Lynne Burdon

Managing Partner, Bolt Burdon Solicitors

Quotation Marks
If the firm does have problems, and it would be a rare firm that does not, do not gloss over these




Effective top-down communication is essential to attracting and retaining the best lawyers, argues Lynne Burdon

When I am recruiting I often ask applicants why they are leaving their current firm. So often I hear words like ‘I don’t know where the firm is going’ or even ‘No one tells us what is going on, the partners are very secretive, so I’m worried about my future’. These lawyers are considering leaving their current firm just because they do not have enough reassurance that their firm is the right one for them. People want to know where their organisation is going – so that they can decide whether or not they want to be part of that. That need to feel we are in the right organisation is hard wired within us.


We humans want to belong. We want to feel a part of a tribe – part of a group of people that we like and trust and who share our values and ambitions. Abraham Maslow made this observation in 1943. He noticed that after our basic physiological needs are met (food, water, sleep) and we feel secure (home, health and employment) then we seek ‘love and belonging’. We look for relationships and a sense of connection (family, friendship, tribe). Only when we feel safe and secure in our tribe can we consider our next need ‘esteem’ (respect, self esteem, status, recognition) which most of us seek from our work. Neuroscientists now believe they understand why this is so. They suggest we have three brains which developed at different times – the triune brain theory. As reptiles we were only concerned with very basic needs – staying alive and continuing the species. These needs are still controlled by our brain stem or reptilian brain. This part of the brain is very old and very fast and if it is ‘on line’ you will not be doing any legal work – the only question will be whether to fight, run or hide! As we developed into mammals we grew a new part of the brain – the mammalian brain or limbic system. As mammals we had new threats as we had to suckle and nurture our young and we could only be safe doing this if we lived in families and tribes. So our limbic brains are concerned with keeping us safe in the sense of being secure within our tribe. The amygdala in our limbic brain is on constant alert for any sense of judgement or rejection – this is why we care so much about what others think about us and feel so hurt when we get negative feedback. This is our inbuilt mechanism that wants us to be compliant and fit in so that we will remain loved and wanted in our tribe. Only when both the reptile and mammalian brains are happy, that is, we feel we are safe and we feel secure in our tribe, can we make best use of our amazing human brain – particularly the prefrontal cortex. For top-quality legal work you need your people to be able to make the best possible use of their human brains. The triune brain theory is a hugely simplified model, our brains are incredibly complicated, but it is a very useful model for understanding what is going on with your people.

GETTING IT WRONG We all want to work in a place where we feel valued and where we feel that if the going gets tough others will support us. We want to work in an organisation which shares our own values and where we feel our own career goals are in alignment with those of the firm. That is how we get this sense of belonging at work. If we don’t have this feeling of belonging we search for another tribe. The sad thing is that most law firms spend a lot of time thinking about the firm’s purpose, strategy and vision. The likelihood is that you have developed written long-term and short-term plans. Producing these documents is serious work and the managing partner and the leadership team will have invested a lot of time in doing the work and documenting it. Yet so often as soon as these plans are written they are then put away in the desk drawer never to see the light of day until next time they are reviewed. Failing to communicate the business purpose, vision and plans has a huge cost. You may fail to attract the best lawyers and you may find your best staff are tempted by offers from other law firms where they can more clearly see their own future.


The solution is straightforward – the managing partner and the leadership team must make sure that everyone in the organisation understands the firm’s purpose, strategy and vision. That is easily said; however, in practice, this takes a lot of time and effort. An email is not going to do the job. Every managing partner knows that very often their emails never get read. Lawyers are very busy people and a long email from the managing partner will likely be looked at and ‘saved for later’ aka ‘saved for never’, because right now the phone is ringing, and a new client has an exciting piece of work to be done. So the managing partner and all the senior people in the firm need to work hard at this top down communication at every opportunity. It is not enough to leave it to chance. A clear communication strategy is needed – with checks to make sure it is being effective.


