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Meaningful work a key to recruiting and retaining talent

22 September 2016 - By Gene Turner

Making work meaningful is one of the key factors to focus on to attract and retain the best team.

This is important, because if you and your team can’t see the impact that your work has for you, your firm, your clients and wider society, you’re missing a heap of motivation, and can actually become demotivated.

I would think about this often, and was particularly prone to reflection on the value – or otherwise – of what I was doing when working during the evening. Usually you were working late because there was at least one person who thought it was the most important thing happening in the world at that time, but with a little tiredness and an empty stomach, I could often come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t make the slightest difference in the greater scheme of things whether the deal occurred or not.

On the other hand, when your work has meaning, it can have a huge difference. For example, in the accounting world, KPMG have reported soaring morale and greatly reduced turnover through showing their employees the impact they were having on the world.

Even bank loans can be interesting

Unfortunately I never got to work with anyone who actually was curing cancer, and the reality is that few jobs will actually have substantial public impact. However, with curiosity and an open mind, even quite routine work can be given a lot of meaning.

As an example, I’ve done a lot of banking transactions over my career, including a spell in-house at Westpac managing property finance and business banking transactions. In documentation terms, the work was vanilla and repetitive, and could have been quite boring. I enjoyed it though, because I had a lot of personal responsibility and freedom, and also because I got to read the credit memos and approvals as part of the transaction.

From the bank’s perspective, this was solely for compliance. I had to do this to ensure that all credit’s requirements were included in the loan and security documentation. However, as part of the review I would also learn a lot about the borrower, their business, and what they were going to achieve with the loan.

Rather than just shuffling paper, or adding a little more to the bank’s billion dollar profit or the CEO’s bonus, this background and context gave the transactions meaning and provided the motivation I needed to get the loan established as quickly as I could. I was inspired by the stories of these successful small and medium sized businesses, and ultimately that’s where my motivation to do an MBA and start LawHawk began.

Some people find more meaning in the deals with a lot of 000s in them.

However, I found more satisfaction working with, or for, the benefit of individuals. Managers of large organisations move quickly from project to project and often don’t really care about long-term outcomes, while a job for an individual might be one of the most important things in their whole life. People like helping people.

Six ways you and your team can find meaning and satisfaction

Here are some simple things you can do to help you and your team find more meaning and satisfaction in your work:

1. Have the right mindset

We all enjoying doing things that we think are important and have impact. If you and your team can learn how what you are each doing fits into the overall scheme of things and who you are helping, you will all enjoy it a lot more. It’s often in your mindset, and sometimes you will need to be creative: You can be a bricklayer or a cathedral builder; a bank loan drafter or someone who helps New Zealand businesses grow and succeed.

2. Take your team members to meetings or let them sit in on calls

In this cost conscious climate, some clients are sensitive to having multiple lawyers attend meetings. Given that they also want delegation and overall lowest cost, I think there’s a sound case for having the person who will do much of the work at the meeting on a chargeable basis to hear directly what they need to do, and why, rather than hear it second hand later from the partner. If they take a laptop and have access to cloud computing tools like document automation, they could be starting to generate a contract based on the interview, so the client would more directly see the value. Moving more to fixed or retainer pricing would also help.

However, even if you can’t charge for it, if possible try and take the lawyer to the initial client meeting, or let them sit in on the call. You’re teaching them valuable meeting and inter-personal skills (showing them how it is possible to communicate without email), developing relationships at multiple levels with the client, and they’ll appreciate why they’re doing the work and the people who will benefit from it.

3. Ask your clients to present to your team

It’s common for lawyers to host seminars for clients. It’s a great way to demonstrate your expertise and to facilitate networking.

However it’s less common to have clients come and talk to the firm about their business and strategy. While your client might talk to you one-on-one, how about the rest of your team?

We arranged a lot of visits and always got great value from them. Having Mike Bennetts visit and talk about his plans for Z Energy soon after taking over was one real highlight for me in this area.

4. Visit clients

Even better than getting the clients to visit you, go and see them at their business. There’s a lot that you can do at your desk these days, and it’s tempting to do all of it via email. However, cloud computing lets you work from anywhere, so why not do more from your clients’ premises? Go and see what they actually do. I loved my visits to New Zealand Post’s mail sorting and printing businesses as it demonstrated how technologically advanced and challenging their business was. It gave context to the printing supply agreements I negotiated.

When you’re visiting a client’s offices you’ll also bump into other people, learn something new and unexpected that was valuable, and it will help you get your 10,000 steps a day.

My biggest client was Infratil, and I made sure I went to their annual investor day as it helped me achieve a much better understanding of their overall business and plans than I could otherwise.

5. Ask your clients to tell you what will add the most value, and how well you did it

Before the job begins, ask your clients how what you’re doing will really add value to solve their needs, and make sure you focus on those things.

Soon after the job (or during), ask directly how well you did. Regular net promoter score surveys can be a good way of uncovering what is working well and not so well for your clients, and New Zealand company AskNicely is one that is now enabling you to obtain that feedback easily via the Internet without having to do it all yourself.

Sharing the results with all the people involved in delivering the service can be a powerful way of showing how even small things can make a big difference to the client’s experience.

6. Think about the whole team

Of course this is not limited to your legal staff. Your law firm’s business is a system, and all the parts of the system need to work coherently. This could apply just as much to your secretaries, receptionist, finance staff or (increasingly) third parties that perform services on your behalf.

I worked with an amazing secretary who co-ordinated billing for a key client. She did such a great job that month after month the client would come back to us thanking us for making such a tedious process work so well at their end, and saying how much better “we” were than other firms. Did we make sure the secretary knew how valued she was by the client? Of course!

Attracting and retaining talent is an ongoing challenge for any practice. Ensuring your team understands the broader impact they are having is one key way to keep them productive and engaged. [I will discuss some other ideas in future articles.]


Gene Turner is a Wellington lawyer. A former Buddle Findlay partner he is the founder of new business LawHawk, www.lawhawk.nz, an online legal document generation service for lawyers and procurement specialists.

Last updated on the 8th November 2016