Ideas From the Front

Puttin’ On the Ritz


For countless years, the secretaries at Atlanta-based King & Spalding worked under the direction of a central manager.

The system was far from broken, but neither was it perfect. Bottlenecks often occurred if there was a surge of work, a sick or vacationing secretary, or a new temp who had to be brought up to speed, impeding the efforts of attorneys and clients.

But a few years ago, as part of a larger initiative to improve service to its attorneys, the firm management started asking secretaries how they felt their workflow could better be managed.

The idea of asking those in the trenches how to do their job better may not seem revolutionary outside the law firm world, but King & Spalding staff members say they may not have thought to ask without the help of the Ritz-Carlton.

Yes, that Ritz-Carlton.

Based in part on input from the hotel chain, the law firm began decentralizing the secretarial management, allowing its members to work in teams with a high degree of self-management.

The result was an unqualified success, says Adair Dorsey Sisk, director of service excellence for King & Spalding. The new structure has reduced the need for a full-time, unassigned secretarial pool and improved morale, Sisk says.

Here’s how the Ritz fits in. For the last seven years, the hotel chain has run a Leadership Center, through which it shares the secrets of service-business success with company brass who pay for the privilege. King & Spalding is one of a handful of law firms that have signed on to the program.

SATISFACTION ISN’T INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC

While it may seem a stretch for a law firm to try to improve its services by looking to a leader in the hospitality industry, the hotelier’s lessons are easily transferable to any industry—even law firms, says Diana Oreck, who runs the center in Chevy Chase, Md.

The programs are “an awakening because [others] see how our senior managers live,” she says. “They see that it takes a huge effort to do this, but they also see the rewards and the customer loyalty you get in return.”

In 2003, King & Spalding had some 20 high-level members of its administrative staff learn that and other lessons as part of a staff retreat, says Patrick Glisson, the firm’s chief operating officer.

In addition, Sisk attended a separate program at the Leadership Center as part of an industry marketing group. “We always felt that we had a commitment to superior service, but that we needed some formality to it and to learn how to institutionalize it,” says Glisson.

Based on their work at the Leadership Center, participants created a mission statement and 10 service standards for the law firm. Sisk says, “We felt that this firm is now so large, and we were looking at what the Ritz-Carlton is able to do, and we heard them say that you can’t tell people what you stand for if you can’t identify it yourself.”

A NEW TAKE ON DECISION-MAKING

Glisson says the Ritz’s teachings also have helped shape how the firm manages change. A key lesson was the importance of inclusion. In the past, policies were decreed from the top down, he says. Now staffers from all levels help develop the firm’s service standards.

“The idea is that we are expecting everyone to be committed to a continuous process of improvement. We are not simply accepting that something is done because it was the way it was done last year,” Glisson says.

That approach recently helped make some hard decisions easier for the firm. For example, when the firm moved into its new office space last year, the layout eliminated the need for receptionists on every floor and for as many attorney support positions. Instead of simply letting employees go, Glisson says, the firm went to the receptionists and service center staff—as they had gone to the secretaries previously—to get their input.

As a result of their suggestions, the firm was able to shift responsibilities and schedules, which allowed the firm to not only retain its staffers but also keep them happy and productive.

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