The Great Correction

So you've completed your reductions in force, negotiated new rates with outside counsel and justified your resulting budget to finance's satisfaction. Your quarterly internal client surveys are in and it's official: Your team's doing a great job. You've been inspired by InsideCounsel's profiles of 10 lawyers who do so much with so little (see "Small Successes," August 2009), and you're analyzing which innovative approaches you could adopt from the IC-10 as well (see "Game Changers," September 2009).

Then it's back to business as normal, correct? Probably not.

Unless your business is weighted toward the now-fewer industries and regions with high single-or-greater annual rates of growth, you're now facing slower growth but perhaps quicker change.

And the former can really weigh on a legal department. There's an old saying that the only way to move up in legal is if your boss dies or retires. While that's an overstatement, slower growth will lead to fewer internal opportunities. When coupled with "survivor's guilt" (or uncertainty--is anyone sure the last round of layoffs is the last?), motivation levels in your department could fall to an all-time low.

Here are some suggestions for boosting employee morale:

1. Expand legal skill sets. Does your privacy lawyer have an interest in M&A? Can your IP counsel benefit from assisting HR managers with their increased workload? Think outside the confines of annual corporate career planning about how your specialists can expand their skill sets and improve their resumes.

2. Expand professional capabilities. Is anyone in your department a Six Sigma black belt? Has everyone taken the Project Management workshop your HR department has been pushing?

3. Expand personal capabilities. Does anyone in your department want to learn Mandarin? Do you know your company's tuition reimbursement policy? If what your employees would like to try isn't covered, I'd bet that somewhere in your budget there's enough money to at least buy a Rosetta Stone DVD.

4. Strengthen weaknesses. Yes, there's a school of thought that says to stay with strengths and minimize the rest, but for some of your colleagues that base may be too narrow in the long run. How about presentation coaching for the lawyers (and others) who have domain expertise but aren't naturals on the stand-up circuit? It's a big step for them to come ask for that, but as a manager it is your job to stretch the expectations of what your colleagues are capable of (while being mindful not to set them up for failure).

5. Increase internal visibility. Get your people invited to meetings at the upper edge of their domain and management level. One sign of a strong manager is the ability to send subordinates to present in their place.

6. Increase external visibility. Push your public speakers to be on panels. Make some calls and get your litigators on the e-discovery panels that are cluttering your inbox, and your corporate lawyers on "M&A in the New Environment." Company counsel participation lends credibility to all of those events your outside counsel are hosting; cash in some of those chits your fees (and winning personality) have been building and get your people out there.

Remember, your best people will always be the first to leave. With slower growth comes smaller merit increases, lower bonuses and decreased options proceeds. Now more than ever you need to find nonquantitative reasons to keep your colleagues excited about coming to work. Maybe you can't get them to skip in the door on Monday morning, but you can do better than "Different day; same old stuff."

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