professionally.

“Clients don’t see the whimsical interactions we have behind the scenes,” Gelman says. “But I think they do feel our passion and energy.”

At Stanchieri Family Law, Julie Stanchieri also wants to present a welcoming, professional face to clients, and she’s sought to imbue her firm with a culture strong on mutual respect and passion for a job well done.

“Culture’s not one of those things you necessarily think about specifically all the time, but in some ways it infuses everything you do,” Stanchieri says, defining culture as the interrelationships and collective values and beliefs of people in a particular milieu. “Values and beliefs often influence our interactions internally and externally in the way we interact with clients,” she explains.

Of course, culture can be fluid and open to change. While change can have both benefits and drawbacks, Stanchieri has put mechanisms into place to help ensure consistency and common understanding.

“You can maintain your core values and beliefs if you hire carefully,” Stanchieri says. “We’ve incorporated personality testing into our hiring process not because we want everybody to be the same but because we want everybody to be compatible.”

With eight lawyers and one suburban satellite office, the Toronto-based firm has a policy manual spelling out expected behaviours. Yelling and other expressions of disrespect aren’t tolerated, and expectations around billable and working hours are clarified.

“The end goal is not bill, bill, bill, and run yourself into the ground,” Stanchieri says. “I want people who work here to be grounded. If you’ve surpassed your target, take an extra day off. Maybe you need some personal time before you get back to the grind.”

In Calgary, with practice areas in tax, corporate-commercial and litigation, Shea Nerland Law used to emphasize loyalty to long-term employees. However, managing partner Dennis Nerland says the firm’s culture has evolved over the last few years to embrace performance and opportunity.

“We pay attention to metrics and we set goals,” Nerland says, explaining that the firm recognizes performance as vital to clients. “If we’re performing at a high level for a whole bunch of reasons, the clients feel it.”

Itemizing some of the firm’s general principles — open communication, integrity, airing differences, focusing on strategy and purpose and ensuring a workplace where everyone feels they belong — Nerland says a solid sense of culture keep things running smoothly because it helps ensure consistency as the firm’s lawyers set about solving often-complex problems.

“If your team solves problems in ways that work, then you basically have an organization that’s on autopilot. You don’t really need to manage that process because you’re getting the desired solutions and results from your people on a self-governing basis.”

A performance and opportunity-based culture also serves Shea Nerland’s ambitions for growth. The firm currently has a roster of 35 lawyers, including students, and Nerland has his sights set on the future.

“All that mixture you put together goes out into the marketplace and becomes a valuable brand asset,” Nerland says. “We see culture as an asset that creates a competitive advantage at the end of the day.”

As founder of MaxPeople, a Toronto human resources consultancy, Julie Ruben Rodney, has helped create value statements and performance management programs and says the culture at law firms has changed considerably over the last few decades. “Firms have become more informal and are allowing for more flexible arrangements,” she says.

While cultures vary from firm to firm, as do employee needs and desires, what matters in any setting is that good work is recognized, leaders are strong and manage well, and everyone feels they belong.

“If you don’t have a strong culture, when people say they’re leaving for more money they’re really not leaving for more money,” Ruben Rodney says. “It’s often because they don’t like the culture or they don’t like the manager who is creating the culture.”

The bottom line, Ruben Rodney says, is that management needs to walk the talk. She relates an anecdote about one company that renovated and designed small cafes as collaborative workspaces. Asked why the cafes were empty, an employee responded that if you’re seen in those cafes the executives wonder if you don’t have enough work.

“That’s a classic example of where senior leadership takes theory around culture but doesn’t walk the talk,” Ruben Rodney says. “The environment is absolutely a part of culture, but your behaviour has to align with the culture you’re trying to create.”

Culture ultimately comes down to people and shared values. “The culture is everyone’s hearts and minds. It’s not what their offices look like, it’s how they live.”

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