Law firm culture. Articulating it isn’t easy, but it impacts all aspects of the firm, from recruitment, retention and employee experience to client engagement and business development.
On today’s episode of the CMO Series, Ali Bone is lucky to welcome someone who has successfully defined their firm’s culture - Powers Tanis, Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications at McAngus Goudelock & Courie.
Powers joins the series to share her insights on culture, communication and the role of marketing in demonstrating the firm’s values.
Ali and Powers discuss:
- Powers’ background leading up to her current role at McAngus Goudelock & Courie
- The point in Powers’ career she realised the importance of culture and social value within the workplace, and in law firms specifically
- The activities Powers is implementing at McAngus to cultivate and communicate culture
- How these activities have changed and evolved in response to hybrid and more flexible working arrangements
- The impact of this very considered approach to culture within the firm in relation to recruiting talent and retaining existing talent within the firm
- How culture impacts business development and marketing activities
- Plans for 2023 and beyond when it comes to communicating the firm’s culture both internally and externally
- Advice for other marketing professionals looking to cultivate and communicate their firm’s culture
Intro: Welcome to the Passle podcast CMO Series.
Ali: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast, where we talk all things marketing and BD in professional services. Now, today's topic is certainly something on the tip of everyone's tongues, and that's culture, specifically law firm culture. It's not always tangible, and it could be hard to define what it means from a day-to-day perspective. Great culture impacts all aspects of the firm, that being from recruitment, retention, and employee experience right through to client engagement and business development.
Now, someone who has successfully articulated their firm's culture and more specifically the social value, is Powers Thomas, director of Strategic Marketing and Communications at McAngus Goudelock & Courie.
Powers joins us on CMO series to share her insights on culture, communication, and the role of marketing and demonstrating the firm's values. Powers, welcome.
Powers: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Ali: We're really excited about this and all the conversations leading up to this have been absolutely fascinating. As I mentioned, it's very much that social value that you're able to drive at first. I think it's going to be great for everybody to hear. So to get into it, it'd be a fantastic place to start. If you could actually please tell us a little bit about your background leading up to your current role at MGC?
Powers: Absolutely. So I started my career in fundraising and marketing and event planning in the nonprofit world. I spent about eight years in that world before I jumped into legal marketing. I had no idea what I was getting into when I joined MGC. I've been here ten years now, and it's been a whirlwind, but I came over to the for-profit world and thought I'd be here for a couple of years and then head straight back to the nonprofit world. But here I am, ten years later, still at the same firm. My role has changed over that time, but I am loving it, and I'm loving the legal industry and legal marketing.
Ali: That is a huge accolade to, I guess, the firm in terms of the time that you spent there, but also to the world of legal marketing. The fact that you enjoy as much as you do, and actually that kind of leads nicely into what I want to ask you, which was actually, what point in your career did you realise the importance of culture and social value within the workplace and specifically within law firms? Because I imagine the impact you had at nonprofits probably had a bearing on that as well.
Powers: Absolutely. So I will say in the nonprofit world, you feel and understand more of the culture and the social impact from the beginning. It's different when you are in a law firm. I think in joining a law firm, I was here for a few years when I finally really understood the inner workings of a law firm, how the business of law works, the purpose, who we're impacting, and really what we're selling. And I think it was probably six to seven years ago when I really started to understand the culture of a law firm and how it is the lifeblood of a firm, much less any organization. And that is about when my role started changing. Luckily, I work for a firm where you're encouraged to bring ideas, or if you see something that can be done differently, take it and run with it. And I started seeing this real need to connect and engage and market internally as well as externally, and really just make sure that not only are we telling our culture story to our clients and to potential candidates to work for the firm, but really make sure that our own MGC people understand who we are and why we do what we do, our core values and how that plays into everything we do. And that's when my role really kind of changed, where I focus, yes, on the external marketing and communication and client engagement, but I also focus very strongly and heavily on our internal programs, engagement, culture-related initiatives, that kind of thing. That's everything from diversity-related programs to our leadership development programs, retreats and partner meetings, and employee engagement activities, both virtual and in person. So I would say probably six to seven years ago, I really saw that shift, and that's what keeps people where they are. That's what kept me where I am. And focusing on the culture became one of my priorities. And, Ali, I think I told you this the last time we talked. I'm not passionate about law. I could not do what our attorneys do. It's not something I've ever had any desire to do. But I'm passionate about people. And being an MGC and being able to play a significant role in the people of the firm and the culture of the firm is really when I shifted my focus and kind of do what I do now.
