Why don’t internal comms ever work in law firms?

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This year’s prize for rubbish internal communication might just go to BigLaw firm Weil Gotshal. In what seemed like a spirit of work-life balance, the BigLaw firm sent all of its staff a carefully-crafted note.

It promised that work emails would henceforth be blocked from 11pm-6am, as well as over weekends and holidays. ‘We are proud to be taking a leadership role in caring about our colleagues’ quality of life,’ the powers that be signed off.

Except it appears that they don’t actually care that much at all. For no sooner did the firm’s over-worked associates and partners start dancing in the corridors, than it turned out that the notification was in fact just one big April Fools.

So incensed were the recipients of said email, that the firm’s executive partner, Barry Wolf, ended up having to send everyone a grovelling note saying it had ‘obviously got it wrong and we sincerely apologize’.

The firm must have taken ages writing this email. And they still may not have fixed the reputational damage it caused. So why are law firms so shoddy at internal communication?

  1. They don’t care. If you’re working for one of the City/Magic Circle firms, then you’re going to get a heap of money, great career prospects and status to boot. Don’t expect cosy chats about the inner workings of the firm that will just distract you from the business at hand. Silence speaks volumes. It says just get on with the billing.
  2. The old ways prevail. Law firms have come on an awful long way in terms of thinking like businesses. But most leading firms still use billable hour targets – with 1,700 hours not uncommon among leading City practices. Some have even increased their chargeable-hour expectations in the past couple of years. This means that lawyers are still more likely to want to hoard clients and work than communicate and collaborate with colleagues.
  3. An imbalanced approach. Partners tend to enjoy better communication than the rest of the firm. They will have a senior partner engaged with partnership issues, and will of course be expected to vote on major areas of firm policy. The danger is that firms then forget about everyone else, which creates a potentially toxic ‘us and them’ mentality.
  4. Partners are leaders. When your practice group leader is a partner who may or may not be good at communication (and almost certainly has no training in this respect), and whose own performance is rated on client development, not management or leadership abilities, expect internal communication to take second place to pretty much everything else.
  5. Communications managers don’t fit in. More firms are employing communications professionals. That may be great, but they have to contend with all of the above, including partners who think that it’s a totally wasted investment. There was a furore over the highest marketing director salaries in The Lawyer only last year. If a lot of lawyers haven’t yet worked out the value of marketing, they definitely haven’t got their heads around internal comms.

No doubt more firms will recruit communications managers in the future. These professionals could be vital to improving firm-wide engagement, enabling change, and improving a firm’s reputation both internally and externally – with both top legal talent and clients.

But while such cultural barriers remain among the top firms, it is questionable whether firms really want this. If this latest recruitment trend is just another way to keep up with the Jones’s, or to make firms look like they’re right up there with the rest of the corporate world, then they can hire all the communications managers they like. It won’t get anyone talking – or at least not in the way that firms want. CP

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