Every lawyer’s ultimate accountability is to clients. However, many lawyers are also accountable for meeting business goals—regardless of whether they are solo or work for a large firm.

While those were not John Wanamaker’s exact words, the revision is useful for a discussion of accountability in your law firm.

Figure Out Your Firm’s Culture

Accountability and firm culture are inextricably intertwined. You are accountable for living to your values.

I suspect that at least some of you will greet concepts surrounding culture with rolling eyes and groans. I anticipate these reactions because that’s largely how I felt about them.

After all, nobody has time for Kumbaya.

Here’s the thing, though: culture doesn’t care if you believe in it. It grows and evolves whether you’re conscious of it or not. Of course, if you don’t give it attention, like an unkempt garden, it will grow beyond your control.

Here are a few of the resources on nurturing culture that I have found most resonant:

I’m also big on Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Dan Pink’s books, particularly Drive.

While I encourage you to fully explore each of these, let’s distill some of the most salient points as they relate to accountability (relying heavily on Richman’s guidance).

There are two primary rules for culture wrangling:

  1. Opt-in. People perform better when they have agreed to take on responsibility. This is true of agreements we make with others and those we make with ourselves.
  2. Co-create. No single individual can control culture. Everyone on the team participates in culture creation and nurture.

In my experience, the opt-in piece is imperative to accountability. Put simply, when people freely enter into agreements, they are more likely to uphold their end of the agreement than when they feel ordered to do something against their will.

Does this eliminate task assignment and delegation? Of course not. Every role in your firm requires completing tasks that, at some point in time, we don’t want to do. However, when people opt-in with an understanding of the requirements and objectives of that role, they are more likely to achieve those objectives.

Here’s a minimum viable product outline for starting the conversation around culture:

  1. What is your firm’s mission?
  2. What are your visions for the firm for the next 2-5 years?
  3. What does your firm value above all else?

At the risk of stating the obvious, you are not going to complete this process over a weekend. It’s also not a problem that must be solved. It’s more like tending a garden. It’s a work in continual progress. But if you want to maximize accountability, developing your culture is your best shot at doing so.

From Culture to Accountability

When many people consider workplace accountability, they usually begin to list things off like getting results, tracking time, task completion, and deliverables.

However, these are nothing more than metrics and artifacts (and not very good ones) for trying to measure accountability. People have to hold themselves accountable.

You can mentor, coach, guide, assist, provide feedback, write-up, punish, and fire. But ultimately, accountability rests with each individual you hire.

By firing people, you might think that you are holding them accountable. What you’re actually concluding is that they were unable to hold themselves accountable.

In any event, team accountability begins with recruiting and hiring people that value accountability.

But in order to attract and retain people that value accountability, you have to communicate that it’s a shared value. This is why it’s so important to work through the process of defining your firm’s culture first.

Determine Objectives and Key Results

Assuming you’ve laid a strong cultural foundation, it’s time to define concrete and measurable metrics from your mission, vision, and values. I’m partial to objectives and key results (OKRs). If this concept is completely new to you, I recommend that you head over to Rick Klau’s How Google sets goals: OKRs. Additionally, 7Geese’s Learning and Resource Library has some useful information on creating and implementing OKRs. From 7Geese (emphasis added):

An objective defines the answer to: what is it I want to accomplish. Objectives should be aligned with what defines organizational success, but more important must be personally meaningful/aspirational. They should also be aligned and supported by the entire organization. Objectives are about how you can grow parallel with the rest of your team….

Key results define the answer to: how I will accomplish the objective, and how I will be measured against my objective. They help make the objective and how it will be accomplished as transparent as possible. It is measurable, limited, and time-constrained.

Since every law practice is unique, it is impossible for me to hand you OKRs. On the other hand, there is some tangible, tactical advice on implementing OKRs:

  • Make value-based decisions. Let your cultural values guide your decision-making. Hire, fire, and manage through the lens of the values upon which your firm has agreed are important.
  • Focus on outputs. Value outcomes over inputs (i.e. client satisfaction, an increase in new clients, fees from clients, inquiries from potential clients). Tools like client relationship management and call tracking software are useful here.
  • Constant feedback. Regularly request, provide, and share feedback both internally and externally (such as clients). Do not wait until exit interviews to figure out what’s going wrong. Internally, I like 7Geese for this.
  • Track progress. Make it easy and obvious for everyone in your firm to see how people are doing individually and collectively. Encourage teammates to periodically evaluate their own performance. In my experience, these are most effective when measured monthly, quarterly, and annually (not daily nor weekly).
  • Coach up or out. When having conversations about whether you have the right people on your team, consider the Netflix keeper test: If one of your teammates told you they were leaving for a job at a competitor firm, would you fight hard to keep them?

Offering Carrots and Sticks

Along the way, you will eventually confront challenges surrounding rewards (carrots) and consequences (sticks) for achieving objectives. But before you do, remember the candle problem:

If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That’s how business works. But that’s not happening here. You’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.

Read that again. It’s not just that traditional notions of incentives don’t help, they actually hurt performance.

Much of the work at your law firm is likely to be more like solving the candle problem and less like stuffing envelopes. Brief writing, depositions, motion hearings, and trial strategy all require candle-problem creative thinking.

However, in many law firms, carrots are passed out based on metrics like hours billed. That’s envelope stuffing incentive.

Make sure your rewards and consequences match the type of work being done.

But in the end, if you and your team aren’t intrinsically motivated to reach clearly defined firm objectives, you probably won’t.

Originally published 2016. Republished 2020-02-26.

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Last updated August 30th, 2023