Ali: That's amazing. And as you said, you're not necessarily passionate about the law, but you certainly are passionate about people. And that's certainly something I'm passionate about. And when it comes to law firms, fundamentally, that's what it is about. That's everything that you're doing, both internally and externally. And a couple of points that you made there that really struck me is the way that all of that intertwines together. And to use your word, it is the lifeblood, which is why it's so important. But naturally, it's not necessarily the easiest thing to pick up on. So it's obviously taking a lot of time and effort, kind of, to really get into that. And actually, when you think about that, it can be so difficult to sort of pinpoint what makes a good culture, and generally speaking, it's more of a feeling. So could you please tell us about some of the activities you're doing at MGC to cultivate that culture and the work that you're doing to communicate it as well please?
Powers: So I believe strongly that culture is an experience. It is what our clients experience when they're interacting with our firm and it's what our employees and staff and lawyers experience in their day-to-day jobs. And that's everything from the roles that they do and understanding the impact that role plays in the larger picture, as well as kind of the experience they have interacting with each other. And so that's really what we focus a lot on, is making sure that people understand that their roles, whether you are a runner at the firm or you're a partner, make a difference to our clients and to our people and to our bottom line as well as interacting with our people. Because the ultimate way to retain a fantastic workforce is to make sure that you truly enjoy coming to work every day, whether that is coming to work in an office or coming to work by logging into your computer at home. We want to make sure you are engaged and connected with each other. Our team does a number of employee engagement and connecting activities throughout the year, whether it is a virtual bingo, a paint night, we have a DIY night coming up next week, in-person lunches, and happy hours. And these things aren't anything new.
We're not doing anything revolutionary. I think firms all over the world are doing this kind of thing right now, but we also are focusing really on making sure that we recognise the talents that our people bring to the table. So we have a leadership MGC program that is a yearlong program for our lawyers, where you can go through this class, where you learn the inner workings of MGC, the legal industry, understand our client's industry, as well as find ways to improve the firm. We also have associates retreats and team leader and group leader retreats and meetings so that we're constantly bringing people together just for the social aspect, but also for that leadership development and to make sure that we're cultivating that culture in the lifeblood of the firm.
A culture can be great without being cultivated, but it can be fantastic if you take time to put some effort into cultivating it and into making sure that people are seeing the sparks and having opportunities to engage. Another really cool thing that we do that I think really tells of our firm's culture is a town hall series. These started after the George Floyd incident when we brought our employees together virtually, and it was scheduled for after work on a random weekday. And people were really able to just share their thoughts, their experiences, ask questions and learn in a respectful environment.
It was scheduled for 45 minutes and it lasted almost 3 hours. We have continued those town halls throughout the past couple of years virtually, where we've had speakers come in and discuss mental health and wellness through a pandemic. We have talked about generational diversity and had panellists from within our own firm speak on that topic. Women and the balance that women often struggle with, with a busy work career as well as a family life. So it's a good culture, it is you're right, it's more than a feeling, it is an experience. And it's looking and identifying ways that you as a firm can make that experience happen, whether it is a pizza lunch or something more thoughtful and more planned like a retreat. So finding ways to just really provide the best experience and the most equitable experience and really make sure that the connection is meaningful.
Ali: And it's quite evident that MGC is ensuring that people actually put at the very forefront of what you're doing. And that's where I think that whole social value starts to shine through with what you're doing in the firm. Be it those town hall series, as you say, it kind of came around originally off the George Floyd incident and then women's balance in their life in terms of what they're experiencing. It's lots of things that ultimately, I guess, help to empower people. But also you've got some of the slightly more, I suppose, enjoyable parts in terms of bringing those virtual painting and bingo events to it. And actually, out of interest, while we're talking about that, have you found, despite the people, I suppose, or people coming back into the office more, that actually those virtual events are still being really well regarded and actually helping to drive some of that culture and the engagement that's so important in those other aspects?
