Law firms mostly function in a reactive posture.  Heck, most business function in a reactive mode of operation. When a law firm does something “radical” like billing by the project, the rest of the industry waits and watches to see what success or failure ensues, and then jumps on board. I’m sure this is a familiar story as you have likely been asked more than once to talk with fellow ALA’ers about how their firms are handling certain issues, perhaps what other firms are doing or not doing about the various storms and polar vortexes of this year?

The difference between being proactive and reactive as a business model is about innovation and the desire to lead. The difference between the ability to account or respond is a similarly challenging one in the legal industry. Responsibility – the ability to respond – is inherent.  There are deadlines that drive most of the legal processes, regardless of the area of law you practice.  These flow throughout your organizations with regularity.  The responsibility of calendaring court dates might be held by multiple people and/or departments.  Ultimately the Bar Association holds the attorney accountable when a filing deadline is missed.

Accountability means ownership, and the ability to own (“account”) my actions and choices.  So, when I’m responsible for a deadline, and I miss it, do I own the mistake?  Or, do I push the responsibility to someone or something else, otherwise known as the blame game?

A culture of accountability fosters creativity, innovation, and proactive business.  All of these lead to bottom line improvement through human performance.  So the question is how do we create that culture?  It’s a big question, and too large to catch with only one hook.  Let’s make it one we can reel in today.  How can you take steps to be more accountable, and hold those you influence accountable?  Aha!  Let’s cast out our line with that one!

My experience is that most folks think they are already operating at high levels of accountability.  That works until I ask them about x thing ….and I hear several “reasons” why x didn’t happen.  None of those include, “I dropped the ball” or “I made a mistake”.  That’s a starting point.  Where are you skirting accountability?  Is it in your ALA volunteer commitments? (A common one might be “this is not my paying job, so if it’s not done on time, it’s okay”)  Is it in your career? (Maybe “I’m going to retire in the next 5-10 years so I don’t need to attend education events, pursue a CLM, etc.”)  Is it in your personal life? (Sounds like “I don’t have time to exercise, clean, cook, etc.”) Where you have an excuse for the choice you didn’t make, you have room for accountability.

What would these statements sound like with accountability? “I missed the deadline, I won’t miss another”. “I’m going to retire; I’m choosing to put my energy elsewhere”. “I choose to x instead of exercise”.

The same is true for your staff.  Where we let poor performance slip by, we foster the decline of accountability.  When we confront the behavior, and are met with the blame game, it’s your time to shine the light on accountability.  We all enjoy stories.  We learn about others through their stories.  However, when your staff member brings forward yet another story about being tardy, it’s time to change the line.  Bring out the open-ended questions that develop accountability.

Let’s go with our newest problem child, Fisher Cutbait.  Fisher is once again late for work, the fourth time in 10 days.  He’s provided you “good” reasons each time – car breaking down, alarm clock not working, sick child, flat tire, you know them, and you’ve heard them.  You’ve taken them and reminded him to be on time, and let it go (albeit frustratingly).  He is late again today, and you decide to take a different approach.  As he rushes in, out of breath, and begins today’s story, you tell him to settle into his desk, and return to your office in 15 minutes.

Already he will know something is different.  When he returns, you ask an open-ended question, “What is required for you to be at work on time?”  And you wait for his response.  If he starts in on the story, you stop him and ask again.  If necessary you remind him of the agreement between him and the firm when he receives his paycheck— he has a commitment of time and energy to your organization, and you are concerned about him honoring the commitment.  As you continue the questions and conversation you stop him from returning to whatever story he has, and continue to build a new agreement about him being on time each day for work.  The conversation doesn’t stop until you have a plan for him to be measured against — what will be the agreed upon consequences of him next tardiness (In other words, you may say, “the next time you are late I will write you up.  Upon the third write up you will be terminated.”  Then ask, what does that say to you?  What is our agreement about the next time you are tardy?).

I realize this may sound like harsh dialogue to have with your employee.  That’s often because accountability isn’t currently thriving in your organization. In the best situations, accountability starts before the performance needs improvement.  You begin to build accountability by shifting language in the relationships of the firm.  Growing awareness to where you are using “I” versus “You” language is a great place to start.  And the more this happens at the leadership levels, the easier it is to build in the other levels of your organization.

We’ve gotten carelessly collective in our language, which gives lots of opportunities to dodge accountability, feeling like we have rooted ourselves in having the whole group responsible. This is a common misstep in our current culture, especially since technology began driving our days (and our lives…that’s another story for another day…).  Listen to others (and yourself, ideally, although it is more challenging to hear your own language) for places where the collective show up:

“We don’t do it that way…”

“You know, how the military has a stealth bomber…”

“You make me …”

Accountability statements:

“I haven’t done it this way before…”

“I know the military has a stealth bomber…”

“I am upset. Your choice/action felt hurtful to me….”

Consider aligning with a colleague and offer each other feedback when the default becomes the collective.  Correct each other, it’s simple, “Who does it that way?”  It’s a starting point, and small steps lead to big shift.

When talking with someone who is using the collective language we tend to respond with a defensive posture, especially when the dialogue is about our relationship.  And when we talk with the collective, we create defense in the other person.

So, when Fisher begins to use the collective, “You know, others come in late…” it’s your opportunity to bring him back to first person.  “This conversation is about you.  Please speak about yourself.”  Again, this may feel harsh if you haven’t established a culture while things are going well.

If you focus on establishing accountability in your relationships — staff, attorneys, loved ones — you’ll soon see it’s contagious.  Your firm will embrace creativity and innovation over time, and your profitability will rise.  You’ll also discover that if Fisher doesn’t want to be held accountable, he’ll cut bait and leave.

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About the Author

Judy Hissong
Judy Hissong, CLM, is the President of Nesso Strategies. Nesso is the Italian word for connection, and her company is built on the passion of human potential and bottom line improvement. She writes, speaks, trains, and coaches on leadership, wellness, workplace engagement, and communication and conflict skills. Find her on twitter @judyhissong; email; phone 619.546.7885; and join her LinkedIn Group “Engaging Legal Leaders” for more conversation about leadership in law firms.