Like every company, each day at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, all of the law firm’s employees walk out the door. They head home into the sunset to relax with their families, watch TV and pursue their outside hobbies and interests. And each night, as all of his employees leave, Ken Menges has to hope they’ll all come back the following day.
“The first thing that has to be accepted in a law firm or any other professional services firm, be it consulting or accounting, is that all of your assets are your people,” he says. “All the people leave every night and you hope they come back the next day. Having a real people-focused approach that tries to empower not only good quality work but also some creativity is one of my challenges.”
As partner in charge of the Dallas office of the $735.5 million firm, he strives to make sure his people are happy, and while a lot of leaders say that, Menges actually makes himself vulnerable to ensure that he really is doing that. So when the American Lawyer publication started polling lawyers across the country to rank the best firms to work for, many became skittish about it.
“Some law firms, reasonably so, saw that as potentially threatening — ‘What are people going to say about us? We have no control. Should we encourage people to participate or not?’” he says.
While other firms debated whether or not to allow their employees to participate, Menges sent a clear message to his team: Fill it out. But then he took it a step further and decided to create his own survey internally and ask questions about the leadership — meaning mostly him — and how different support functions were doing.
“I was greeted with some skepticism from peers that says, ‘Why in the world would you ask for an anonymous evaluation about you and others? It’s a free shot that people are going to take in terms of being critical,’” he says. “There have been a couple of free shots, but it’s been overwhelmingly constructive, and it’s another way of trying to experiment with initiatives that can expand how people see their own role and also, by the way, help us improve our delivery of services and the quality of life that we have.”
Create a system
While there was a risk in beginning to survey his employees directly, Menges was prepared to do things the right way, meaning he would have very little control over the process.
“Most of all, put it in the hands of people who have ownership of the survey, which is the associates,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to let these brilliant young people that you’ve hired … run something like a survey.”
He formed a committee composed entirely of associates whom his employees picked. He also had a few partners serve simply to be a resource for answering their questions and helping facilitate their initiatives.
He recognizes that it may be scary at first to put something like a companywide survey into the hands of your associates.
“The first time it happens, you hold your breath and cross your fingers,” he says. “You try to emphasize that we’re a professional organization, this is intended to be a constructive exercise, and then you realize that our clients are trusting these same people to handle multimillion-dollar matters in transactions and in lawsuits, and when you realize that you’re asking your clients to accept the quality and judgment of these same people, it becomes a lot easier.”
He challenged them to have questions that covered himself and the senior staff people in the Dallas office. American Lawyer typically doesn’t ask very many questions because it’s crucial they get a good response rate.
“The more questions you put out, the fewer people actually stick around to finish it,” Menges says.
But he isn’t interested in traditional logic — he wants to know as much as he can so he asks as many questions as will allow him to get the information he needs. This is typically about 45 to 50 questions centered on detailed aspects of the firm, including training, relationships with mentors and views of partnership chances.
The reason why there are so many questions is simply that they ask some of the questions in multiple ways to make sure they get a true understanding of employees’ feelings on the matter.
“You could hire a consultant to come in and talk to those same people and compile a report and pay a bunch of money or you could simply ask the people in a varied and intelligent way — not just asking the question one way but trying to get at different aspects to make sure you’ve covered the waterfront and really potentially improve the organization,” Menges says.
It’s also important to make sure you ask questions that will really help your organization improve.
“Think hard about what you already know about your organization,” he says. “What do you hear? What’s your reputation? Are you considered generous in terms of compensation or less generous compared to other firms?”
Using what you already know about your organization can help you frame the right questions to get the responses you need to make necessary changes.
Additionally, you can have all the questions in the world on your survey, but if people don’t answer them, you’ll never get the results you need, so you have to ensure you set up the survey in such a way that they’ll respond.
“Guaranteeing the anonymity of these surveys is critical,” Menges says.
None of the partners touch the surveys, and the results are sent to a separate website that only the associate committee has access to.
“They never see all the individual responses, because there’s a concern that the way a person filled it in or worded certain things, it might identify them,” he says.
After each survey is completed, Menges approaches the results with an open mind and willingness to listen.
“You always learn something when you ask for feedback,” he says. “You may not like what you learn and you may not agree with the statements that are made, but even in those cases, you’re learning about important, usually strongly held feelings that someone trying to manage your organization should be aware of.”
Within a month to six weeks after the survey closes, the associate committee will create a detailed PowerPoint presentation that shows the survey results. They present it through PowerPoint so that he and the leadership aren’t seeing actual surveys or accessing the site they shouldn’t have access to.
