Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

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Articles: Organizational Effectiveness Archives

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Going From a "Keeper" To a "Finder and Minder" Culture

Believe it or not, there are still firms with a "keeper" culture, a culture historically focused only on keeping clients but not very actively targeting and pursuing new ones. If you are in one of those firms, you probably think yours is almost "unique" in that respect. That's what I've heard from many firms over the years. However, it is neither unique nor a terminal condition.

Many firms have a large portion of their legal personnel still functioning with the keeper mentality. They know they have to change, and most find it tough sledding. In a sense, their assets are their liabilities. The very attributes of the culture that provide the glue that holds clients and makes a pleasant environment in which to work prevent partners from imposing on each other to encourage and accomplish change - to reach beyond their comfort zones. This is especially true when people are asked to "sell," to be more focused and "aggressive" in targeting new clients, asking for referrals, perhaps talking about business with their friends.

The good news is there is a way to accomplish the culture change from "keeper" to "finder and minder" culture. The behavior change is not so wrenching as they might think for people willing to develop new habits and discipline themselves in doing so. It does not have to destroy a collegial environment. The bad news is that it doesn't happen overnight, and it does require a committed effort. The first question to ask: Is the will to change present in your firm?


The four key ingredients required to achieve this change are:

  • Clearly articulated expectations for individuals and teams;
  • Frequently communicated consistent messages;
  • Committed and active leadership; and
  • Willingness to measure and reward.

Let's elaborate on each of these and then lay out the steps to get there.

Leadership is always paramount, but in a “keeper” culture firm, there tends to be a good deal of democracy which does not enforce accountability. The professionals do what is necessary to keep clients happy, and the work is their overriding interest, but they often sidestep the things that need to be done to run the firm most profitably and assure continued growth. They don't want to manage, yet they don't want to cede authority to people who are paid to take that responsibility.

A change from keeper to finder culture requires a sustained push from senior management who lead by example and "walk the talk." This is not often easy, as in those firms, the firm managers tend to have inherited most, if not all, of their clients and have neither the skills nor the committed interest in becoming accomplished marketers. Alternatively, a committed initiative from junior partners and senior associates is the way it is achieved in many firms. They can accomplish the change if they not only persevere with passion to deepen and penetrate new markets, but also develop the firm management skills and policies that will inspire, motivate and retain similarly talented professionals. These younger lawyers need to form a core group of dedicated people. Culture change is more likely to occur through the ranks of this "next generation." They tend to have a longer career view than senior management and less ingrained resistance to marketing, rewards for team efforts, and valuing of skills and services not viewed as the traditional lawyer role. The danger is that the enthusiastic young partners and associates with good, often untested ideas get beaten down by the conservatism and timidness of the keeper culture. We have witnessed that phenomenon in too many firms, unless they are encouraged to develop their marketing ideas and skills.

Another necessary ingredient is clearly articulated expectations: what people are expected to do; what they will be held accountable for; and how results will be recognized. Despite senior managements' perceptions, in most firms such expectations are not clearly articulated. Perhaps management is too close to their messages to realize that they are not being received by the majority of people in the firm beyond the inner circle.

The messages on mission, vision and expectations must not only be clear, but also frequently communicated. Just as with advertising, it takes repetition to have an impact. Without it, people fall back to their old comfortable ways without establishing the new ways of thinking and habits required.

Lastly, there is the accountability piece - the willingness to measure and reward, and possibly to provide disincentives. The caveat here is that in order to achieve change, people must be encouraged to take risks and to be supported in those efforts. Otherwise, nothing really changes. These should be educated risks, not foolish ones. Much better to see the choice as between success and learning than between success and failure. Incentives must be clear as well. What is the reward for trying something new and achieving the desired results? How does it compare with doing the same old thing? There must be a payoff for behavioral change.


The steps toward moving from a keeper to a finder culture are similar to these for most types of culture change. First, it is useful to identify a “champion” for the cause. This person may or may not be part of the firm's senior management structure, although it is usually better if he or she is. The preferable way by far is to achieve change without a firm coup d' etat. The champion needs strong support from firm leaders so that the majority of professionals will try to follow. The champion need not be charismatic, but high energy, enthusiasm, strong belief, and the ability to inspire and motivate are crucial. Equally important is perseverance.

This is too big a job for one person alone, so a task force or steering committee should be formed to plan and implement. It is important the this task force be comprised of both creators – idea people – and executors who will ensure that ideas are transformed into action.

As mentioned earlier, desired behavior changes need to be clearly articulated, broadcast and repeated frequently in partners meetings, practice group meetings, marketing meetings, firm retreats, and performance evaluating meetings. There is no room for mixed messages - a phenomenon that exists in many firms where billing hours is emphasized above all else, without widespread acknowledgment that billing time can only be increased legitimately if more work is brought in. Presumably, some of that new work must be from new clients.

In theory, the above steps are clear and straightforward, but in almost every organization, there are unwritten rules that get in the way. Unwritten rules have been defined as "sensible ways to act" given written rules and management behavior. These unwritten rules really drive individual behavior because their existence means people have identified what it is in their self interest to do or not to do regardless of stated firm objectives. Unwritten rules infiltrate every aspect of an organization, affecting how to get assigned to the most desirable projects, who to be seen with, how to get promoted and what financial indicators and performance attributes are important to firm management. So firm leaders and managers would be wise to assess whether people are being rewarded more highly, more directly and more quickly by ignoring the written (or spoken) rules and following some other set rather than the officially articulated ones.

As long as the unwritten rules are not addressed and are permitted to operate below the surface, there will be no attitude and behavior change. Unwritten rules can be surfaced through confidential interviews and rendered irrelevant by aligning the desired outcomes with the tangible and intangible incentives that will motivate the corresponding desired behaviors and actions. Here again we are talking about articulating clear messages and expectations, measuring and rewarding. If the expectations, policies and rewards are consistent with each other and applied fairly and uniformly, there will be no reason for the old unwritten rules.

Too often firm management assumes that they know and understand what the attorneys want, is meaningful to them, and what they will do. Just as in assuming that all clients want the same thing in the same priority order, this can be a counterproductive assumption. In order to get everyone rowing in the same direction, the firm should employ assessment tools that identify work expectations and what is most important to each individual in their work environment and professional development. Tools that analyze one's most preferred role in working toward change and innovation can also increase the likelihood of reaching the desired outcome - and of reaching it faster.

The latter is important, for example, in making sure task forces and committees are not filled only with creator-types or all refiners or implementers. In order to accomplish culture change, you will need a variety of natural types – idea generators, idea promoters, refiners, executors, and facilitators who can keep the process flowing toward fruition. Individual interviews with key players in the firm as well as a cross-section of people at all levels who have a role in the business development process are valuable. Their understanding, cooperation and support – whether secretary, IT staff, receptionist, marketing staff, associate, practice leader or managing partner – is essential to accomplish change and sustain it through everyday challenges.

Beyond the specific steps, it is crucial to the outcome to realize that transitions are difficult for most people, even if they are not philosophically opposed to change. The rational argument is the easier part. Emotional and psychological processing takes much longer and won't happen overnight even if financial incentives are put in place. Sometimes the most well-meaning firm leaders abandon the effort in the face of the commitment required and revert to lip service and empty pronouncements. There are no quick fixes. Some of the attorneys may need resources to support the emotional journey and the changeover to adopting new habits and attitudes. Nonetheless, the journey is necessary for the firm's future viability.


Published in New York Law Journal 2000.