On this week’s episode of Lawline’s Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle discusses the concept of Leading by Example with our very own Michele Richman, Lawline’s Chief People Officer. Michele discusses what it looks like to be an attorney, coach, and Chief People Officer at Lawline, and how these three aspects help strengthen Lawline’s HR operations.
Listen to the full interview or read the highlights of Michele’s interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
On Being A HUD Attorney
I Loved It But It Wasn’t Family Friendly
When I graduated law school, I joined the department of housing and urban development as an enforcement attorney. For two years, I was prosecuting housing fraud. And if you believe this, this was way back even before 2008 and there was no housing crisis, it was just the beginning of it.
It was super fun. I was flying all around the country, looking into loan fraud, appearing in front of administrative law judges. And I loved it. I loved every moment of it and I loved being a part of the government and that I had a great team. Two years into it, I actually became pregnant. And at that time, and this was actually shocking to me, I learned that on my litigation team, it was very difficult to take any leave and also to continue to be a parent. And what I have learned that really shocked me to my core is everyone who would become pregnant, had switched out of the division. I had always thought joining the government would be family friendly and it became very clear to me that it wasn’t.
At that time I realized I wasn’t interested in moving into a different division. That was non-litigation in HUD. So I started looking into other options. And I was living in Washington, D.C., and I decided it was time to move back to New York where I’m originally from and be closer to my family. And that is when I joined a personal injury law firm.
On Why She Left Litigation to Join Lawline
Loved Writing, Research, and Analysis – But Didn’t Want to Spend Hours Waiting in a Courtroom to Be Called
I did personal injury law on and off for about four years. Had a second kid, and came back to work. At that time I realized I love the law and I loved writing, research, and analysis. I loved feeling like I was making a difference, but wasn’t really. My future was sitting for hours and hours in courtrooms waiting to be called, to talk about a motion.
I knew that I was looking for an alternative path. Where I could still incorporate my love of the law, my love of making a change and be connected to it. And that was when I, in 2008, had joined Lawline originally as a Director of Business Operations. At that time, I believe it was me, David Schnurman, our CEO, maybe one other employee, and some college interns, and it was the best education in how to run a company, start a company, do all of the legal work for the company, and launch really how we wanted to run our company from a people perspective.
On What A Chief People Officer Means
A Growth Engineer Who Helps Employees Recognize Their Value and How They Are Connected to A Company’s Success
Essentially my job is to figure out what I need to do to help Lawliners realize and recognize their own value. As Chief People Officer, I want to create programming and I want to create support so that team members know that they’re able to succeed. And if they succeed, their success is going to be reflected in the company’s success.
So it’s not about making sure everybody does what they’re supposed to do. I’m not a task master. I am a growth engineer. And as a growth engineer, I put into place everything that people need, from their laptop to very intensive coaching programs, to learning opportunities and making sure they’re getting the right communication from not only their leaders and team members, but from every level of the company so that they understand how their own work and success is connected to the overall success of the company.
On the Evolution of Lawline’s Focus on People
Reading Scaling Up, Hiring a Coach, and Meeting with Every Employee Regularly
Well, I would say it started when we read the book Scaling Up, which embraces the Rockefeller habits, and we all read it as a team. And at first we realized there is something here and this is something we want to embrace. And one of the things Scaling Up talks about is people.
When I heard this phrase, it really resonated with me and that was “the right people in the right seats.” So it made me realize the first, most important thing was not about having the right goals for the company, not about having the best technology and platform. It was finding the right people and then making sure they’re in the right place. We’ve often had good employees who weren’t matched for the right function for themselves and were not doing well. So it’s not just having an A-player, it’s having an A-player knowing where to put them, and then part two of it is, okay, now they’re in the right seat, how do we grow them?
Scaling up wasn’t enough. And it was around five or six years ago when we realized we needed to bring in an outside coach. Mark Green was a scaling up coach. He started working with us and I remember the first time he told us that we were going to have to set up weekly meetings with all of the people on our team and meet daily.
And we said, absolutely not. We’re too busy. We’re so busy doing all these things where we’re making products. That’s the most important thing I can do. Read every course comment from a customer. I don’t have time to meet with my team members. And it actually took us a while, even when we heard it, to implement.
