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Our Team Building Philosophy

In this episode of Summary Judgment, Josh, Aaron and Margaret continue to discuss how the COVID pandemic affected the firm, specifically their approach to team building and creating a healthy culture.

Listen here or read the transcript below. FVF’s Summary Judgment podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, and more.

0:00:00.0 Josh Fogelman: Thank you for tuning to Summary Judgment where Austin Personal Injury Attorneys Josh Fogelman and Aaron Von Flatern of FVF Law discussed the ins outs and in-betweens of personal injury cases.

[music]

0:00:16.6 JF: Alright welcome back to Summary Judgment. We’re here again with myself and Aaron Von Flatern and Margaret Von Flatern and we’re gonna continue our discussion about COVID focusing a little bit more this time on sort of how FVF was uniquely positioned to handle such an abrupt transformation. And Margaret since you were the logistical team leader I think maybe you’re a good place to start talking about what would we do.

0:00:52.9 Margaret Von Flatern: Sure. So we talked a little bit in the last episode how we had already dipped our toe in the work from home arena. So I will be the first to say I was anti and Aaron was pro and Josh was as usual neutral.

[laughter]

0:01:15.8 MF: So Josh was on the side of whatever was going to work.

[laughter]

0:01:15.9 JF: Yeah that’s right.

0:01:24.1 Aaron Von Flatern: But also on the side of judging whatever failure occurred.

0:01:27.3 MF: 100%. So I do think that the baggage that I brought from a more corporate environment really informed what was my initial what were my initial feelings around work from home which is as soon as your boss is not there to make sure that you’re working you won’t work. And that is definitely it just was incorrect. And I think Aaron, rightfully even before COVID said “absolutely not.” Like that is not… First of all we don’t have a team in place that would behave in that way. And if they do then we have the tools and the resources available to us to make changes to ensure that we have the right people gathered that can be autonomous in their work. And so maybe talk a little bit Aaron about why you felt that way and kind of what your…

0:02:42.9 AF: Yeah. Yeah. So backing it up I know in the beginning we were trying to be good lawyers and we quickly discovered that we also needed to be good business people. And so we attended like conferences and I was reading books and trying to get insights into how to make a business work. And once we had people working with us, for us it became important to learn sort of the ideas of management. And what that boils down to is psychology just like we are all trying to manage ourselves. There’s a recipe to it. It’s chemistry it’s alchemy. It’s not exactly a science where you can say this is gonna work and this isn’t for a particular person. Everybody’s a little bit different. There are some people who need to have someone standing over them in order to get things done.

0:03:37.7 AF: They’ll get more done that way. Will they burn out? Will they be unhappy? Will they leave anyway? You know, who knows? But those people certainly exist. I kind of knew that our team was full of high level professionals, people that took lots of pride in their work. They fit exactly into the model that the management 2.0 advocates were talking about. And that is if you want to get those people at their peak performance you need to figure out how they tick, figure out what gets them hopping out of bed in the morning. And it turns out it’s things like autonomy, purpose, working on mastery, and that fit right into what we were doing. Every lawyer on earth is working on mastery. If they really examine their practice and and every paralegal, you’ll never get there.

0:04:29.1 AF: That’s the point of mastery is you’ll never get there. You can only keep improving. Purpose was something that we just kind of already had going for us. We felt strongly about our clients and and what we needed to do for them. We felt strongly about making personal injury law something different than it had been advertised on TV, elevating it. So we felt like our purpose was clear. Just supporting each other at work was a purpose for us. And then there was the question of autonomy. Not just the autonomy where it’s like, “Hey we have a flex schedule. You can show up between 7:00 AM and 8:30 AM” You know a truly autonomous person gets to decide exactly how their day goes. They can decide if they want to get things done at 1:00 in the morning while their kids are sleeping and take care of their kids at three in the afternoon when they come home from school.

0:05:23.3 AF: Being able to decide on your technique, being able to decide on kind of what team you’re working on. That’s what true autonomy looks like. And so I had read a lot about that, kind of was curious about how it would work in our organisation but knew that this was not like a game, we were frankly a little bit insecure about the idea of just throwing the doors open and say, “Hey everybody do whatever you want. Serve your clients. Do your best. Hopefully you’ll get it done.” We weren’t quite psychologically prepared for that as a leadership team and I’m a little bit grateful to COVID for having forced that issue and saying, “No you’re gonna have to, you’re gonna have to trust.” And that trust thankfully was rewarded by our team just digging deep and and making it work.

0:06:18.7 JF: Yeah. It was… I remember having conversations with y’all about that. What level of autonomy did we trust the organization and the members of the organization to have during this time? Because there was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress when we were trying to figure out how we were gonna survive COVID and we talked a lot about well what level of oversight do we have? There were programs like Toggl and some other systems that we could have tapped into to really observe and manage and evaluate each individual team member’s productivity. And we could have micromanaged.

