Grace Whelan, Managing Partner of McPherson Charles, was puzzled. Three of her most successful teams seemed to be
facing similar problems with their staff, even though each team had very different tasks, processes and types of staff. Every year the firm surveyed its entire staff in order to gauge their views, levels of satisfaction with their jobs and development needs. It was the results from the latest survey that surprised Grace. ' The results of the survey are really unanticipated. Only last year everything seemed fine. Now staff morale has evidently slumped in all three teams. Yet the partners who lead all of these teams are first class. Outstanding lawyers and good leaders. '
McPherson Charles, based in Bristol in the West of England, had grown rapidly to be one of the biggest law firms in the region, with 21 partners and around 400 staff. Three years previously the firm had reorganized into 15 teams each headed by a 'lead partner' and specializing in practicing one type of law. It had proved to be a good organizational structure, which encouraged teams to organize themselves appropriately for the type of clients that they dealt with. In particular three teams had flourished under
this structure: 'family law', 'property ' and 'litigation'. Now it was these very teams whose staff were showing signs of dissatisfaction.
Before the results of the survey were published to all staff, Grace knew that she would need to have worked out some kind of response to the issues raised. She decided to go and see each of the lead partners in the three teams. The first person she decided to talk to was Simon Reece, who led the family law team. Before doing so she explained what his team did.
'They are called the "family law" team but basically what they do is to help people through the trauma of divorce, separation and break up. Their biggest "high value" clients come to them because of word of mouth recommendation. Last year they had almost a hundred of these "high value" clients and they all valued the personal touch that they were able to give them, getting to know them well and spending time with them to understand the, often "hidden" aspects of their case. Of course, not all their clients are the super-rich. About a third of the annual family law income comes from about 750 relatively routine divorce and counseling cases.'
Simon was blunt about the declining levels of staff satisfaction in his team. 'The problem is that working with the "high value" clients is just more fun and more rewarding than the routine "bread and butter" work. So my people who do that kind of work, usually the more experienced ones, don't want to take on the routine stuff. With "high value" cases you have to be able to untangle the personal issues from the business ones. Interviewing these clients cannot be rushed. They tend to be wealthy people with complex assets. We will often have to drop everything and go off half way round the world to meet and discuss their situation. There are no standard procedures, every client is different, and everyone has to be treated as an individual. So we have a team of individuals who rise to the challenge each time and give great service. By contrast, the routine work is a lot less interesting, yet some- times very harrowing. The more junior staff who tend to take on the routine cases can sometimes feel themselves to be "second-class citizens". Many of them would like to get more experience with the complex high value work, but I can't take the risk of giving them that degree of responsibility, the work is too valuable. Also, frankly, the senior people who deal with the high value work don't want to give up their more glamorous work. I have been trying to make sure that everyone in my team who wants to has a mix of interesting and routine work over the year. It's the only way to develop them in the long term. You have to encourage them to exercise and develop their professional judgement. They are empowered to deal with any issues themselves or call on one of the more senior members of the team for advice if appropriate. It is important to give this kind of responsibility to them so that they see themselves as part of a team. But there are still ten- sions between senior and more junior staff. We are thinking about adopting an open-plan office arrangement centered around our specialist library of family case law, to try and encourage more cooperation.'
Grace was less concerned about the litigation team, led by Hazel Lewis. 'The litigation team has been our best success story. The have grown far faster than any other part of the firm, and a lot of that is down to Hazel. She provides a key service for our commercial client base. Their primary work consists of handling bulk collections of debt. The group has 17 clients of which 5 provide 85% of total volume. They work closely with the accounts departments of the client companies and have developed a semi-automatic approach to debt collection. It's a great service that Hazel has largely automated.'
Hazel had led the litigation team since it had been set up four years ago. As well as being the partner in charge of litigation, unusually she and her assistant were the only qualified lawyers in the team. 'Our problems in the litigation team are not really because of any internal ten- sions or disputes. Broadly, our people are happy with what they do and how they are supervised. The issue is just that we are so different from the rest of the firm. Apart from myself and Raymond [her assistant] everyone else in the team are either technicians who look after and develop the systems that we use, or people who have worked in process- ing or call centres, before they came to us. And between us we have developed a smart operation here. Our staff input data received from their clients into the system, from that point everything progresses through a pre-defined process, letters are produced, queries responded to and eventually debts collected, ultimately through court proceedings if necessary. Work tends to come in batches from clients and varies according to the time of year and client sales activities. At the moment things are fairly steady; we had almost 900 new cases to deal with last week. The details of each case are sent over by the client; our people input the data onto our screens and set up a standard diary system for sending letters out. Some people respond quickly to the first letter and often the case is closed within a week or so, other people ignore letters and eventually we initiate court proceedings. We know exactly what is required for court dealings and have a pretty good process to make sure all the right documentation is available on the day. Our problem is that the rest of the firm does not see us as being "proper lawyers", and they are right, we're not. But it does get difficult for our people, being looked down upon all the time. Our salary structure is different, our bonus scheme is different, and how we measure performance is differ- ent. But there is a solution. Because we have expanded so much, we need more space than is available in this build- ing. I think that we should think about moving the litigation team. There is a great location out by the airport that could be expanded in the future if needed. There is really no reason for us to be located with the other teams.'
The 'property ' team was one of the largest parts of the firm and was well established in the local market with an excellent reputation for being fast, friendly and giving value for money. Most of its work was 'domestic', acting for individuals buying or selling their home, or their second home. Each client was allocated to a solicitor who becomes his or her main point of contact. But, given that they can have up to a hundred domestic clients a week, most of the work was actually carried out by the rest of the team of 'paralegal' staff (staff with qualifications less than a fully qualified lawyer) behind the scenes.
Kate Hutchinson, who led the property team, was proud of the process she and her team had set up. ' There is a relatively standard process to domestic property sales and purchases and we think that we are pretty efficient at managing these standard jobs. Our process has four stages, one dealing with land registry searches, one liaising with banks who are providing the mortgage finance, one to make sure surveys are completed and one section that finalizes the whole process to completion. We believe that this degree of specialization can help us achieve the efficiencies that are becoming important, as the market gets more competitive. Our particular problem is that increasingly we are also getting more complex "special" jobs. These are things like "volume re-mortgage" arrangements and rather complex "one-off" jobs, where a mortgage lender transfers a complex set of loan assets to another lender. These "special" jobs are always more complex than the domestic work and they are not popular with our staff. They don't always fit easily into our standard process, and they disrupt the routine of working. For example, some- times there are occasions when fast completion is particularly important and that can throw us a bit. '
Grace was more worried about the property team than Kate appeared to be. The firm had recently formed partnerships with two large speculative builders, which dealt in special 'plot sales' that would also be classed as non- standard 'specials' by Kate. Grace knew that all these 'specials' did involve a lot of work and could occupy several members of the team for a time. But they were an important source of revenue. Currently the team was dealing with up to 25 'specials' each week, and this would certainly increase. Grace suspected that Kate was mistaken to try and follow the same process with them as the normal domestic jobs. Maybe trying to do differ- ent things on the same process was the cause of the dis- satisfaction in the team?
1) How would you describe each team's process in terms of jobs of its staff?
2) What do you think each team leader should be doing to try and overcome their teams' problems?
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