And then once we started meeting it was hard, cause you have to really change your whole way that you work and scheduling and how you see success. I used to see success in my output. I used to see success in, I had a to-do list. I checked all the items off of it. Now I see success in the amount of substantive conversations I have with team members and them knowing that there’s a time every week that we can connect and me really being deliberate in the questions I asked them and the feedback I give, as opposed to really just telling them what they’re doing right and wrong, and then giving them how I would do it.
On What it Means to be An “A Player”
Someone Who Immediately Collaborates, Feel Ownerships, and Implements Ideas Without Waiting for Permission
For me an A-player does not mean that you have all of the experience for the role. It doesn’t mean that you’ve done it all before. It doesn’t mean you have the best education and it doesn’t mean that you have a graduate degree in what you’re supposed to do.
An A-player is somebody who has the ability to enter into an organization, to become a collaborator immediately, to feel ownership with what they’re working on, and to be able to have an idea and not wait for somebody else to implement it, but have the idea and also be able to implement it themselves. And that’s how I see an A-player.
On Ensuring A-Players are in the Right Seats in Your Organization
Each Role Must Have a Scorecard with Clear Mission, Outcomes, KPIs, and Competencies
Essentially it’s the right role and the right function. And so I would say part two of Scaling Up was us embracing the scorecard. And what we’ve done to find the right seat is create pretty much scorecards for every seat or scorecards for every role. So every role has a mission, and has a list of three to five outcomes that they must achieve. And for each outcome, we usually have about three KPIs that support the outcome. And then just as important as the outcomes and the KPIs is the mission. We really think of the competencies of the role. And one thing that we include is our core values. So each person is in the right seat, we believe that they can meet the outcomes, the KPIs, and they come in with our core values and competencies.
On the Importance of Lawline’s Core Values
How Care, Create, Grow, Act, and Play Help the Team Stay Aligned
Essentially for us, our core values are care, create, grow, act, and play. Play means we never take ourselves too seriously and it means that when we are in a team meeting, you’ll see many GIFs coming in the chat. And that’s just as important as the links to the agenda and the PowerPoint materials is that we always have fun and we always laugh.
Care really means in the way that we treat each other. We only communicate with each other in a respectful manner, and we never think of it as a competition. So you’re not trying to be the best as compared to everyone on your team. You’re trying to work together. And if you’re ever speaking to someone in a way that’s condescending and disrespectful, it means you’re violating our core values. And that’s really how we see it as far as hiring for it and firing for it.
And I’ll give you another. We used to be in the office. I had somebody who sat at my reception, who was my office manager and she was incredible. A wonderful person. If you came in for an interview and you treated her as if she was beneath you or didn’t matter, I knew right away, you weren’t the right fit. The most important thing in a core value is how you treat everyone at any level. And so that’s how I see it.
Act means that you don’t just wait for others to take the torch so to speak. You have an idea, you map out how it can be executed. You do not have to be alone, but you determine who are the best team members to help you do it. And then you work to make it happen. Here’s just a very simple example of act. Over the weekend, we had a new team member who was starting on Monday.
He received his computer, it was not working and he really wanted to be able to hit the ground running. He reached out to our Business Operations Manager. This was, I would say about 12:00 PM and by 5:00 PM a new Macbook was hand delivered to his house and he was all set for Monday. Am I saying that act means you work on the weekends? A hundred percent no. But this was a situation that warranted action. That’s how I see it. It’s like there’s a problem. It needs to be solved. You do it. You get it done. Move on.
Grow means you never are stagnant in your skills. And you’re always trying to be better than you were the day before. So maybe you’re starting a new coaching program because you know that as a leader, working with a coach will help you better coach your own team members. If you can better understand your own strengths and weaknesses. As a coder, you’re reading the Laravel blog every day to see what the latest technology is. You’re going to conferences.
Even more important as any leader, we’re constantly taking feedback from our team. We’re not afraid of it. We’re open to it. And we know that critical feedback is essential for us to grow and then we’re acting on it. So we’re growing by being open to the feedback and we’re acting by implementing it where needed.