0:07:04.9 AF: We could have spied.

0:07:05.6 JF: We could have spied.

0:07:05.8 AF: Like a lot of corporations did.

0:07:07.2 JF: Yeah. And I think, ultimately we decided, and a lot of this came from you too, with my support.

[laughter]

0:07:16.8 JF: Of course.

0:07:18.3 AF: You’re very Switzerland, like.

0:07:19.9 JF: I’m very much, very much. I think we decided that the better option was to trust and see how it went versus be big brother and demonstrate a level of distrust and try to maintain complete control. And I think that that decision was rewarded by our team really standing up and demonstrating to us what they were capable of doing, both individually and as a team together. But I found it pretty interesting as things unfolded and as the work from home, the remote work evolved. I found it pretty interesting to see how you still had a level of accountability within the team where if a person wasn’t carrying their weight, even if you weren’t there in person to observe it, it was made known. It rose to the surface and was something that could be addressed. And everyone remained accountable and everyone adapted and has done or continues to do a great job of holding themselves accountable to their own standards, which are high.

0:08:54.6 AF: Yeah. Inventing the systems of accountability and support is something, I mean, the team did that. We didn’t tell them how to be accountable. We didn’t tell them how to support each other. They had a few platforms that we had provided them and they ran with it. And it was pretty remarkable.

0:09:11.7 MF: Yeah. So a 100% and I think that two things. First, once we decided or could have enforced the issue of we’re going to be a predominantly remote workforce, then the two questions came up, which is the first was, how do we maintain our culture? We are an organization that really values that face-to-face interaction. Not just for the business purpose of collaboration, but for establishing deep and meaningful relationships with each other. We have always had a really robust community outreach program in the organization. We do a lot of service work together. We do a lot of team lunches, we do a lot of team building. We just spend time together. And think it’s important that we foster those relationships inside the organization. So we had to figure out how do we continue to do that in a remote environment. And then the next thing that we… And I won’t go into a lot of detail about that because I think a lot of companies did that and there’s… We had virtual all staff meetings. We had a virtual birthday party because we do birthday parties instead of holiday parties on our anniversary.

0:11:07.7 MF: There’s… We did the stand-ups, which we’ve talked about previously, but we really were intentional in how we brought people together initially, virtually, and ultimately like physically together and used that time with real purpose. The, I think from a organizational perspective and a team building perspective, the other piece that’s really important that came out of COVID is who we had on the team. And so the vast majority of staff did really well in the transition. But COVID really shined a bright light on folks for whom FVF wasn’t the right space for them in either their practice or in whatever role that they were playing for us. And so, I’m so grateful for the opportunity that COVID provided us to really start to be so laser focused on the individuals that we bring into the organization. And specifically what we looked for now that is different maybe than what we were hyper focused on before are folks who share our common values.

0:12:54.1 JF: Right.

0:12:56.5 MF: And so, we can… We are so fortunate that I think we are a place that people want to come and practice, want to come and be on our team. And so now we have the ability to really have folks who’ve got great resumes, have great experience, but really what we look for is, can you succeed in a values driven organization? Can you embody the four core values, which anytime you guys have me on…

[chuckle]

0:13:36.9 MF: I have to warn you, I’m always going to bring it back to education, advocacy, compassion, and transparency. How do folks really demonstrate, that they share those values with us.

0:13:52.4 AF: Which boils down to can you emotionally connect with your work in a way that’s going to help you weather the storm when those storms come? Are you going to be able to dig deep and get another gear and find a way to make it work for your clients against, the headwinds that are out there? And when COVID hit, it was kind of the ultimate headwind because the courts were, closed for a minute, and the medical offices were closed, and you didn’t have a way to see your coworkers. So as a lawyer, you’re feeling especially isolated, they always say, it’s a lonely practice referring to the fact that most lawyers, although they can be on teams, they typically have to do the hard work alone. And so when you’re also physically isolated, you’re just down in a dark well.

[laughter]

0:14:37.9 AF: And if you have to stay up till 2:00 in the morning to make a motion hearing work, you’ve really gotta dig deep. And so having a good attitude can only go so far. I think it’s that emotional connection that helps you reach deep down and just say, “I’ve got to do something special here.”

0:15:00.6 JF: Yeah. I think, a lot of, what I, what we have seen evolve from our team members sort of rising to the occasion is a lot more self-sufficiency as well. I think when you don’t… When it’s not easy to walk to the neighboring office and say, “Hey, how did you handle this? Or What should I do here? Or, Hey, do you know a case that says X, Y, and Z?” I think it triggered a lot of our team members to really have to learn how to problem solve creatively on their own, to do research projects on their own, to learn about the other extraneous resources that are available out there beyond our organization. Tapping into the larger network of trial lawyers and personal injury lawyers in our community and in our state, and become more involved on those ListServs to, get help, ask for help and get help.

