Jack Elliott leads by example at Cohen & Grigsby Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

Some things can only be taught through example — and that’s where Jack Elliott steps in.

The president and CEO of Cohen & Grigsby PC does train new employees as they come into the law firm, using orientations and mentorship pairings. But do-as-I-do opportunities go a long way, too. So Elliott takes employees along on his client visits so they can observe how he interacts with them, reinforcing the firm’s client-centric culture.

“You build a trust relationship over time with the constant communication with clients,” says Elliott, who leads 269 employees. “You build it every day with every interaction that you have.”

And when employees witness those relationships growing, the culture develops deeper roots than it might through training alone.

“It’s basically a constant reinforcement by leadership, by training and by just the sheer experience of interacting with a client,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Elliott about how to lead by example in your client interactions.

Choose curious, involved employees. It’s very important that our people are attuned to the needs and issues of our clients, and so they need to be curious about the clients’ problems and be willing to listen. We look for the personality traits and the curiosity that would allow them to become that kind of adviser.

We’ve had a long history of giving and volunteering by all the folks in our organization, and we think that that’s important because it helps the community that we live in and the community that our clients live in. We believe that [volunteering is] very consistent with our client-centric focus. But it also is broader than that because we think we have an obligation to help and assist where we can.

You can get a sense primarily by what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished in the past. That’s a good indicator of the initiative that they have. We look at their background, what they’ve done in school, what outside interests they have, what charitable nonprofit volunteerism that they’ve been involved in.

Assign new employees to mentors. When they start, there’s an orientation program where they are steeped in the history and the culture of the firm.

They are also assigned mentors, either more senior associates or junior partners who are assigned to help them in terms of integration into the firm and helping them develop their skill set, both on the legal side and on the business development side.

[They are paired] by practice area, experience and personality.

Visit clients. It’s important that we understand the industry that they operate in and any sort of issues that the industry is confronting. With the Internet, it’s not difficult to try and identify whatever relevant information is about the industry or the client.

We have a very active library staff that allows us to proactively get highlights about issues that are affecting a particular industry or a client. There are services that would deliver daily updates on topics that might be of concern to a particular industry or client.

It’s talking regularly with the client and going out to meet with them in their place of business. That’s how you stay in touch with them, and that’s how you understand how their business is being affected.

Part of what everyone should be doing to develop those relationships is go visit the client, see where they live, see where they work, understand what problems are confronting their industry, their particular business and know how their product is made.

But the key thing is to just listen to them. Rather than having an immediate solution or a preconceived notion of what the answer is, really listen to clients and what their needs are and what their concerns are.

Take employees on client visits. One of the main things that we try and do is constant reinforcement of the fact that we are advisers to our clients. It’s training by example, taking people with us as we go out to meet with clients and go to where their headquarters are or their factories are and trying to understand their business.

There’s training. There’s one-on-one development of those skills. There’s just the training that comes with participation with more senior people that they see how it’s done.

These are ad-hoc relationships, where you have the trust of the client and you’re bringing younger lawyers along to have them be involved in telephone calls and have them be involved in client meetings where it’s appropriate, so they can see the interaction and they can see and understand the questions that the clients are dealing with. It is not necessarily a formal program; it’s just the natural mentoring process that needs to occur for people to understand what our culture is.

Reinforce the importance of client interaction. You have to reinforce that both by example — how you interact with client relationships — and talking about how important that is. Reinforce that message in your daily interactions and our monthly meetings.

We have meetings in which we talk about the business and how we’re doing, and we reinforce the importance of the culture in terms of the success of our client relationships.

There’s lots of anecdotal evidence from client feedback. I communicate with a number of our clients that I might not be involved [with]. I get involved in talking about how we’re doing.

What we tend to want to know is: Are we meeting their needs and expectations and making sure that we understand what their expectations are for the service that we deliver to them?

How to reach: Cohen & Grigsby PC, (412) 297-4900 or www.cohenlaw.com