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Client first or employee first?

A need for change

In a client-serving business—law, accounting and consulting firms, it’s natural to put the client first. Without clients, there isn’t a business, after all.

Yet, at what cost?

I’ve spent a large majority of my career in BigLaw and have witnessed the life of a lawyer to include an inordinate amount of personal sacrifice, all in the name of satisfying the client. Instantaneous responsiveness. Round-the-clock availability. Forfeiture of work-life balance. Surviving client demands has become a badge of honor, and this level of sacrifice has evolved into an inherent expectation for those who follow.

Here’s my question. Could there be another way? What if firms put an emphasis on employees, team members, staff, and associates first, before clients?


There are widely varied, highly successful businesses that have thrived with this approach—Virgin, Marriott, and Ritz-Carlton, to name a few. (Here is a great Forbes article about the history Marriott’s approach—The Power of Putting People First.)

Here are a some of the ways, these businesses put employees first:

  • All three of these businesses have a very clear set of values and discusses them frequently with team members throughout all levels of the business.
  • Richard Branson believes in having fun and regularly visits with his employees in playful ways.
  • Every team at every Ritz-Carlton property conducts a daily “lineup”—a 15-minute briefing—to check in with colleagues and share a “WOW” story from the previous day.
  • Every Ritz-Carlton employee is empowered to improve a guest’s experience. Employees can spend up to $2,000 of hotel funds to please a guest—per incident, not per day.
  • Marriott greatly emphasizes inclusion. For example, its 54% Board of Directors is comprised of women and people of color.
  • Marriott has over 15,000 volunteers who serve as “champions” of the company’s culture and how to express it throughout the organization.

This article is intended to be food for thought, and the above tidbits are all small examples for how to focus on employee first. But that’s how big impact can happen—baby steps, continuously over time.

Client-serving business are at an inflection point. There is a major opportunity for running their businesses differently. I wonder which firms will be willing to truly create a “new normal” that can benefit all–associates, business professionals, partners and clients.


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