The law firm you want to work for
Work four days a week, decide yourself how much you earn and choose your number of holidays yourself. That’s how democratically-run Dutch law firm Bruggink en Van der Velden (BvdV) realizes growth in a sector that is having a hard time.
The global B Corp community hosts many so called ‘usual suspects’: solar energy companies, organic clothing labels and healthy food brands. But what about services companies, like banks, law firms and consultancies? How can such organizations be the change they want to see in the world? Sjoerd van der Velden and Iaira Boissevain of commercial law and tax advisory firm BvdV share how they use business as a force for good.
While planning the interview, it already became clear that BvdV is an extraordinary company. “Why do people always want to talk with the founder?,” asked Van der Velden on the phone. “We are a democratically run company. Everybody who works here can tell our story.”
The law firm, founded in 2006, is organized according to the principles of Brazilian entrepreneur and management guru Ricardo Semler. The core of Semler’s philosophy: let employees do what they want to do, so they will feel engaged and create the most added value for the organization.
That implies entrepreneurship and transparency. “Everybody know how much everybody earns,” says Van der Velden. “We have come up with a system in which all employees have to work a certain amount of billable hours to be able to break even as a company. Of all extra billable hours that employees make, he or she gets halve. The other halve goes to the shareholders, currently four employees. This implies that the lower our break even point is, the more everybody can earn. This makes everybody aware of how we can cut costs.”
Although this system seems to stimulate excessive billing, BvdV prevents this by maximizing the workweek to 4 days and, more importantly, by maximizing the amount of billable hours. Finally, BvdV has a social structure in which a lawyer who spends evenings and weekends at the office is addressed with concern. Boissevain: “If the workload gets too much, we rather hire an extra lawyer than have anyone go sick or burn out.”
The way shareholdership is organized at BvdV is unique. Boissevain: “Someone can only become a shareholder when we all agree about the person himself and about the fact that this person brings in so much work for (other laywers at) the company that he deserves to get a bigger piece of the pie. The shares itself are not worth anything, it only gives you the right to dividend.” The whole system is democratic and therefore dynamic, emphasizes Van der Velden. “We have decided that no one can be a shareholder forever – 13 years is the maximum. We are not limited to four shareholders, either. This could change. In fact, the whole system keeps on changing.”
Although BvdV currently has only four shareholders, decisions are made democratically by all 28 employees, secretaries included. There is a regular meeting once a month in which basic stuff is discussed and twice a year all employees gather for an afternoon and evening to discuss more philosophical questions about the way they work together. This system can only work if the company does not become to big, acknowledges Van der Velden. “We do not think we want to become bigger than 50 people. Otherwise, our democratic decision-making process will become too diffcult, I guess.”
The benefits of the system are clear to everyone. “We have no burn outs and we do not squander money here,” says Boissevain. “Our HR costs are nil. Anyway, very few people have left the company.” Financially, the company is healthy too. “In contrast to other law firms, here everybody is responsible for his own debtors and everyone is and feels responsible for reducing costs: no company cars, no company phones, no extraordinary expenses and a good work-life balance are all part of that.”
Being the first law firm to join the B Corp community in Europe, BvdV does not really know what to expect. “It is exciting for us to get to know all these like-minded companies.” Whereas many sustainable companies like Tony Chocolonely, Moyee Coffee and Mud Jeans already know each other, for BvdV most B Corps are unknown. “I am curious to learn how other B certified services companies are organized. And as a services company, we always love to hear stories of companies who make real products like Mud Jeans. We love to expand our network with many B Corps.”