0:16:10.3 JF: It was, it’s been one of the kind of huge positives that has come out of COVID for our team is that true development of autonomy and learning their own style of the practice of law, learning how to make decisions on their own and become less reliant upon other people in the organisation to hold their hand into the fire. And I think the people in our organisation have done a really incredible job of that, of kind of coming into their own through this process, despite the odds being stacked against everyone in this practice from not being in a cohesive together environment physically.

0:17:01.8 AF: And credit to Margaret for putting together such a strong team. I think when she came here, as we talked about in previous podcasts, she had a background with a kind of a big Fortune 500 company and managing a team over three states. And her skillset included the ability to put together teams that were, dynamic and functional. Margaret, could you talk a little bit about your evolution as some, like the way you viewed putting teams together before, how you were sort of trained in the corporate culture and then how it has evolved in the FVF world where we’ve got, what I consider just such a magical team of all stars.

0:17:49.0 MF: Yeah. So the corporate world is just so different. And I think, there’s lots of fancy tools that we use in corporations. There’s lots of consultants that sell us lots of books and do lots of tests and evaluations to tell us where we have gaps and competencies and behavioral tendencies that make good teams and all of that kind of stuff. And we do utilize some of that, in our hiring practices today, in our team building practices today. But we use that information, in a more intuitive way. So, again, going back to understanding what our values are and what we’re looking for, in individual’s, we’re not so prescriptive in how we hire. And it depends too on the position that we’re filling. We’ve been so fortunate recently to hire, make a couple of really exceptional attorney hires. The… Our last two attorney hires, we were only going to hire one person, and we had such amazing talent presented itself to us. We figured out how to hire two people. And they’ve been great fits for the organization, but we took a really long time in those hires. So, going back to the question, how does our philosophy around hiring different, how is it different today than it was when I first started? We take things slow.

0:19:50.0 MF: And we have an understanding that if it takes us three to six months in the progression of a relationship with a candidate to bring them on board, then that’s okay, because what we’re talking about is a marriage, and we shouldn’t run off to Vegas and elope with somebody after one good date. We owe ourselves and our clients to do more due diligence, to be more thoughtful, and who we bring in to the organization and to our team members too. We owe it to the folks…

0:20:36.2 AF: Absolutely.

0:20:37.5 MF: Who are already here that we bring really good people on to the boat. And staffing and recruiting managers would probably cringe at the idea that you would take six months to bring somebody on board, because they have a vacancy to fill and they’re measured on the turnover rate of that vacancy and all of that. And also, that that candidate, you’re gonna do all of this work with a candidate and then they’re gonna go get another job. Well, the reality is, I’m not looking for somebody who is looking for a job. I’m looking for somebody who wants to come and work for FVF law. And I know that sounds just so pretentious and… Well, isn’t that nice? It is nice and we’re gonna be slow and thoughtful, and we’re only going to hire people that want to work for us.

0:21:36.3 JF: I think it would sound pretentious if we didn’t have people coming to us all the time and give us that feedback [chuckle] We weren’t looking for a law job, we want to come and join your organization because we’ve heard so many positive things about it. Credit where credit is due there.

0:21:55.0 MF: It’s great that we proud ourselves on being a five-star law firm. And you can go to our Google reviews, and if you are a previous client and haven’t left us a five-star review…

[laughter]

0:22:09.7 MF: You may do that now. I’m kidding, but you can go and look and see what our clients say about us and what I… And that makes me very proud. There’s so many, hundreds and hundreds of thoughtful…

0:22:27.7 AF: Heartfelt.

0:22:30.5 MF: Heartfelt feedback about our team and the experience clients have with us. What’s also wonderful is when we get that feedback from our staff, or from defense attorneys that work with us, who say, we’re great to work with, or other people in our space who recommend us as either an employer or as a PI firm for client’s sake. It really does mean the world to us that we are thought of highly. And I think, again, you two set the tone for that. The way that both of you walk through our community, impacting people that you come in contact with, whether it’s when you wear your FVF hat or your own personal hats, is just incredibly meaningful. You are both earnest and really good guys, good people and…

0:23:39.8 AF: Thank you.

0:23:41.8 MF: You’re welcome. You need a haircut.

0:23:43.9 AF: [laughter] Maybe a slight trim.