Powers: I think we do see that a good bit, even if it's a short 30-minute bingo lunch. We have found that we'll have a good many folks jump on, and it's folks in all different roles at the firm, all different locations because it's a quick break, everybody's encouraged to have their cameras on, the chats are usually blowing up with people commenting. And I think a lot of folks look at virtual events and say, oh, we only had 30 people on this call. But to me, looking at the success of a virtual event isn't necessarily about having a large number of people on a call or a paint night or whatever, because then you don't have the engagement. We have found that these kinds of things work better when you have a smaller group because people are more comfortable connecting and discussing things with each other or getting to know each other. When we do have our town halls and have larger events, oftentimes we will end up in a breakout session, smaller groups, so that people do kind of feel connected. So I honestly think that they are still going to be the way of the future with the firm.
A very large percentage of our workforce is remote. So one of the things that we've had to think about is we can't recreate or cultivate culture just for the people who might show up in the office. You have to provide a platform or a way for people to engage with each other virtually as well. If you look at the way everybody's environments have changed over the past couple of years and moving forwards, we've had to respond to that. We've had to really focus on one thing our team talks a lot about is intentional culture, and intentional engagement. And really, you hate saying that you're forcing things on people, but it's being intentional and it's about creating opportunities for everybody to have that experience.
Ali: Yeah, I think that the element of just being intentional and really encompassing everybody can do it is so important. And actually, I think to your point there is that it doesn't matter whether it's 30 people on that call or whether it's 150, 200 people. It's the value that people take away from that that's so important and then starts to really filter out throughout that culture. And you kind of answer it there. But I was actually going to ask you what you felt with the way that things have changed over the past few years and the way that everybody's working in terms of how the activities changed or evolved in response to hybrid and more flexible working arrangements. I know you kind of just alluded to it there in terms of got to be more intentional about what you're doing, allow people to actually have the opportunity to but if, whether there's anything else that you wanted to add on to that, that wasn't mentioned previously.
Powers: The only other thing I would add to that is when you were in the office, you had those opportunities for the break room conversations or the water cooler conversations as people call them. And going back to that intentionality, how do we create those opportunities for our folks? And I think that's something that nobody really knows the answer to, but it's really trying to find that balance so that people do still feel like they're getting that connection at work. One thing we are working on is really making sure that when we are working with our supervisors and our managers and our leaders of the firm, they're the ones that really have to take initiative and be intentional about creating those water cooler opportunities. Reach out to their teams, reach out to their staff, and just make sure that they're checking in and getting to connect on a personal level and not just by managing workflow and things like that.
Ali: Yeah, that makes a huge amount of sense. It's quite evident how considered you are around what you're doing there and you just touched upon it. So what do you actually think has been the impact of such a considered approach to the culture within the firm, particularly in relation to recruiting talent and of course, retaining the existing talent, which is incredibly important as demonstrated with your tenure there?
