Robert D. Hays was thrilled when his employees defended their
flag football title this past season. While he was happy to see people at King & Spalding LLP having fun and building relationships
with each other, he wouldn’t have been so enthused if that was
done at the expense of the clients.
“It’s work hard and play hard, and when you’re a high-performing organization, that’s sometimes hard to do to remain both
high-performing and also have a collegial, collaborative, fun environment because there are businesses that are one or the other
but not both,” he says.
It’s this dual expectation that has gotten the law firm where it is
today — 2,000 employees across 10 global offices, which collaboratively earned around $600 million in revenue last year.
Everywhere he looks, success is obvious, but beyond the numbers, Hays often asks clients why they chose his firm when they
have so many options, and they consistently say it’s because of
“They often say it is because you will give us world-class legal
work, and we enjoyed the relationship, and we like your people, and we think you’re able to maintain perspective and a
sense of humor,” he says.
When clients are happy, they’ll continue coming back, so as
chairman and managing partner, Hays recognizes that the only
way for this to not only continue but also grow is to hire
increasingly better people and have those people build
stronger client relationships.
“They’re all personal relationships in this business,” he says.
“It’s people in the organization and interfacing with people outside the organization.
“It begins and ends with people — that’s all we are.”
Build relationships through
Relationships are built on solid communication and trust. To
make sure clients are happy with the work you are doing, get
their input by genuinely communicating that you want them to
be upfront and honest. But as simple as it sounds, it’s not easy.
Hays says you have to convince your customers that you are
sincere about getting honest feedback before you’ll get a true
picture of how well you are doing.
“You have to compel them to a place of candor with you — in
particular, when they’re talking to you about what you do or
what your firm does or what people who work for you do,”
“Explain your own commitment to responding to [feedback],
and credibly explain to them your own belief that their unvarnished candor is truly a great business value to you in the long
run. Once they see that and understand that you’re sincere,
that you’re unemotional and objective about the input, then
they, as people, are much more likely to be candid and objective in the discussion.”
Hays suggests not sending the person from your company
who is most involved with the client.
“Let’s say I am the person who does principle work for your company,” he says. “If you and I are friends, and I go up and ask you to
give me a candid review of what we’re doing and suggestions and
how you perceive us and people who work for me, even if you were candid — and you may not be — if it’s not flattering, it’s
something I don’t want to hear, I may delude myself about what
I’m hearing, and that information is not high quality and doesn’t do
us any good. People often hear what they want and then report it
even more favorably than they heard it.”
It’s also important to talk to several people at the company.
“You’re more likely to get the honest feedback,” he says. “...
What one person at the client may feel or know or see is quite
different than another one, but they’re both right because they
both represent a much larger enterprise, so you have to get
reports from all corners of that enterprise.”
Once you get feedback, you then have to determine what to
do with it.
“The world we live in is filled with opinions and advice and
often stated with great conviction in a way that would suggest
they’re never wrong, but they are,” Hays says. “There’s just a
lot of noise obviously in any business, and you have to be rigorous about your focus so that you block out a lot of that
Go through the information, and don’t discard anything without careful consideration.
“You can often get diametrically opposed opinions on the
very same issue from seemingly knowledgeable people, so you
have to do a great deal of sifting,” Hays says. “Part of that is to
take your time with it. You cannot make snap judgments.”
The key to sifting effectively is to push back on those conclusions, and Hays’ trial law background helps him do just that.
“In the courtroom, you always question all opinions because
everyone has one,” he says. “As I used to tell juries, opinions are
useless. The only things juries should listen to is reasons for opinions — what are the (bases) for those opinions? Then the people
on the jury make a determination based on the validity of the conclusion.
“That’s not dissimilar to what you have to do here, to a degree.
You have to probe constantly. Push to another level of analysis —
why do you believe that? What’s your basis? You keep pushing
and pushing. Often people are sincere in what they’re attempting
to convey, but they’re just imprecise of their expression of it. In
that kind of a dialogue, you often get to a better place than where
And once you begin to get to the reasons behind opinions,
look for recurrences.
“Almost nothing will you get uniform agreement on, but you
can find patterns,” Hays says. “If there are clusters of similar
responses and similar input, be it favorable or unfavorable,
you better pay attention to it.”