0:23:48.2 MF: [laughter] But, we are… I think our organization was founded by two great humans practicing for the right reason, and it has attracted great humans, myself included, to the organization. And so, we get to be heartfelt and sappy in the way we hire, which is such as somebody who spent 20 years in corporate America, that’s amazing. We really do get to know people and bring the right folks with the right reasons onto the boat, and that’s great. And we have people who’ve been with us since day one, and then we have more recent hires that I think will be with us hopefully for the next 10 years, and it just, it feels like a really great family.

0:24:50.0 AF: You know the stakes are high for our hiring and I think that’s part of why we approach it so philosophically, there’s the stakes in our clients lives basically like they’re depending on the people that we attach to them, and a lot of them have been through just tremendous catastrophic trauma. They’re dealing with children who are trying to process that, and if you’re not putting an A plus person with them, you’re really doing them a disservice, not to mention like the money stakes at the end of the case because of how you practice law. And not to mention the stakes of what comes out of those reviews is a charge to the whole team, so when we get a positive review, it kind of electrifies the whole team and everybody high-fives and it’s like, we need that fuel for this fire, and there’s really no room for error there when it comes to the philosophical alignment. So again, credit Margaret for being so thoughtful about the process.

0:25:58.4 MF: Well, and I will say, and ruthless about…

0:26:02.7 AF: Cold [laughter]

0:26:03.1 MF: And cold blooded. That was all the warm-fuzzy stuff about creating the environment and bringing the right people on the boat, but when somebody is rowing against the boat, they’re invited off the boat. So we are not the right fit for everyone.

0:26:18.5 AF: Mainly.

0:26:19.2 MF: And we have really talented folks who’ve come and work for us that we have mutually agreed it’s not a right, it’s not a good fit. And I think that that’s from a business perspective, I would love to see other leaders and organizations approach hiring and retention in that way. And we are very transparent from that. There’s no… No one’s ever… I don’t know that anyone has ever… Leaving FVF most of the time is a mutual decision that two parties are coming to because it’s just not a good fit. We’re not a good fit for them, they’re not a good fit for us, whatever it is. But, again, we lean into transparency in the process. We have someone that we hired recently, who is probably editing this podcast, who we were hiring for a position…

0:27:38.2 JF: Maybe in the room with us right now?

0:27:39.6 MF: [laughter] Maybe.

0:27:40.0 JF: Perhaps?

0:27:40.9 MF: But we started the… He laughs and comments and tells people now that the way we approach our third or fourth interview with him is I sat down and told him all the reasons he could get fired from FVF, which I don’t think I actually put it that way. I think the way that we describe it to folks is, “This is what we’re looking for, and this would make somebody not a good fit. And so let’s talk about whether or not we are good fits for each other before we ever decide to make this thing official.” You wouldn’t go on a date with somebody who fosters cats when you have a severe cat allergy, right?

0:28:28.1 AF: Didn’t know where you were going with that.

0:28:30.7 MF: [laughter] I’m gonna bring it home.

0:28:31.7 AF: I’m okay with that one. Yeah.

0:28:32.6 MF: I’m gonna bring it home.

0:28:33.9 AF: I was gonna say, there’s nothing wrong with fostering cats, Margaret. [laughter]

0:28:38.1 MF: I have a severe cat allergy. [laughter] I’m kidding.

0:28:40.9 AF: It’s like a…

0:28:42.6 MF: But I just think there are some things that aren’t necessarily divulged through the normal hiring process. There are some ways that organizations don’t lean in to radical transparency that make it hard for people to make a good decision on whether they want to invest their time in your organization and agree to come and work for you because you haven’t been forthright and transparent about who you are, what you value as an organization, what it’s gonna feel like and look like to work here on a day-to-day basis. A lot of times, what companies will do is put their best foot forward, and it’s all about… It’s a one-way conversation. It’s all that applicant giving you all the reasons why you wanna hire them. Well, I think that these relationships go both ways. I can fail you as an organization. You can fail me as a team member.

0:29:48.6 AF: Yeah.

0:29:50.1 MF: And so I need you to know, from the jump, what it’s gonna look like to work with us and to work on this team and to be a team member. And so that’s really important, and it’s been coming back to why are we talking about this in a post-COVID age or what does this have to do with COVID? COVID shined a bright light on whether or not, everyone on the team was pointed in the right direction and were on the same page with our mission, vision and values.

0:30:29.7 JF: Yeah. I think there’s a lot to talk about with regard to COVID beyond how it impacted the organization. There’s a lot of logistical changes that occurred in the practice of law itself. In the interest of time, probably talk about that in a later episode, but it’s interesting to reflect and think back about what we went through, and how this pandemic really changed the fabric of who we are as an organization and highlighted what we were doing well and helped us adapt and change those things that presented an opportunity for improvement. So, thank you both for your insights here. Thank y’all for listening and tuning in. And we look forward to seeing y’all next time.

[music]

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