Everyone around George Vincent is cutting back. And that’s reason enough for him to do the exact opposite, because he can pick up their losses to fuel his growth.
“In a tough economy, it’s easy to cut expenses,” says Vincent, the managing partner and chairman of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. “But you can never cut your way to prosperity. At some point, you’ve got to continue to add high-quality people.”
In 2008 alone, the law firm welcomed 91 new lawyers, bringing the total employee count to nearly 800. Many of the new employees came from downsizing firms. Vincent says they’re attracted to a firm that strives to grow while others hunker down. And he, of course, is attracted to talented employees who can bolster his firm against the dwindling competition and position it to be stronger when the upturn comes.
“A lot of firms were not looking to grow last year,” says Vincent, whose firm reported 2008 revenue of $133.3 million. “There were a lot of unique opportunities because of the economy that allowed us to grow.”
Vincent’s plan for growth is twofold: strengthening the firm’s presence in the 10 regions it currently serves and expanding geographically beyond those. But it all starts with finding the right employees and integrating them smoothly into the firm.
“No matter what the economy looks like, on a relative basis, high-quality people will outperform,” he says.
Hire for future growth
When you hire, you’re adding new employees today with the hope they’ll contribute to growth tomorrow. To make that transition smooth, measure them on both aspects to see how they’ll fit your company now and in the future.
First, consider how candidates will mesh with your current focus and culture.
“You want to have people who are compatible with the rest of the folks here,” says Vincent, who tries to detect a sense of humor in addition to the obvious requirements — legal skills and integrity. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, the day’s awful long and it’s hard to interact with folks.”
When Vincent hires new lawyers, it’s not as simple as adding another body to the ranks. In most cases, new hires come with specialized practice areas and existing clients in tow, so he’s not just evaluating individuals. It’s more like vetting tiny self-contained businesses.
Similarly, you have to compare candidates’ strengths with your company’s core. Vincent stacks their expertise against his firm’s existing practices and also considers requests for additional services that clients have made. If you can match an incoming supply of employees with existing client demand, your growth is automatically tied to future customer satisfaction.
That takes you to the second half of the vetting process, in which you look at the candidate in relation to your company’s future.
“You want to bring in people who you think will succeed longer term, who will be able to utilize our platform to expand their practices and will be able to ideally use other services that we can provide that their [previous] firm didn’t provide,” Vincent says.
It’s important that employees care about improving their own careers. To get a glimpse of their personal drive, just ask where they see themselves in 20 years.
“You can’t predict the future,” Vincent says. “But you’ve got to decide whether the people you’re talking to have the drive and the passion to succeed and to take their practice further than it’s previously gone.”
If a candidate has a vision to grow and succeed, he or she will feed your company’s vision to do the same. But you need to make an effort to tie the two together from the very beginning. Explain your firm’s outlook so you can see how the candidate matches up.
“Let’s talk about your vision for your practice,” Vincent tells candidates. “How can we make 2+2=5? How can we be accretive to each other?”
Finding employees who fit your company would be wasted time if you didn’t then integrate them into it.
“Integration of new folks is the hardest task that a firm faces,” Vincent says. “You can explain things many, many times. But until folks actually join, they can’t understand how we do things.”
So about 10 years ago, to further instill the firm’s expectations, Vincent started a leadership academy with a yearlong program for new employees as well as other courses geared toward preparing associates for partnership. The academy covers technical skills as well as practical skills like relating to people.
“A lot of folks don’t really understand what it takes to succeed,” Vincent says. “Some folks are lucky and can do it almost intuitively. Other folks, you’ve almost got to say, ‘Here’s what it takes. Here are the things you have to do. Here are the things you’ve got to start thinking about now.’”
Any orientation should start with broad explanations of your firm’s core beliefs. At Dinsmore & Shohl, one of those overriding principles is client service. New employees are inundated with the repetition of how important it is.
“You have to have a handful of overriding principles that you enunciate over and over again so everybody understands, ‘OK, here’s what the vision, the philosophy, of the firm is. Let’s try and manage our work against those philosophies and against that vision,’” Vincent says.
As you continue to drive those principles in, you should also break them down into actionable examples for employees to practice. Define what each one actually means.
“You try and instill in folks, ‘It’s a service business. You’ve got to deliver the service to get the business,’” Vincent says. “What does that mean? You enunciate the principles: ‘Return a call the day you get it. Empathize. Understand the client.’”
Zoom in on those details, but you should always keep them within the context of the big picture.
“It’s keeping your focus on … the core beliefs of the firm and making sure that that continues to be enunciated,” Vincent says. “It’s easy to become diffused, but let’s come back to the core values and let’s maintain that focus.”