Your first opportunity to communicate your vision, mission and values is during the interview process. When conducting job interviews make sure you really say what life is like in your firm so that you will attract likeminded people into your tribe and perhaps even more importantly put off those who will not be a good fit. Imagine you were looking for a new job and you have secured a second interview with the managing partner of two different law firms and you are keen on both and are trying to choose between them. You ask the common question – where will the firm be five years from now? The first managing partner looks a little blank and says: “Well we are improving all the time so we hope to continue to grow and flourish”. The second managing partner says: “Well the reality is that right now we are a firm with a solid reputation and some great people. We currently service mostly local clients and we get good client feedback. We have decided to focus on growing our commercial offering for the next five years and we have a clear plan to double the size of our commercial teams and increase the quality of our commercial clients. Five years from now we will have twice as many commercial lawyers and we will have increased turnover of commercial work by much more than double. We are on the verge of outgrowing our present offices and when our lease expires in two years’ time we are going to move into much bigger premises. We want a lovely building of our own with lots of big open areas and great natural light. We will have designated areas for quiet working and study, private chatting areas for ad hoc meetings and great training areas. No one will have a designated desk. This will make it easier to get people from different departments speaking to each other. We already do a lot of social events because we feel it is critical that our people know each other because this encourages cross referrals – we want to do even more so in our new office we will have our own social space - maybe even a coffee bar. Hmm… I can almost smell that Arabica coffee and fresh croissants right now…”. Which job will you take?


The next chance to sing the mission, vision and values is during induction. I think it is really important that new recruits get to hear this from the managing partner if possible – no one else will say it with such conviction and passion. Let it be known that you are proud of your firm and that you love talking about it. This is a great opportunity to let new recruits know you care about them and that you want them to be happy and that your door is open if they have problems that cannot be resolved through the normal channels. Again this is quite a big investment of time but it can be done in groups – say one group meeting every three months – well worth the effort.


There is no substitute for the managing partner presenting the key messages in every annual plan to the whole firm. There is nothing as effective as face-to-face communication. There is a scientific reason for that. Albert Mehrabian discovered that, when talking about feelings and attitudes (which would certainly include mission, vision and values) the words you use constitute only about 7 per cent of face-to-face communication. Body language accounts for 55 per cent and tone of voice 38 per cent. This explains why faceto-face is so important if you want to get your message across with passion and emotion – and you do. Remember you are doing this so that your people ‘feel’ they are in the right place. This will be decided by them unconsciously – they may use logic to decide if they agree with what you say – but that sense of belonging is not a logical process but a feeling that they are in the right tribe. Hopefully this does not need saying – but it is really important to tell the truth. If your body language does not support your words (and it’s very difficult to control your body language) then you are in trouble. Remember the amygdala in our limbic brain – it is looking for any mismatch between what you are saying and your body language and tone of voice. If these don’t match up with the words being spoken, people will tend to believe the body language. This causes two problems – you will fail to get your intended message across, and your own personal credibility will be damaged. A word of warning – if the firm does have problems, and it would be a rare firm that does not, do not gloss over these. Lawyers are intelligent and will know if there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Any attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet will make matters worse. It will just fester and feed the tittle-tattle around the kettle and in the pub giving ammunition to everyone and anyone who is up for a moan. This chat is very damaging. Cut it off by acknowledging the problem and announcing how you are going to solve it. Good employees want to hear the leader say, ‘Yes this is a problem, and we know what to do about it. If we all pull together, I am completely confident we can crack this issue.’ Provided the solution is plausible that will build a strong sense of ‘we are in this together’, we are all in this tribe.


But once a year is not enough. In a great firm every leader in the firm will be consciously thinking about how to find ways to spread the message. Senior people will be constantly having lunch, coffee, chats with their people about management issues or client matters. Of course, these one-to-one meetings are for two-way communication, it is time to listen as well as tell, but don’t forget the telling. Use the meeting to check in that the message has been heard. Wherever possible use conversations as opportunities to relate the discussion back to the firm’s values and vision.


Put in the effort and you will be rewarded. You will start winning more often in the competition for talent. More of your job offers will be accepted by good long-term prospects. You will have taken a good step towards retaining those people who feel they are in the right tribe and in encouraging those who do not feel they fit to consider other employment. Your people will feel happier and therefore more able to do their very best legal work. A win for everyone – your firm, your staff and your clients