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Class action Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

Alan Levin had watched Barnes & Thornburg LLP expand from its Indiana roots to offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C. However, the move to establish a presence in Western Michigan in 2003 had him a little nervous.

“It was a huge step for our partners to move out of our sweet spot and into markets where we don’t have the same name recognition,” says Levin, the law firm’s managing partner. “It’s important to be very decisive, but at the same time, you’re not going to get anywhere if you’re not a very good consensus builder within the partnership.”

Getting everyone to step out of their comfort zone and see the benefits of continuing to grow the firm would require a comprehensive approach. Levin had to sell the plan to everyone without appearing in any way to be shoving it down their throats.

“You lose your credibility if you don’t give the opposing views of people that may believe an expansion doesn’t make sense a chance to be heard,” Levin says.

He needed to create venues for feedback that would make it clear to everyone that their comments and opinions wouldn’t be a waste of their breath. He needed to make sure that this was conveyed not only to senior leaders but to everyone in what is now a firm made up of 940 attorneys and staff.

“It’s just respecting that people look at things differently,” Levin says.

Hone your message

Levin needed to create a message that would provide answers to the biggest questions that people had about the firm’s possible expansion to Western Michigan.

He called on his management subcommittee to help him hone his message. If you don’t have such a group already in place, you should create one.

“Try to just think of who are the perceived leaders of your institution and try to get a diverse group of them,” Levin says. “The importance is to try to get people whose minds work in a different way, whether it’s a different group because of where they are located or where they are as far as seniority or some of their own diverse backgrounds. I try to call on people who will view things a little differently. Not always do I adopt what they suggest, but at least it alerts me to an issue.”

The number of people on this board comes down to your ability to use good judgment.

“We have had that discussion over various things where we’ll set up a special committee and say, ‘We need to get this group represented,’” Levin says. “Sometimes we do rotate who is going to be reflected, but you can’t trade off of having a very efficient process versus having too many people at the table. By doing that, sometimes it’s a barrier to getting through the process.”

One barometer for someone’s participation — and a good way to ensure pertinent feedback — is to bring in people who may be directly involved in the new project or expansion in the case of the firm.

“If we’re looking at expansion, we’re talking to somebody about making a move,” Levin says. “So in those cases, we had several meetings with the prospective lawyers who were going to be starting those offices.”

In gathering these people, you’re trying to prepare yourself for the questions that will be coming from the rest of the company as the idea is communicated.

“You always have to be prepared for angles or what might be a hot-button issue,” Levin says. “I try to spend a fair amount of time before a presentation brainstorming and trying to anticipate what questions might be coming. The easiest way for me to do that is to pretend, when I’m looking at the information, that I’m reading it for the first time. I want to try to disengage from the idea that I have all this background. If I was reading it for the first time, what kinds of questions would I have?”

When you hear about people in your organization who have concerns, see to it that they are represented on your board.

“The folks that expressed some concern, in many cases, I enlisted their help in helping us get off the ground in that office,” Levin says. “It’s in all of our best interests to make it succeed by getting people of all different views to help support it.”

Keep information flowing

It’s crucial that employees feel like their voice matters if you want them to truly speak their minds. You need to begin by communicating in a way that can only be interpreted as clear and transparent messaging.

“People have to have the information so when they are speaking, it’s not because they don’t have the information,” Levin says. “They have it, and they still might have a question or a concern.”

Use multiple means to convey your message. Levin posted a lot of hard data and numbers electronically and told everyone where the data could be found if they were curious.

“Some partners want to see everything and other partners don’t care to see anything,” Levin says. “So it’s up to them to make the effort to download it on their computer screen.”

With the Western Michigan expansion, Levin provided data on previous expansions and how they had worked or not worked.

“You drill down and give them some detailed information that you might pull from consultants or you might research yourself about the decision,” Levin says. “If we’re going into Atlanta like we did last year, it was important for our partners to understand some of the size of Atlanta, information about corporate Atlanta, information about how many law firms they have and the concentration of what type of lawyers and what areas they practice.”