Powers: Well, and I think this is something that all law firms and probably all organisations are trying to solve this puzzle right now is how do you approach the recruiting talent and the retention of talent? Really, I think it starts with kind of the onboarding of talent, making sure that people are connected from day one. I think that's something that's really going to help you, in the long run, to make sure that if John Smith starts with you on Monday, he's not feeling lost and disconnected. Our offices have fewer people in them than normal our homes. You're home by yourself and you log on, and you may not have a meeting firsthand. So it's really creating an intentional onboarding program that goes beyond that first day. Somebody managing it to make sure that John Smith is connecting with a partner in Oxford that does the same kind of work to get to know the firm. So it's really restructuring and rethinking and reinventing how we onboard our folks and then focusing on that retention piece. And one thing we just did was a stay survey. A lot of organisations are doing stay interviews and stay surveys right now. And I think it's a very wonderful and brave thing to do, as long as you're willing to take the good with the bad and then do something about your results. So we just wrapped up our first-ever stay survey about a month ago, and we're going through all of the responses and as you can imagine, it's a lot of responses, open-ended responses. So trying to pinpoint the different themes on why people want to come to work every day at the firm, and what they love about MGC, and we're really seeing that what they love and why they come to work every day is the people and the flexibility. And so knowing that those are two of our strong points, how can we take that and sell the firm to potential candidates and then really looking at what can we do better? What are we not getting right and being able to say, yes, you're right, we can't get that right, and what can we do about it? A lot of that went back to some feedback we got from some of our new hires over the past two years. Onboarding, engagement, retention, and training. So really revamping what our first year looks like for a new employee. I think it all goes back to culture and making sure you're telling that culture story from the recruitment side all the way through the first year of onboarding and then continuing to just make sure you check in with your tenured folks. We are seeing some of that coming out of the state surveys where some folks still feel disengaged because they're remote workers. So what can we do better to connect and engage with those folks who aren't coming into an office, who may not live near an office? So really, just again, getting that pulse of your firm and making sure you are kind of doing a check-up on your firm. Since it is your lifeblood, you want to make sure that it thrives. So really being brave enough to do that pulse I think that any organisation that goes through a stay survey, I commend you just make sure you do something about the results.
Ali: Yeah, that's the most important thing. As you said, you have to be able to take the good with the bad there. And there's no doubt going to be a few maybe not necessarily unsavoury comments but comments that people weren't necessarily expecting to hear. But I mean, has it overall been pretty positive for you?
Powers: Yes, it has. It really has. And it's honestly, we had already almost done with our process of reinventing the attorney and professional teams and legal teams onboarding and first-year programs. And this really just solidified that that was a real need for us to be focused on. So it kind of felt good on the fact that, okay, maybe we do have a good kind of gauge on our culture and where we weren't getting things right. And so I think that it really showed that it did deserve our focus and making this a priority for retention purposes.
Ali: Yeah, definitely. At the end of the day, everybody wants to be part of a community. So I'm sure when you've got that really good culture, it all starts to fill and build naturally into that. And it's clearly been successful for that employee experience and what you've been touching upon there. And of course, the onboarding for new recruitment and new talent. So when you start to think about how that culture impacts business development and marketing activities, is this something that you've actively gone out to promote with your clients and your external audiences? Is it something that seeps into, I guess, ultimately the firm's strategy and what you're doing, as I say, on that marketing and BD side?
Powers: 100% - one of the things we hear a lot from our clients is MGC is not your typical law firm. We have a different approach to things. We have a different approach to our client service, to our matters, and to our relationships. To us, or for our attorneys, our clients, it's all about a relationship. You work better with each other. If you truly understand each other, you understand each other's goals, you understand the firm and its business and how they can intertwine together. And I think clients really appreciate and want to work with a firm that is interested in who they are and what they do. They're a reflection of MGC. And we ultimately have lawyers that want to be there and get to know their clients’ businesses. I think that our culture really does weave its way into marketing and business development and client service. In the insurance industry, there is a heavy, heavy emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. And that's one of the lifebloods that runs through our firm. And so I think any stories we can tell related to that, related to our core values that really are built around serving our clients in the best way possible, our clients appreciate that, and I think that by showing our clients who the firm is. They know who they're working with. And that makes them want to continue to work with a firm where it's not the firm is just worried about the bottom line and the billable hours and squeezing the client as much as possible. It's about being a partner and working with people you like.
Ali: Yeah, I think it comes back to that element of the social value that is evident at the firm and actually what people can then bring when it comes to sitting in front of clients and kind of what the external messaging is. Because that's so important is dealing with people and it's being able to have that human connection and show that you're more than you say, Trying to just do your billable hours and just execute on work is actually what's that deeper level to everything. Actually with that in mind, is there kind of a little bit more around the marketing and business development that you're going to be doing? So if you think about what the plans are for 2023 and beyond when it comes to communicating the firm's culture and that sort of social value, that's very much at the core of it. And of course, the brand is there more internally and externally you're going to be doing as you move forward into next year?