Repetition alone won’t make the vision sink in, even as you explain it in details and definitions. You need to personalize the message, showing employees examples of those concepts in action.
Vincent starts by giving employees self-assessments to help them realize their strengths. Then they know what tools they’re best suited to use when they begin practicing the principles.
“You tell folks that you have to utilize your strengths and maximize those strengths because everybody approaches people in a different way,” he says. “What works for you may not work for me, and vice versa. So it’s really knowing who you are, what strengths you bring to the table and how you can deliver those strengths to somebody.”
The next step is showing a path to success by letting new hires observe employees who use a variety of approaches to put the principles in action. You want employees to see that whether they are out entertaining clients or just researching intensely — or anything in between — there are others like them in the firm who have been successful.
Vincent assigns new employees to mentors based on similar traits, interests and even backgrounds, such as where they went to school. But finding a perfect personality match isn’t crucial, because the mentorships are revolving rather than long term.
“We try and make sure that the associates are not assigned to just one partner, that they’re interacting with multiple partners and seeing different ways to do the same thing,” Vincent says. “The message is, ‘Look at what other people are doing. Take the things that work and understand the things that don’t work so well.’”
The goal is to show employees that underneath the umbrella of core principles, they do have several options to exercise their freedom. Once they see there’s not a right or wrong way to do things, you begin empowering them to take their career into their own hands.
“You’ve got to get people to think outside of the moment,” Vincent says. “A lot of folks don’t think that way. You’ve got to help them to see, ‘I’m not just an employee. I’m building a career that’s going to pay dividends, not just for the firm but for me, as well.’ You want people to personalize the success of the firm.”
Letting them observe other employees’ personal successes will encourage that mindset.
Vincent has already seen the benefits of the leadership academy as new employees develop more consistent perceptions of his expectations.
“It helps people to understand expectations in a much more concrete way, as opposed to having someone in the office take you aside and say, ‘You need to be doing the following three things,’” he says. “People hear a common message from different people, which is a good thing.”
Check employees’ integration progress
After employees exit the leadership academy, you still have to keep following up with them to make sure they stay aligned with the vision. That’s partially done by continuing to repeat your core beliefs.
“You can never communicate enough,” Vincent says. “The communicator always thinks he’s communicating plenty. The people hearing it always want more. You never know [when you’ve communicated enough] because some people tell you straight up, ‘Hey, I still don’t get it.’ Other folks will say nothing.”
Besides keeping your outward communication flowing, you also have to make sure employees are receiving your message and acting on it.
Vincent spends nearly two months pooling partners’ evaluations of each associate whom they’ve worked with throughout the year. Trying to distinguish common themes from case-by-case rarities, he compiles the data into a written message for each associate. But the annual basis of those kinds of evaluations can leave a lot of gaps, so he also relies on informal evaluations throughout the year to check employees’ behavior.
“The informal process, which we encourage, is talking to the associate about each project: ‘Here’s what you did well. Here’s what you didn’t do well. Here’s what you should be thinking about the next time,’” he says. “That daily teachable moment thing is more beneficial than the formal process.”
So don’t wait for the annual evaluation. You should always be gathering information about how employees are integrating into the firm. Ideally, that information should come from a combination of metrics and personal interaction.
“You can look at statistics. You can look at billable hours. You can look at fees collected,” Vincent says. “You can look at things like that, but those are kind of sterile. They really don’t tell you. You’ve got to be out and about and answering questions.”
He says that the hardest part of his job is making time to go around and talk to employees about their transition into the firm.
“How’s it going? Is it what you expected?” he asks them. “Are there things you’d like us to be doing or things that you’re thinking about that we’re not thinking about? How do your clients feel?”
Vincent also looks at how often his associates are cross-selling and directing clients to other people within the organization, which shows their comprehension of the entire firm’s offerings and how to use them.
As you evaluate employees, keep in mind that you empowered them to personalize the firm’s priorities to make them work for their particular practice. That means you need to expand your idea of what successful employees look like. You have to consider what their strengths are and evaluate them based on those rather than expecting them to excel at every single thing they do.
“Some folks, it’s easy to see [success] because you can see it in everything they do,” Vincent says. “Other folks, it’s in their written work; they bring passion, style and flair to what they write. Other people, it’s interacting and mentoring folks in the office and managing projects internally.”
“One size doesn’t fit all,” he says. “The goal is to understand people’s strengths [and] put them in positions where they can maximize those strengths.”
How to reach: Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, (513) 977-8200 or www.dinslaw.com