Law Firm Culture: Three Areas to Evaluate

Originally published in Chicago Lawyer Magazine in Dec. 2019. 

By Steve Fretzin

Culture has been defined as “A way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs and values that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation.”

In thinking about your law firm, how would you define the current culture? One of the greatest challenges that law firms face today is finding and keeping the best people at the firm. While there might not always be the perfect culture, here are three areas law firms should be focusing on ensure long-term sustainability today and into the future.

Focus #1: The fish may stink from the head down

A big part of my job as a business development coach is interacting with law firm leadership to drive programs and initiatives forward. This gives me the unique perspective of dealing regularly with all types of personalities and if I’m being totally honest, some real characters. If we go back 20-30 years, the law firm game was a lot like the Wild West. Gunslingers with no rules, just having fun and shooting up in the air. For example, compensation for a young associate was, well, whatever the managing partner decided it was.

Today, fair formulas and transparency are expected and necessary to keep people happy and secure in their jobs. Additionally, working under an autocracy isn’t very appealing to most lawyers who are used to being treated justly and morally. Law firm leaders must recognize that they dictate the culture and must be self-reflective as to why people aren’t joining the firm or are leaving too soon. While it’s difficult to change the behavior of managing partners who are the antithesis of the culture you want, it may be wise to delegate the various management responsibilities to others who reflect a more positive and inviting environment.

Focus #2: Thinking about the firm’s cultural branding

It’s interesting that when we think about law firm culture, that we’re not also thinking about law firm marketing. In reality, they must be intertwined to recruit, hire and retain the best talent, not to mention the importance of client acquisition. Your website, for example, may be doing you more harm than good as it relates to the perceived culture of your firm. Additionally, it may not accurately represent your success, diversity, charity or expertise in your specific areas of the law.

For example, a new prospective lateral researches your firm and sees a website that is neither contemporary nor user-friendly, and lacks diversity and a sense of culture. Is it possible that she or he may go a different direction? Your website can be one of the best recruiting tools for your firm when done properly–or it can be one of the worst.

Another example I’ve witnessed is a firm that lost business because their website didn’t reflect the same level of expertise and relevant content of a rival firm. Prospective clients today are looking at social media, websites and blog content as a precursor to calling your firm.

Just like your clothes reflect your style, your marketing reveals the culture of your firm.

It’s important to consider your firm’s core values, mission/vision and differentiation in order to create an atmosphere that exudes progressivism. Without putting culture and marketing together, over time you may be losing the battle as well as the war.

Focus #3: Looking at the cultural soft-skills

While we’ve reviewed the importance of strong and fair leadership, and also how your marketing and culture are linked together, there are a few other points that are critical to developing a more positive firm culture.

Is your firm a happy place to work? If you’re waking up every morning and moaning to yourself, that might be a warning sign. The weight of the billable hour can be heavy if not balanced by good people, fair policies and rewarding work.

Additionally, is your workplace collaborative? Working and interacting with other attorneys on new projects in and outside of your practice area can be critical to one’s enjoyment of the work and the people. Many firms haven’t removed the silos yet, which can create an isolated and unsociable environment. Knocking down silos and creating a culture of collaboration and sharing lead to tremendous growth, while also increasing client retention.

Lastly, you may want to consider evaluating your people and leadership to identify areas of improvement. Some firms have conducted 360 reviews to understand what’s really going on and how people truly feel. This can be an eye-opening exercise, as no one’s name is attached to the answers, so the results of the reviews are revealing.

Without a strong culture you may be lose new lateral hires, existing associates and partners, as well as, clients who go another direction. In today’s competitive environment, law firms that are looking to survive another economic downturn must be open to changes and improvements when gazing upon the horizon.