Cliff Roe Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007

Cliff Roe isn’t afraid to admit that he likes getting up and going to work every day. And Roe, the managing partner for Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, tries to make sure that the more than 600 employees at the firm’s eight offices feel the same way. With that in mind, Roe strives to create a different kind of environment at the $108 million firm, one in which people can balance work and life and where their voices can be heard. Smart Business spoke with Roe about retaining talent and about getting his people involved in the decision-making process.

Let employees balance life and work. You want people to get up in the morning and want to come to work. In the changing society’s view of life, we stress the environment of how we work; we stress the personal side of what people deal with.

You have to find ways to keep your people motivated. That has resulted in us doing things like allowing part-time lawyers — we have many highly achieved lawyers that have children and don’t necessarily want to give up their profession, and we make arrangements to keep their talents.

We don’t enforce strict rules on altering the workday for that.

We’ve got some that work one day a week and some that work four days a week. And that’s one example of achieving a work environment that is healthy and enjoyable. We get to keep their skills with us, and they’re happy to have that flexibility.

We also hire a lot of lateral associates — people with a few years’ experience that are coming from other firms and cities — and it is not unusual to hire very experienced, very good talent from other firms who, after awhile, realize they’re not going to make partner or they’re tired of working until 10 o’clock every night.

We welcome those people and tell them that we understand there is life outside of this place. Work takes commitment, but we want people to see that we aren’t just looking for a person to bill us for hours; we want them to have a life and have work fit with that, and we work with them to figure out what we can do to help them achieve that.

Assign leaders who can reach everyone. We have management structures that break the firm into management pods. We’ve got a management council that includes the managing partner of each of our regional offices and the three heads of our major departments.

The point of that management council is that when we convene one of those meetings, every one of our 300-plus lawyers is managed by somebody in that room. You can literally get the message to all of them through these leaders.

So it’s an organization where you can really address specific problems and empower somebody in that room to solve the problem and hold that person accountable. When you structure it like that, you can make the management council the organ where things get done because someone is given the job before you walk out of that room. And at the next meeting, the first question is, ‘Did you get it done?’ or ‘How are you coming?’

Get a consensus. Our entire management team is a total democracy — we have them elected by the partners. I’m not sitting atop of a pyramid having fought my way up the ladder; I’m elected to a three-year term.

So when we set our strategic goals, there are very few mandates that ever come out of my mouth; we look at issues together and let the group of elected managers vote. A democratic platform is very appealing to those that have been involved in other types of management styles because you give people a voice when you take a vote on things.

We had a partner join us a few years ago who told us after his first meeting, ‘I was just asked to consider and vote on more things in one meeting than I was ever asked to vote upon in the 10 years I was at the other firm.’ Well, that’s how you make sure people feel as though they’ve been heard; you give them a chance to have an equal opinion on decisions so they can see that even if they’re choice isn’t what’s used, it was still factored in.

Listen to your peers. We are in a peer group of large, regional firms around the country similar to us that aren’t our competitors, and we meet every six months and share our best practices and we share our failures.

The biggest, most popular part of our agenda is when we go over the last six months and talk about what we’ve done and what programs we’ve started. It’s not just each firm bragging about how successful we are; we share our failures. And that’s where you really learn.

We share our best practices, too, but when you can sit in a non-competitive environment with fellow professionals and share ideas, and say, ‘Let me tell you how we screwed this one up,’ it’s a great process to see what works and what doesn’t. You get to share documents and files and anything else anybody needs to see how you roll out new programs and how certain things work.

Use technology, save time. When I became managing partner, I told all the other partners, ‘You better check your e-mail constantly or you will not know what’s going on because that’s how I’m going to keep in constant communication with everybody.’

You have to keep communications fast and constant when you’re spread around. That’s why we also built a video studio here and we have state-of-the-art communication technology so if we have a meeting, we can have everyone see it and keep things live and interactive.

It’s helpful to keep communication moving, and you prevent yourself from traveling the full circuit of offices every month. You can’t get anything done if you’re traveling all the time. It’s important to get out periodically, but it’s also expensive and time-consuming when, instead, you can use technology to push out information in an instant to your whole team.

HOW TO REACH: Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, (800) 934-3477 or www.dinslaw.com