Create, similar to grow is not settling. We’re always improving our product. We’re always improving our support articles, how we interact with customers, how we are onboarding our employees – each time we’re looking at our processes and we’re finding ways to make them more efficient, to make them have more of an impact. And we’re also creative. So we’ve always prided ourselves on having the best product out there. We were doing online education back when people were using AOL to dial in. And so we were at the forefront. Now everybody’s doing online education and we’re taking it to the next level.
So we’re always innovating. We’re always looking for better ways to help lawyers not just be educated, but what other ways we can support lawyers from CLE, and also in leadership skills, marketing skills – what other ways can we make a difference in their lives and their ability to serve their clients? So that’s really where I see create.
On the Importance of Providing Competitive Benefits
Joining a PEO, Establishing 401K Matching, and Improving Parental Leave
Around the same time that we were embracing scaling up, we realized that as a smaller organization, our employees weren’t getting the health and dental insurance that they got enough support from. So we made the decision, and did not take this lightly because it was a big decision and a significant implementation, to join a professional employment organization.
We had a consultant advisor who provided us with feedback. The only opportunities we really had were HMO’s at the time and referrals, and they were very restrictive in what doctors employees can see. And our costs and our employees’ costs were tremendous. Every year, the increases were so significant at times we would have to cut some of our benefits just to cover the costs. So it was a cost, it was speaking to outside advisors, and it was feedback from our employees.
And then we learned about PEOs. At first, we were taken aback. Beause when you join a PEO, you’re no longer the employer of record. It seemed very strange that our employees would not be working for Lawline and that they wouldn’t be paid by Lawline and what does that mean? And after really doing further research, we realized Lawline controls the day-to-day of everything in their employees. And the employer record part is just really for legal and tax purposes, so to speak. But the benefits we actually went from, like I said, HMO’s to having fortune 500 benefits available to us.
So we were able to then offer health, dental, vision, FSA, dependent care, life insurance. So that was our first step in really recognizing that when you talk about employees and A-players, and growth, a big part of that is making sure that your employees are supported so that their well-being is looked out for.
The second thing we did, and remember we were a small company, we started with a 401k and we had a very low enrollment at first. We used to hire mostly college graduates. And at the time it was hard to really maintain the 401k at the level we wanted.
And so we really had to wait for us to become more mature as a company and not only that, but I’ve been working with a lot of our employees for at least five to 10 years so our employees matured and now we have a very robust program where we have a matching program as well, and are able to communicate with our employees, the value for them and focusing on their retirement. That was the beginning of health, dental, vision, 401k matching. The next thing that we expanded into was our parental leave. And actually, I would say we started it as maternity leave.
And that was, at the time, we started with six weeks paid leave, which for a company our size was a generous policy. But we were seeing it from what I would say is more an antiquated view. That it was a mother and not either both parents or anyone in a same-sex relationship, it wasn’t covered. So the first thing we did was maternity leave and then we changed it to a parental leave policy.
So any parent adopting or having a child could have up to 12 weeks and six weeks paid. We saw as our employees grew, we grew with their relationships. We’ve attended many weddings. We’ve celebrated at countless baby showers, and we wanted to be able to provide more support for our employees and their family.
So I’m really excited, this year we implemented in 2021, the first ever 12 weeks paid policy for parental leave. And not only that, but we now have a medical leave policy, especially of everything having to do with COVID. So you can have your own paid leave for medical, but we will guarantee your job if you need to take medical leave to care for yourself or a family member for 12 weeks.
On How Past Challenges Influence Her Decisions Today
Personal Challenges, Encountering Inequity in Current Systems, and Paying Attention
I always think, would I still be in the government if I was supported? Even when I was at the small law firm, there wasn’t any type of leave that was available.
I had short-term disability from the state and not only that, I was a part-time employee. And I realized very quickly that part-time does not exist. Part-time is only in how you’re getting paid. But especially as an attorney, you’re always working. And in fact, you feel like you’re doing everything terribly. You’re working all the time. You have small children and you’re not getting paid the way you deserve to be.
So that has guided not just in our parental leave, but how we’ve integrated our employees back after returning from the first kids or second kids.
We did have an employee who was in a same sex relationship whose partner was having a child. And I didn’t have a way to enter her into the system when she wanted to take her leave. And so that made me realize the inequity of how it was currently set up.
