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Eye on the Profession: Does culture in the legal workplace matter?

August 22, 2018

TrimbleHardly a day goes by that we are not reminded that the “business” of law is changing. Every conference on law practice management now focuses on business planning, profitability, process management, accountability, hiring and retention, strategic planning and succession planning. The lecturers and consultants all tell us we are in a new age with new competitors, and that firms that ignore change will not survive. Pushing law firms toward a more businesslike manner has also spread to corporate law departments, where law practice management is a hot topic.

One of the new tensions of moving a law firm or legal department toward more businesslike behavior is culture. Critics constantly ask, “Will our culture be ruined?” “Will our culture be changed?” “Should we even be concerned about the impact change may have on culture?” “Does culture matter?”

Googling “law firm culture” shows the definition is broad. Some say culture is the “personality” of the firm; others call it a “brand.” Unquestionably, firm culture is the “shared values” of the firm. In times of trouble or unusual stress, some describe it as the “glue that holds the firm together.” Simply put, culture is the result of what people think and do. It’s the operating system of an organization.

Culture is not just one thing. It is a potpourri of important aspects of a firm or law department. Some examples of culture include:

• Is your firm or law department relaxed or formal? Do you have a dress code? Is it enforced?

• Is decision-making open or secretive? Is it autocratic or consensual?

• Are internal communications frequent or infrequent?

• Are your policies in writing and enforced, or ad hoc and inconsistently followed?

• Are the lawyers collegial or competitive? Are there cliques and gossip?

• Do you have a clear and defined promotion track with standards that are uniformly followed?

• Does compensation incentivize good behavior, or does it encourage hoarding?

• Does your firm or law department have a reputation for fair pay, benefits and reasonable work hours?

• Do you have diversity among your ranks, or does everyone look alike?

• Do you have a “social life,” and is there attention to work-life balance?

• Do you encourage and support bar association involvement?

• Do you mentor and train young lawyers, or is it sink or swim?

• Are you intentional about planning, or do you move forward on cruise control?

I could offer any number of additional examples. However, the point is that culture cannot be described by simple words like “family-oriented” or “highbrow” or “close-doored.” Firm culture is an assortment of interconnected aspects and values, beliefs and behaviors of the firm that come together for better (or for worse). If you and your colleagues cannot collectively define your culture, you have work to do.

Culture impacts every firm or law department, perhaps far more than many realize. A reputation for a great culture fuels a firm, while a reputation for a bad culture can cause stagnation, attrition and failure. There are a few obvious aspects of how culture can impact your legal workplace:

Public image: How your firm or law department are viewed by the public will impact business development, community opportunities or how you are viewed by the bar or judiciary. An image of a bad culture is like a foul odor: it turns people away.

Hiring and retention: This factor should be obvious. Lawyers, law students, paralegals and staff will not apply to work for you if there is an aspect of your culture that is viewed as bad. Conversely, if you present a great culture on all levels, you will have a steady pool of applicants.

Legal recruiters should not underrate this aspect of culture. Better law schools emphasize culture when advising law students on how to pick an employer. Yale University Law School, for example, has a full page on its career website dedicated to culture. Furthermore, websites like Glassdoor.com specifically address culture issues in their criteria for employer reviews.

Profitability: Firm culture can cut both ways on profitability. Profitability can suffer in a laissez-faire culture where the firm does not hold its lawyers accountable for mentoring, supervision, billing, collections and other aspects of business. Partnership is attained too easily, and unproductive partners are tolerated and often overpaid. Lack of attention to enforcement of firm policies can lead to dissention and unhappiness.

A firm or law department with a good culture has people who bring positive energy and who want to come to work and put in a productive day. They tend to be more compliant with policies and procedures if the policies are spelled out and enforced uniformly and fairly. Lawyers who see a pathway to leadership, business succession and partnership will aspire to a greater sense of ownership.

Client development: These days, clients want value; they want lawyers who are responsive and responsible; and they want to work with lawyers who treat them the way they deserve to be treated. Prospective clients, particularly institutional clients, are doing more research than ever. They are looking for a culture that promotes and supports good legal work and stability. If your legal workplace has a reputation for a bad culture, it can be a disincentive to a potential client or customer. Your clients read the same social media posts you can.

People often ask how a firm can create or change a culture. The short answer is you can, but it is not easy. It will require a strategic planning process that includes anonymous polling or surveying of employees. Employees should be encouraged to answer questions like: “Does the firm have a culture?” “Describe the firm’s culture as you understand it.” “If you feel the firm’s culture should change, describe the changes you would like to see.” “If you feel the firm lacks culture, what would you want it to be?”

After the firm has been surveyed, there must be discipline to avoid denial of what the surveys show. Even if the surveys show something the managers find to be in error, managers need to understand that sometimes perception is reality. Thus, managers must take the good and the bad from the surveys and treat them seriously. This should be followed by an objective discussion of all aspects of culture that may be revealed by the surveys. A strategic planning process may then flow from the discussion of culture.

Ultimately, the biggest barrier to creating or changing culture is the tendency of lawyers to resist change. However, if a firm or legal department needs to change culture to survive, it must do so. The change can be undertaken one step at a time, and, like any other initiative, it needs to be monitored, discussed and enforced.

In summary, there are many reasons why culture matters. Culture must be considered as a firm or business works to make itself more businesslike. If a firm or business has a well-defined culture and open decision-making process, culture may change as the business changes, but the culture will not be discarded.

Well-known organizational consultant Simon Sinek reminds us, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Your culture and your firm’s “why” are very much the same. If you want people to buy your services, join your firm and stay, then they need to know your “why”… and that is your culture. #WillYouBeThere? •

John C. Trimble (@indytrims) is a senior partner at the Indianapolis firm of Lewis Wagner LLP. He is a self-described bar association “junkie” who admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time on law practice management, judicial independence and legal profession issues. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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