Communicating by example
Listening, and giving people the opportunity to contribute, is as important as talking, believes Julian Yarr, this year’s Most Trusted Leader
Julian Yarr: “The tipping point for me was realising most people think communication is talking or forcing messages into the system.”
It would be fair to assume that trust is a crucial commodity for any law firm, but also that communication is an essential tool for winning this trust.
“The one thing about law firms that is a little bit different to other organisations is we’re bound by client confidentiality, and that often leads to people holding back and not being willing to share information,” says Julian Yarr, managing partner at A&L Goodbody in Dublin and winner of Great Places to Work’s (GPTW) Most Trusted Leader of 2016, awarded in partnership with DIT.
But one of the challenges facing Yarr after his initial appointment to the top job back in 2010 was that poor internal communication in the firm was also holding it back.
“The tipping point for me was realising most people think communication is talking or forcing messages into the system, and what I understood very quickly was that listening to people and giving them the opportunity to input into things that affect them on a day-to-day basis is probably as important, if not more so,” he says.
Another way in which law firms differ from other businesses is the process of selecting a new boss is by a vote of its partners; A&L Goodbody’s 80 partners may well have had communication in mind when they voted for Yarr.
“They looked at me and felt I was someone, one of 80 people in our business, who would be approachable, and once you are approachable, people come forward and tell you key things. They tell how you can improve, which is really important, but they also come forward with ideas.”
Originally from Belfast, Yarr moved to Dublin in the early 1990s and climbed the ranks of A&L Goodbody, spending seven years heading up the firm’s office in London before being elected one of the youngest managing partners in the firm’s history. Today, age 45, he is now nearly halfway through a second four-year term.
The award of GPTW’s Most Trusted Leader depends on the responses of a detailed employee survey with more than 70 questions, including 15 that are directly related to leadership, along with an analysis of how nominated leaders have influenced HR policies and practices in their companies for the better.
One of Yarr’s first initiatives was to set up a focus group of 35 volunteers within the firm to brainstorm a list of things that could help make it a better place to work.
Among the ideas was one that developed into a series of poster campaigns in the common areas of the office, informing people of things such as upcoming performance assessments or social events. “That’s important because people have very full inboxes, and it helps to have little thought reminders around them.”
Yarr also set up what he calls a managing partner forum, made up of groups from right round the office who meet him three times a year to discuss items on their agenda, put forward ideas and suggestions and quiz him on any aspect of the business.
“An open door [policy] doesn’t just mean your door is physically open,” says Yarr. “One thing we did last year that was new was Feedback Fortnight, which was an opportunity for everybody within their own teams to basically go in and say how people are getting on, is there anything we can do a bit better, and deliver feedback.”
For Yarr, being a leader has meant a distinct change in the way he interacts with his management team. He spends “much more time listening rather than talking”. This means giving them “much more autonomy and responsibility to drive forth good ideas, and I listen to what they’re saying in the same way as we do to our clients . . .”.
His tenure has coincided with greater success for the firm across a number of sectors – particularly mergers and acquisitions – but he is most proud of A&L Goodbody being the first Irish firm to be named European Law Firm of the Year in 2015 by The Lawyer magazine. He says the award was a strong recognition of the contribution of the whole company – not just the lawyers.
“A trap lawyers always fall into is thinking they are more than anybody else and what I realised was all I had to do was provide an environment where everyone could really feel that they were being invested in, and give them scope to bring forward good ideas, and that’s what I try and do.”