The idea is to make it clear that hearing about your plan isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s why multiple mediums are crucial.

“I might call the managing partner in Chicago and ask him to comment on this particular part of the proposal so people will hear it from another office,” Levin says. “We have about 50 percent of our partners in Indianapolis, so it’s easy for me to do that and to answer questions from the people that are 20 feet from me versus the people on a TV screen behind me.”

The key thing to do when you’re using electronic means to communicate is to make sure you’ve done all you can to prevent glitches. It’s a great way to cause hard feelings and leave people feeling left out at outside offices.

“It can cause significant problems,” Levin says. “It’s how you respond to that or learn from those things that is another way to measure your success as a leader. Rather than saying, ‘Well, we’ll just update those people later,’ one time, we postponed the videoconference until later in the day. Another day, we just waited until we got it fixed and everybody could hear the message. … We emphasize as much as anything when we have a videoconference that there is no room for error.”

Eliminate the fear to speak up

You have to make it clear as you are communicating your plan that there need not be any hesitation to express an opinion.

“There are no consequences of asking questions or being a contrarian,” Levin says. “If you have somebody that is speaking against something, they are going to say, ‘How is th is going to hurt me in my evaluations or how I get compensated?’ We take great strides in making sure people feel they can do it and that there aren’t any consequences.”

If that’s a problem in your organization, you need to make a demonstrative effort to show people they can feel free to speak their mind. You can start by knowing what you’re talking about.

“You have to inspire confidence in the group that you are presenting to when you are asking for their support,” Levin says. “You don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence when somebody asks you a question right out of the box and you haven’t given it adequate thought and cannot respond in a concise and intelligent way.”

Instead, you convey the impression that you are hiding something and make people feel defensive.

You can also make it more comfortable for people to speak up by not overloading them with information.

“You don’t want to overwhelm them,” Levin says. “It just seems to me that what we try to do is provide them, in as clear and concise a way as possible, the strategic thinking or rationale for any decision, whether it’s expansion or investing in a particular practice group.”

Your goal is to make people feel as comfortable as possible with the ongoing discussion that takes place with a new project and to feel like their opinion is truly valued.

“When it looks like a particular office doesn’t understand the strategy, or maybe they understand it but they aren’t necessarily on the same page of that strategy, then there’s no substitute for an in-person meeting,” Levin says. “The in-person meeting is not to tell them, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ but to listen. Go there and schedule a meeting. Give them plenty of time to raise questions or comments and address them as best as you can.

“In many cases, by providing that, you’re going to turn around some of the people that felt that way and even the ones that you don’t turn around, at least they feel that they are being valued as a member of the institution. Even if they are on the short end of the decision, they don’t do anything to sabotage it. In fact, they usually get behind it.”

It’s your step of being proactive that can make the difference in turning somebody around.

“You need to be creating the reality as well as the perception that it’s OK to ask questions and, No. 2, that your leaders and yourself will be accessible in a less public method of answering questions,” Levin says. “If an owner or partner wants to talk about things, the worst thing you can say is, ‘Just come to the meeting.’ Spend as much time as it takes to provide information and answer questions that the person has. In not all cases will it turn that person around, but I still think it’s important. They have confidence that folks are listening to them.”

Proof that Levin’s method worked is the fact that, today, Barnes & Thornburg has an office in Grand Rapids, Mich., that counsels clients in more than 50 practice areas. The firm now has 11 offices and reported $241.6 million in gross revenue, according to The American Lawyer’s annual AmLaw survey.

One of the lessons Levin has learned about implementing change is that you have to always remember that people are different.

“When I first started as a lawyer, it was more to treat everybody the same and view everybody the same,” Levin says. “That would be great if everybody was the same, but they’re not. In order to be effective, you have to manage people with that in mind. It’s good that we have people that are different that will have different backgrounds as well as different ways to attack a problem. It makes the institution stronger.”

How to reach: Barnes & Thornburg LLP, (317) 236-1313 or www.btlaw.com