Those patterns tell you what things you need to address and
what things to keep doing. Without that feedback, you would
have no idea if what you’re doing is effective, and without that
knowledge, you can’t effectively improve and grow.
“We don’t produce widgets,” Hays says. “We are only the people, so that really involves two buckets of people — one are
the people internally here, who we hire and work together for
the clients, and the other are the people at the clients. You constantly have to be connected and listen to input from both
groups, and it changes, and it will continue to change.”
Build relationships with talent
Strong relationships with clients will help you build toward
long-term success, but you also need a top team to keep growing.
Hays says to find quality people, you have to know your company and not lower your standards.
For example, data shows that, in general, lawyers tend to be
type A personalities who are skeptical, less resilient than most
of the population, afraid of failure and less risk-oriented. To
make sure his firm stays ahead of the competition, he targets
people who don’t necessarily fit that profile.
“I’m a big believer that good is the enemy of the great,” Hays
says. “Good is not good enough. You have to have great people
— and to do that, you have to insist on greatness and have high
standards across the board.”
Getting great people starts in the interview process, and
whether you’re hiring senior people or entry-level folks, the
principles always apply.
“You need to have in these interview processes some skeptics —
some people whose jobs are to ask hard questions because you
want people to appear to be desirable — that will be the instinct,”
Hays says. “When you get into recruiting mode, it’s a groupthink
mentality that takes over, and marry that with what if the people
you’re interviewing are just telling you what you want to hear, and
the next thing you know, you don’t really have the kind of rigor that
you need to have to make quality decisions to grow that’s consistent with high performance.”
You may have a team member who’s naturally skeptical, but
if you don’t, then you need to appoint someone else or deal
with it yourself. Hays remembers one situation in which he
was interviewing a small group of people that looked great on
paper, but he doubted whether or not the candidates were
committed to the high-performance aspect of the firm’s culture, so he asked them some further questions.
He says that if they liked the line of questioning, they would
be fine with the culture, but if they didn’t like it, they probably
wouldn’t work out.
“I asked them, and it turns out they didn’t like it,” he says.
“That, to me, was a win-win all the way around. They learned
something, we learned something, and we didn’t go forward
The way you ask questions is also critical. To avoid having people tell you what they think you want to hear, Hays says to have
multiple teams of people ask questions to get historical data and
reduce some of the doubt in the hiring process.
“You ask people to prove that rather than state it,” he says. “What
is it about what you’ve done to date that demonstrates that you’re
committed to these values?”
While you’re asking a lot of questions, you also need to have
some honest conversation by laying out expectations to avoid
“You have to tell people that this is what’s expected,” Hays says.
“If you don’t, they won’t get there on their own, and they will
engage in mental gymnastics to avoid that conclusion if it’s convenient for them.”
You also need to make sure you’re not trying to sell the position to
them. Instead, clearly articulate the mission and let them decide if it’s
suited for them. For Hays, it’s about the balance between high performance and a fun culture that is most important.
“If you can’t look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m truly committed to
both of those things,’ that they’re not in tension with each other,
then it’s the wrong place,” Hays says. “If you build on that and
insist on that on a day-to-day basis, then you’re likely to develop a
culture and pass along an ethos within your organization that
attracts other people that are committed to the same value system,
and then it feeds on itself.”
On top of everything, you have to be patient and resist the
pressure to just fill a position.
“Just hiring good people will solve short-term immediate
needs, but it’s a mistake long-term, frankly.” Hays says. “No
one’s immune from having done that before, but you learn the
Hays says the easy way is almost always the wrong way, so
just say no, which is easier if you keep your standards at the
“The firm has to constantly increase its standards — not only
keep them where they are but increase them,” he says. “If
you’re committed to constantly increasing your standards at all
levels, then that’s an antidote to the seductive temptation to
making the short-term immediate decisions of hiring people
who might be good enough.”
Your people shape your culture, and that has to match up to
your clients if you want to succeed.
“Our culture is important to our business because if it was not consistent with what we heard from our clients or if we were not committed to aligning our culture with our business model, then I don’t
think we would ultimately be successful, as we are.”
HOW TO REACH: King & Spalding LLP, (404) 572-4600 or www.kslaw.com