“We compare the results to previous years’ responses to similar questions so we can tell if, among the associates filling out the survey, the number of people who are more or less optimistic about, say, their partnership prospects, which way it’s moving,” he says.
Then he tries to correlate that to what’s actually going on in the firm and outside it. On that same topic of partnership chances, he’ll look at if the firm made fewer or more partners that year as compared to previous years to see if that affected the responses. He’ll also look if the economy got stronger or weaker and then try to figure out ways to improve their communications about that topic so employees have more clarity on the matter. He provides them with a quarterly update to talk about developments around the firm and address any issues he feels are important to focus on as a result of those survey results.
For example, if more than half the associates think they will make partner in the next five years, he may realize he needs to communicate more about what it takes to become partner, because the statistics regarding how many people are made partner would not support that many people reaching that level. As such, he may feel they need to be more realistic about their chances, because it’s such a difficult honor to achieve.
As they increase communication, make improvements and address things they learn in the survey, Menges’ committee adjusts the next one.
“From year to year, the questions are sometimes tweaked to address developments we’ve done in terms of firm policies or office practices to gauge our success at that,” he says.
Over the years, Menges has learned a lot about the organization and thinks that the survey has been extremely helpful.
“It’s been one of the best things we’ve done, because I think it’s critical in any organization, but particularly in one where you’re asking people to constantly monitor what’s concerning them and what’s motivating or demotivating them,” he says. “An annual survey is just one tool in that, but it’s a really good one.”
On top of that, having an annual survey helps ensure that his people continue to return each day.
“It’s just part of human nature that people like to have some influence over their environment, particularly when they work as hard as all of our people do,” he says. “It’s one thing for everyone to state they have an open-door policy — so whenever you have an issue, come on in my office, and I’ll always be there to listen. In practice, there needs to be some more formal, regular structure to bolster that, even if it’s a true statement that the organization’s leader has an open-door policy.”
Menges always professed to have an open-door policy, but he also recognizes that it’s usually a first- or second-year lawyer who would saunter in to give him a piece of his or her mind about something.
“The survey allows for that to happen,” he says. … “The questions aren’t preapproved or censored. If someone has something on their chest, they want to get off their chest, they can fire away. I think that’s just healthy for an organization.”
How to reach: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, (214) 969-2800 or (817) 886-5060 or www.akingump.com
Ken Menges, partner in charge, Dallas office, Akin Gump
Born: Louisville, Ky. My parents got tired of it and moved six weeks later. My father was an electrical engineer, and it seemed that when I was growing up that he got a new and better job in a different part of the country every five or six years. So we moved from Louisville when I was 6 weeks old to Baltimore. We moved six years later to New Hampshire, and we moved five years later to Dallas, where I attended high school here in Richardson, and then they moved off again but they stopped in Arizona.
Education: B.S.B.A., Boston University; J.D., Harvard Law School
Did you want to come back to Dallas or did your career just take you there?
I loved both college and law school in Boston, but after seven straight years of Boston winters in student housing, I was cold, so I decided to look only at Sunbelt cities. Of all the Sunbelt cities I looked at, even though my family had moved away a few years prior to that, Dallas had just a fantastic prospect that it was unavoidable me coming here.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
I’ve gotten a lot of good advice, and I know I need a lot more, but the best I’ve ever received was from my father who told me a long time ago, there’s always a better way to say it. I think that advice came to me in junior high or high school. It has stuck with me because I can think of no truer words. When I think of other people occasionally who say something out of emotion or without forethought, I’m thinking, ‘Yep, there’s always a better way to say it.’
What was your first job?
My first job ever was working as a warehouse clerk for a friend of the family who had a business selling gas grills and gas lights. As a seventh grader, I worked in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in Dallas moving the boxes and loading the trucks and unloading the trucks. It was hard work; it was good work. It gave me a lot of independence, and I graduated from warehouse clerk to warehouse manager by the time I was a senior in high school. I was still the only employee, but I called myself the manager because if I was the only one there, I could be the manager.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
The first thing I remember wanting to be was either an astronaut or astrophysicist. I had a fascination with astronomy and Einstein when I was in my later years of elementary school and junior high school. In other words, I was a complete nerd, but I took the required course in American history when I was in eighth grade, and I became absolutely smitten by the law. I was fascinated by every aspect of the law from the legislative formation of laws to the appointment of judges and from that year on I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.