Denver Bar Association
July 2013
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Don’t Let Talent Drift Away

by Alicia McCommons


tterBox, an innovative Fort Collins company, recruits its employees with a statement that could easily fit a law firm: "Our commitments to customers, to one another, and to our community are unparalleled, so we don't settle for great. We seek extraordinary."

OtterBox sells iPhone waterproof cases and calls its employees "otters." While that may sound gimmicky, it gets results. Its website states that it is the No. 1 selling case for smartphones in the U.S. In addition, it was recognized as a company with an exceptional workplace culture in Fortune magazine’s 2012 Best Small and Medium Workplaces.

Many companies similar to OtterBox, especially tech companies, have been at the forefront of creative workplace ideas that spur hard work in an environment grounded in fun and respect.

Law firm management sometimes gets a bad rap for being behind the times when it comes to managing people. We can improve our management style so that we can retain our top talent by taking some hints from the tech organizations that consistently excel at serving their clients, making profits, and creating cultures that empower their staff to jump up and say, "Wow, this is a great place to work."

We might sigh in a sense of relief if we could simulate this culture and create a happy employee through the right work environment and not by a higher wage. Channeling the creativity that inspired Google’s famous on-site culinary benefits springs to mind.

As lawyers, we can create a similar, successful firm culture by asking one key question: "What can I do to make your job easier?"

Lawyers need to ask this key question consistently and continuously. The idea is to make this a straight forward question that is a part of our culture, not just a one-time, vague idea that is part of a human resources questionnaire.

Lawyers need to ask this simple question of everyone, from partners to associates to legal assistants to file clerks.

When we ask this question, we need to focus on the job, the work product, the client, the communication, and the deadlines—everything related to the job.

We need to listen to everyone’s answers. We may not agree, but consistently listening will enable us to learn something.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, we need to focus on what we can do for our staff, not what they can do for us. Ultimately, this will benefit us as well.

Ask Follow-up Questions

Take that inquisitive nature one step further when you ask your staff, "What would make your job easier?" What do they mean by more support from 4 to 5 p.m. when they get an unexpected rush of client calls?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book "Outliers: The Story of Success," he explains that money is not considered the greatest reward (or motivator). Instead, he says work that has "autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward" fulfills us and makes us happy. By following up on job questions related to effort and complexity, we can find out what this means for each employee.

Respect Others

People want to feel, and deserve to be, respected. By just asking them, "What can I do to make your job easier?" you are showing them a sign of respect, not to mention the respect shown by listening.

In Deborah Perry Piscione’s book "Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World," she states that the successful Silicon Valley business model includes a recognition by the organization "that great companies and ventures grow from the hard work of many indispensable people, not just the vision of a handful of CEOs."

By respecting what everyone has to say, whether you agree with it, you create a culture that lets great ideas and solutions to your firm’s problems evolve naturally. With open dialogue and respect, problems can sometimes even solve themselves.

Reduce Stress

While lawyers are all too familiar with what stress means, this issue is gaining even more mileage with today’s discussions of mental health.

The article "Stress leave a rising source of contention for employers," from the May 28 issue of The Denver Post, reports a growing number of stress-related complaints and employee claims alleging Family Medical Leave Act violations. Experts note solving "‘unnecessary’ sources of stress, such as outdated computer systems and inadequate training and support for new employees" can help mitigate employees’ stress.

The bottom line of the stress claim is, "What can I do to make your job easier?"

Create Culture

Quality top management understands the need to consciously create a culture that is effective for its industry. Top management is always watched—is what you do ethical and fair? Is what you do thoughtful and effective? Is any idea welcome?

Another famous trait of Google is to flatten hierarchies to create an environment conducive to effective problem solving. "Google doesn’t attract the world’s best based on a high salary; rather, they’re attracted to the casual work environment and wafer-thin hierarchy ... any idea is welcome," according to Forbes article "The Decline but Not Fall of Hierarchy—What Young People Really Want."

Get Help

In the same way we hire our accountants or information technology staff, we need to effectively support our talent management. Whether or not we have the ability, we certainly do not have the time to practice law effectively and take on an increasingly complex area of business management.

A large firm, already familiar with staffing a human resources department, may want to ensure HR is encouraged to follow the latest trends in talent management. That staff may need permission to hire consultants and to hold management accountable to a higher standard.

A small firm or solo can hire a management consultant, or organizations such as Mountain States Employers Council, to help with these issues. An effective consultant will recognize that while he or she is needed to catalog ideas and present suggestions, the consultant is not a substitute for the culture that we as lawyers can and do create.

By often asking our staff, "What can I do to make your job easier?" and by listening and following up on those answers, we can create a culture of success in talent retention that rivals even the advanced tech industry. D


Docket Committee member Alicia McCommons is not associated with OtterBox, but she is intrigued by the idea of floating with a raft of otters. She may be reached at

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