When Thomas L. VanKirk accepted a promotion from chief operating officer to chairman and CEO of Buchanan Ingersoll &Rooney PC in 2003, he sensed the firm needed some fine-tuning.
The law firm had grown rapidly in the 1980s, but by 2001, business was on a downturn, and VanKirk decided it needed to getback to basics and make its core values mean more than justwords on a piece of paper. He wanted make sure everyone was onthe same page when it came to culture and values.
The firm had added so many people including 130 attorneyswhen it merged with Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling in 2006 from so many firms over the years that VanKirk wasn’t sure therewas really a common culture anymore. So to move the firm in theright direction, he held a retreat and gathered input from employees on where they wanted to see Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney goin the future.
Employees met for one day, then the shareholders gathered foran additional day and a half. Those attending broke out into smaller groups and addressed some very specific topics relating togrowth and compensation matters, which got everyone talking.
To address the core values, VanKirk put together a committee,which presented what it believed the firm’s values should be.
“We used a very interactive, computerized method of getting asmuch buy-in as possible,” VanKirk says. “But it was all madepossible because we also had the breakout groups that werehaving everybody getting to know each other a little bit better.”
Everyone had handsets at the interactive program, allowing all ofthem to give their opinions about what kind of firm they wanted tobe by pushing ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ buttons to answer questions. The resultswere then displayed on a computer screen for everyone to see, giving VanKirk real-time feedback.
“We could really get people involved,” he says. “That way theyaren’t being lectured to, and that way they don’t have to sit thereand be forced to raise their hand and be afraid of saying the wrongthing. Rather, they can register their opinion, and we achievedquite a bit of unanimity.”
After the retreat, the firm adopted core values and operating principles, then built the rest of its strategic plan aroundthose.
Dealing with change
With the plan established, the next step was to make sure everyone understood it and bought in to it.
“It was easy to get people to say they had bought in,” VanKirksays. “It is more difficult to constantly reinforce it and constantlyget people thinking about it. The only way you can really do it is tomake everybody part of the team and effectively always communicate what it is.
“Constantly preach the core values, use it in recruiting, emphasize it to new people you are bringing in at every step of the way,emphasize it at every level of the organization and then, as you donew strategic plans, communicate to everybody what is in thatplan.”
Most people bought in to the plan, but not everyone did, and VanKirk says one of the most difficult tasks was cutting ties withthose who weren’t on board. He made decisions on two or threepeople within about a month.
“I was fairly well aware of a couple of people who behaviorallyhad shown they were never going to buy in to this kind of concept,” he says. “Others you really see evolve over the course oftime just by what their actions are.
“We also have a peer review system in our firm that all shareholders go through. I am not part of the committee that does thepeer review. But, you also ascertain from that peer review systemwho the people are that just don’t want to go along. There are others who then end up knowing what is being expected and do startlooking elsewhere, and that is fine with us. If there are people thatdon’t want to buy in to it and are going to be happier elsewhere, farbe it from me to delay their exit.”
As part of the process, VanKirk says Buchanan Ingersoll &Rooney worked with employees on how they were fitting in to theculture and provided them feedback as a development tool.
“We ascertain exactly what we believe their weaknesses to be,where they are going wrong,” he says. “We sit down and,many times, it’s me personally sit down with the individual,usually with the practice group leader in which that individualis, and tell them, here are the things they have to improve. Somereadily jump in. We have some tremendous success stories. Youinvest so much money in developing people, it is well worth theeffort.
“But, there are a given number of people who just are not ableeither to accept the fact they have those weaknesses or deliberately choose not to, and either don’t correct them, in which casewe have to make the decision, or say it’s not worth it to them to tryto correct it, in which case they make the decision to leave. Youhave to make sure you communicate to them exactly what theweaknesses are in fairness to them and give them a chance, in myopinion, to try to correct it.”
VanKirk says it’s different for each person, but in most cases,employees were given at least six months to change their behavior.
“I don’t think you can expect miracles in changing human behavior in much less than six months,” he says.
VanKirk says it wasn’t just one factor but many across the boardthat showed him that some employees would not be heading in thenew direction with the firm.
“For the most part, it was a total inability to put the firm’s interest ahead of their own, and it would be manifested by not complying with different things in the area of billing, paying attentionto collections, following firm procedures on intake and taking intoo much bad or unprofitable work,” he says.
There were also attorneys who were not organizing themselvesto practice law and deliver quality legal services or who had complaints filed by clients as to what they were doing. And althoughthe process weeded out some bad seeds, VanKirk says that therewere people who were considered good attorneys and big business producers who were let go, as well.
“It is difficult because, clearly, there can be the argument that ithas a bottom-line effect,” he says. “But what the goal of theorganization should be, in my view, is to become strong enoughfinancially that you do have the ability to make those difficultdecisions and let people who are merely producing revenue, butotherwise are failing their partners, that you do have the abilityto let them go. When you are strong financially, it makes the decision a lot easier.”
Hiring for the team approach
Once the people resisting change were gone, VanKirk was able tofocus on finding new employees who fit in to the culture, and thefirm immediately started recruiting attorneys based on its strategicplan and core values.
VanKirk compares compiling the members of his team to a professional sports team finding the right players.
“It’s a little bit like the NFL or MLB or NBA,” he says. “You areout recruiting, and what you are trying to do is to pick the bestathletes available in hopes you can develop them so they becomevery good partners.”
To find those people, VanKirk uses the interview process to weedout those who are just telling him what they think he wants to hear.
“You can ask them what is important to them,” he says. “You canask them in their prior job, what did they like about their prior job,or what didn’t they like about their prior job, even before you tellthem a lot about yourself.
“The secret is finding out how many people are bei ng totallytruthful with you, or how many people have read your Web site,see what is important to you and are just feeding back to youwhat you want to hear. But, that is really just asking the questions, trying to get the people relaxed and then making your bestjudgment. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, andeveryone is going to make mistakes in the hiring process, but ifyou really pay attention and get them talking and have them saywhat is important to them, it usually comes out. We have a prettygood track record of making correct hires in that regard.”
VanKirk says making the change to a team approach andbringing in employees who exemplified that approach has benefited the firm through growth, as well as in recruiting, building client relationships and getting involved in the community.
“There are a number of people we have found out in the marketplace who want to come to us because they like the approach weare taking,” he says. “Our corporate clients take note of the factthat we, as a law firm, view ourselves as important members of thecommunity who do give back to the community. It keeps therespect level up.
“The team approach has been very well-received. I visited anumber of CEOs and general counsel of corporations who foundit somewhat unique that we, as a law firm, would come out andtry to understand what their needs were. Not that we were outthere trying to sell them whatever we had but that we wanted toknow what their needs are.”
With this approach, clients get better, more targeted service, andthe firm grows as a result. And growth allows the firm to add moretalent, which further increases the level of service.
“It has enabled us to recruit other very outstanding practitioners,and the more practitioners we can have to serve the various needsof the clients is always going to be a benefit to them,” he says.
VanKirk says that if the changes hadn’t been made, the firm stillwould be functioning but maybe not growing the way it has recently. Revenue in 2004 was $153 million, but by 2006, that hadincreased to $272 million. In the last four years, the number ofattorneys has grown from 330 to 550.
“I don’t think people would have enjoyed practicing law as much,if it had been as it was as they do now,” VanKirk says. “Talent canonly take you so far. Even though you have the talent, you don’thave the ability to add the additional talent that you need to unlessyou have the kind of culture people want to join.”
HOW TO REACH: Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, www.buchananingersoll.com