Powers: Absolutely. Externally, we are actually in the process of refreshing our website to really be able to share with our clients as well as with potential candidates to work at the firm, who we are to tell our story, make sure that our culture is woven into our client service, and being able to share that on our website. Internally, we have a number of initiatives that we are looking to launch in 2023. One of my favourites is an internal podcast that really is telling our story and who we are as a firm. Different topics would include our core values, our strategic plan, interviews with our Help Desk guys, getting to know an Office Manager in Nashville, different things like that, to really connect and engage people across the firm and across state lines and bring us together as truly one firm.
Ali: Yeah, I love that. It's just highlighting everything good that you're doing. And I think an internal podcast is only going to be well received. You're a big firm and not everybody necessarily knows what's happening. And bringing back to something that you mentioned earlier, I'm sure that off the back of that initial town hall you did around the George Floyd incident, I'm sure there was a lot of really positive conversation that came out of that that people were able to latch onto within the firm. And hopefully, you were able to actually use some of that internally in terms of spreading that message of what you're about in terms of being able to engage on multiple different levels. So, unfortunately, that brings us towards the end of the conversation, Powers. I had one more question that I did want to ask you, which was, what was your one piece of advice for other marketing professionals looking to cultivate and communicate the firm's culture?
Powers: That's a great question. I would say that anyone at a firm or an organisation contributes to the culture of that organisation. Like I said earlier, it is an experience. Culture is an experience. And I think that a marketing and business development professional can make a positive contribution by ensuring that they are going into that firm or to their role with a positive I can do this, I have a lot to bring to the table attitude. I think it goes a long way when you have a good attitude or a good outlook on your role or your job, and that kind of positivity and optimism really spreads. And so I think it's going into your firms just being joyful and optimistic and innovative and looking for the small ways to change things or to impact your culture. No one person can change the culture of an organisation, it's just not possible. Or if they can, then I think there are some bigger issues with that organisation. So I think it's just making the effort to be a part of the culture in a positive culture, in a positive way and contribute to the firm culture is a reflection of its people. So be the type of person you want that culture to reflect.
Ali: Yeah, I think some very wise words at the end there, Powers. So thank you very much. What a joy, that's been absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for that.
Powers: Well, thank you for having me today. This has been great.
Ali: My pleasure. Before we sign off, I did want to go through a little bit more of a slightly relaxed questioning for you, which was a little quick-fire round, so I was hoping that we might be able to just whisk through that if that works for you?
Ali: Brilliant. A chance to get to know you a little bit better. So, Powers, what's your favourite business and non-business book?
Powers: My favourite business book is Anything by Brene Brown. I love all of her books and they give such good insight into how to be a part of a team and have those hard conversations, that kind of thing. Non-business book. I love The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.
Ali: Brilliant, thank you very much. And what was your first job?
Powers: I worked retail at a consignment clothing store.
Ali: Very nice. I think probably similar to many of us. What makes you happy at work?
Powers: I would say the people, it’s what keeps me coming back every day.
Ali: I think actually if there had been a different answer, then I might have worried about everything that we just went through from a culture perspective. Brilliant to hear. In terms of what are you listening to at the moment, please?
Powers: So I do love a good true crime podcast. There's one out called Murder and Magnolias, and it is based in Charleston, South Carolina, which is where I'm originally from. And so I am in the midst of that.
Ali: Very exciting. And finally, where is your favourite place to visit and why?
Powers: My family goes to Hilton Head, South Carolina, every summer for a week. It's the beach located down in South Carolina, and it's just our place. And I love it because it is a week dedicated to my people and the reason I'm here and the reason I do what I do. So I would say the beach.
Ali: That is really lovely. I imagine somewhere that you return to every year is somewhere that you can instantly switch off and relax as well. So I'm sure that is something you always look forward to. It's been an absolute joy having you on. Thank you so much for that.
Powers: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you letting me be a part of this podcast.
Ali: It's been brilliant, and I really do appreciate you alluding to everything that you're doing from a culture perspective at MGC. And for me, what I really took away from this is just the social value that you're able to drive there. It's more than it just a culture of people paying lip service to it. It's lived and breathed at the firm. So thank you so much for that.