And in fact, um, there’s a part of our leave policy originally that had to do with just about giving birth. And it made me realize that many people become parents without giving birth. Not that I didn’t know that before, but I realized how they were deprived of a part of our benefits at that time.
Thereafter, I was reading. I, too, continue to learn and read about the trends towards parental leave. And we have a member of our team whose wife was having a baby and wanted to be able to also take time off to spend with his child. It was really about both employees. I wanted to give them what I felt like maybe I didn’t have and what they deserved and also realizing, well, the trend, maybe not as quickly as we want, but that it was the trend of focusing on people that was happening elsewhere.
And the truth is, at companies our size it wasn’t there yet, but I want to be ahead of the trend for small companies and with the trend of companies that are really large and can support these kinds of things. I pushed it quicker and I think other companies are following, but that’s also what we always try to do even though at times it can be hard to make the commitment, to make the financial change. If it feels right, if it’s the company that you wish you worked for, you know it’s the right decision.
On Advocating for Expanded Benefits Despite Incurring Additional Expenses
Make a Case That Shows How The Company Ultimately Will Benefit
Dale Carnegie explains when you’re trying to get somebody to be on board with a difficult decision, you need to make a case that has nothing to do with you. And I would say in this case, nothing to do with my employees, and everything to do with the company.
So whenever I am making a case to my leadership team of why we should be spending more money on our employees, I talk about how it’s going to affect our revenue. I talk about the number of customers we’re going to get. And I talk about the goals that we have as a company that will be achieved. So that’s part one.
Part two is having the right team in place and I have an amazing leadership team who’s really supportive of it. So…without the right leadership team supporting me, we wouldn’t get there. So it’s the two parts of that process.
[Also] my leaders are telling our employees on a daily basis, you need to live our core values. When I’m making this case, I’m essentially going back to them and saying, here’s a great way for you to live it. And also live by example, show your employees you’re embracing the core values and they will do it for each other and for our customers.
On the Importance of Mental Health Benefits
Leadership Should Lead by Example and Use Mental Health Benefits Too
Yeah, so wellbeing, mental health. I mean, it’s always been important. We’ve always known that, but I would say in the past 18 to 20 months of the pandemic, it’s the most important. When I’m talking about my employees, I’m always thinking about their wellbeing at all times. So one thing we did was add three mental health days and we already have a pretty robust vacation policy. What’s significant about mental health days?
It means I wake up at eight in the morning. I am feeling overwhelmed. I’m feeling exhausted. I’m not sick. I just know that I need a day to myself. My mental health day is my free pass to let my leader know I just need a day and there’s no questions asked. And I felt like that was just giving somebody such freedom to not feel like they have to push themselves when they’re, when they’re not in the right space for it.
And, you know what the most important part of the mental health day is? Me taking a mental health day. I want to lead by example just like I was saying with the core values. And if the CEO takes a mental health day and the COO takes a mental health day and the Chief People Officer takes a mental health day, people know it’s okay. It’s not just the benefit to make us look like we’re a good company. It’s saying we all are going through a lot and we all need a pause at times.
When we first shut down after the pandemic, we knew wellbeing, exercise, and mental health was so important. So we essentially devoted and told each employee we’d give them up to $500 of reimbursement for anything that they needed to do whether it was online therapy, buying exercise equipment, joining online classes, whatever they could do from being home, we would reimburse them. We wanted to support them. We wanted them to feel they had the freedom to do it, and a cost wasn’t going to stop them. And also, I think when you give someone a benefit, even if they weren’t planning on doing it, they want to use the benefit.
Now that we don’t have the emergency authorization of the pandemic anymore. We’ve actually started a new benefit that we’re doing through fringe.us. And we will be giving employees a hundred dollars a month, which is up to $1,200 a year that they can spend how they want.
If you want to use a hundred percent of it towards exercise, i you want to spend all of it on ordering food for your family and groceries. there’s options for that, they have pet sitting. They’ve got movies. There’s, I think, Disney World. There’s so many different opportunities. So now it’s saying we know that health is important, but we also know living your life and having fun and having luxuries to get a massage, which is also included, give them the freedom to spend their benefits the way they want. So we’re really excited about that.
