Power of attorney Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Kip Reader was excited about celebrating birthday No. 100.

Don’t do a double take looking at his picture; Reader is nowhere near 100 years old. But the law firm where he’s managing partner, Ulmer & Berne LLP, hit the century mark in 2008, and the company spent the year celebrating its successes.

During that celebration, the firm put together a book of some of its best moments and found there was a common thread: Lawyers and employees, both past and present, remarked constantly on the importance of the firm’s collaborative culture.

“A lot of the stories have included in them comments on the firm’s culture and history and the positive characteristics of working here,” Reader says.

That positive atmosphere is created by the firm’s efforts to constantly push teamwork and collaboration, two of Reader’s favorite topics when speaking with his 380 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Reader about how you can set the tone for collaboration and why it’s more important to celebrate teamwork today than to reward it with compensation later.

Use your voice to lead the way. You need to have communications skills, so listen to people on the incoming side and externally be able to move toward that picture. You need to be persistent or dedicated to have the drive to make it all happen.

I’m in regular communication with all levels of our professional and nonprofessional staff on the things that would hopefully move us in that direction. Internally at our firm, we have an administrative staff that I talk to, and I communicate daily with the chief officers of our administrative staff on issues that relate to what the firm is doing, where we want to go, what we want to do and the day-to-day tactics.

No. 1, my job is to make sure that there’s a support system at the firm that facilitates and enhances teamwork and collaboration. That’s part of my role across the board. Part of that is I need to find — and the firm needs to find — ways to reward and recognize people constantly for collaboration, and that is done over the long term by compensation, and in the short term, it is done by recognition.

As an example, yesterday I heard a great story about how a number of our lawyers collaborated on a real estate transaction to a successful result. I didn’t do anything fancy, I just walked upstairs and walked around the offices of the people involved and talked to them about it.

There was a lawyer in another office involved in it, as well, so I called him up and talked to him.

Value everybody’s contribution to build a team atmosphere. We have a firm where everyone tries to operate with one another with a feeling of mutual respect. That’s respect for our mutual strengths but also respect for the differences among us and trying to pull all that together into a collaborative effort.

A team effort is not always the simplest thing, but if you have mutual respect, it is far, far easier to do that than otherwise. There’s a little bit of tradition of what you might call egalitarianism amongst our firm. The idea that an individual’s opinion and position counts for a lot, no matter where you might officially stand in the scheme of the organization. More and more, we have an environment of collaboration. Every large firm needs to have that and foster it every day, and we have been pretty successful in that.

That’s the way we’ve always related to one another. It was that way when I was a brand-new lawyer, and it continues to be that way 30-plus years afterward. You have to appreciate and value the contributions that everyone makes.

Some people are able to contribute at higher levels than others, but you have to be very mindful of the fact that everybody’s contribution plays a role in the overall success of the corporation. You just have to constantly try to do things to keep that point in mind with yourself and share that thought with everybody.

I think there’s no difference; if somebody does a good job, you let them know, acknowledge it. You also try to deal with them as integral parts of the accomplishments and achievements of the firm.

You try as much as you can to diminish any differences between professional and nonprofessional folks by celebrating as one team.

Reward collaboration. The easiest thing is we talk up collaboration and teamwork constantly at the firm. We try our very best to reward demonstrations of collaboration and teamwork — reward it not only in terms of compensation over the long run but to acknowledge it internally.

When collaboration occurs and when it is successful, you give people recognition for what they’re doing.

We sometimes issue internal communications that acknowledge to everyone when our attorneys or staff members have done important things in a team exercise. That counts for a lot. It counts more than the compensation adjustment that happens months or even a year later. It matters a great deal.

The other thing is we have a situation where it’s not just the managing partner that’s doing the acknowledging and giving the recognition. We have practice group leaders and others do it pretty constantly and regularly without prodding and do it in a natural way. That’s a very productive way to make sure everybody is doing a great job together.

How to reach: Ulmer & Berne LLP, (216) 583-7000 or www.ulmer.com