On Why She Became a Certified Coach
“If I Don’t Say Yes to This Now, When Will I?”
So like many things in recent days, it started with the pandemic. We have had relationships with the company that I did my coaching with, Frame of Mind. David Schnurman, our CEO had gone through the coaching process and a couple of other employees, but I never thought it was for me. I would say, I felt like I was saying, I’m very in touch with my feelings. I know what I’m going through. I’m too busy. I’ve got kids, I’ve got this. And I would always say, it’s not for me. It costs too much money. I didn’t feel like I was worth the investment.
And then the pandemic shut everything down and I saw Kim Ades who runs [Frame of Mind]. I saw what she posted on Facebook. Hey, everyone. I know you’re struggling. I’m starting group coaching. I’ve never done something like this before where we’re saying the first three months are free and then it’s going to be, it was like some small amount per month, if you want to continue. And I was struggling. Not only were we worried about health, but I was in charge of figuring out how to migrate our entire company workforce to remote work.
I had my kids at home and there were a lot of other things. And I said like, if I don’t say yes to this now, when will I? I started the group coaching and I got so much out of it. And I knew that I needed more on an individual level. So I signed up for a 10 week coaching just for myself.
I realized a big part of it is journaling. I went from honestly, a point where I thought I was going to quit my job. I was so overwhelmed. By the end of the coaching, I really was at the place where I was becoming Chief People Officer, deciding I loved working at the company and it was all about mindset.
I realized that it’s all about mindset and it’s all about the evidence you use. It transformed me in such a way that I didn’t want to stop. And so the next step in this is always like, how do I get back? I love this so much. I wanted to become certified as a coach because like for our faculty, we always say teaching is the best form of learning.
Guess what? Coaching is the best way to grow yourself, and when you’re coaching someone you’re getting better. So yes, I wanted to keep helping others. But I also wanted to keep growing myself. And I realized I was struggling with my children and really giving up control as they become teenagers and coaching helped me step back and support them, but realize they had to be the ones who were accountable for their own success.
So through the coaching program, I realized how much I could do for my employees. And what I mean by that is like everything I’ve learned now, I help our own coaches as they’re struggling with their own team members. And it’s transformed the way I think, because now I realize our job is to help our employees realize their own potential. And coaching is the best way to do that and focusing on mindset and not on results. That is a key, key thing. When we first started, it’s like what do I need to do to get them so that they get their outcome and we hit all of our goals? It’s not about them. It’s about having them recognize their own worth, which in and of itself will lead them to having the right thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and getting to those outcomes or not. But it starts with their head, because if you start with the outcome, they’re going to change for three months, and then they’re going to go back to exactly where they were before, because you have to start with the thoughts.
On How Coaching Gets Incorporated into an Organization
Get Leadership Buy In and Provide Varying Coaching Resources Companywide
It’s still a work in progress, but the first thing I’ve done is really work with my leadership team so that they understand the importance and also that they see their time with their own team members as much value as I see with them.
The second is the outside coaching I have. My entire leadership team has it available as well. And the reason we do outside coaching is because having an expert who’s not connected on a daily basis really can help an individual recognize their own struggles and really become a better leader.
And we’re also going to be offering different options to our team members of journaling and online support that they can have with coaching and we’re going to continue to find better ways to do it.
We’re working on mentorship programs and other ways that coaching can be implemented. So I’m going to champion all of the ideas I’ve learned, even if I’m not individually coaching people and help my coaches, coach and be a resource for what I went through.
On a Common Myth About Her Work
It’s Not Wagging Your Finger and Protecting the Company – It’s Focusing on People and Being a Business Partner
A common myth is that HR is all about dealing with people’s problems and protecting the company and you have this negative view of the HR person. They’re wagging their finger at you and their whole job is to stymie creativity. And that is not HR. HR is the most important part of a company. Focusing on people is the most important part and seeing yourself as a business partner, it’s the essence of any company is HR. So that’s the myth I would work on.
On a Piece of Practical Advice to Other Leaders and Future Leaders in Law
Always Ask Yourself: Am I Helping Create a Company I Want to Work For?
For every decision you make, ask yourself, is this the company I want to work for?
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.
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