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Law Firm Culture – beware the Kool-Aid

April 2022

What is law firm culture exactly? I’ve heard it used since the beginning of my 25-year legal industry career. We hear the phrase with increasing regularity nowadays – particularly when law firms talk strategy, lateral hires (‘fit’) and almost without fail the word ‘unique’ is found somewhere in the mix. But what does it really mean?

What prompted me to write this piece was having recently read an article in the legal press that placed compensation pretty much front and centre of a law firm’s culture. I wholly disagree. 

During my career, I’ve experienced different ‘cultures’ courtesy of two US and one Magic Circle firm – both in head office and in regional offices including two very different London offices.  Irrespective of size, shape, and location, the word ‘culture’ was (and still is) used obsessively. I probably heard it the least during my time at a US firm in Hong Kong – the less said about that experience the better! It’s worth pointing out that different practice groups/departments have their own unique cultures, and, in most cases, many are miles apart in similarity.

You walk away from each of these experiences with a view that shapes your opinion of ‘big law’, law firm partners, management, and the firm itself. Good or bad, and rarely with a shade of grey. I have found that experiences are also influenced and tend to coincide with the various stages of one’s career.

At the early career stage, it’s all a learning experience – new skills, developing confidence and knowledge (industry and the job itself) and, in my case, becoming a sponge. Inevitably there is a tendency to look back at this stage fondly. My own experience, in retrospect, is a very pleasant one. I was fortunate enough to work in an environment that welcomed inquisitive questions from a then 25-year-old paralegal who transitioned into what is now described as ‘practice management’. The fact that a group of Magic Circle partners were willing to do so spoke volumes in my eyes.

In saying that, it was also a time when UK firms were still describing their non-lawyers as ‘staff’, a word I disliked then and dislike to this day. A ‘them and us’ description hardly lends itself to a ‘we’re all in it together’ ethos. This was certainly evident during an approximately six-month fire-fighting experience in Continental Europe in the middle of winter. However, my overall takeaway from my Magic Circle experience was a period of rapid growth having learnt a lot from a very smart group of partners who were open to having a non-lawyer involved in their business and actively encouraged that involvement. In essence they were happy to take somewhat of a risk with and invest their time and energy in a newbie beginning their career. You will note I haven’t mentioned money once. While good money certainly helps, I wouldn’t say that throwing large sums of money at people = culture. While compensation is important to most, showing a genuine interest in their people and their career development is far more valuable in the long run in fostering a culture that you can rightly be proud of.

Fast forward twenty odd years and taking a look at two of my former firm’s approach to their alumni programme highlights their differences in ethos and ‘culture’ in two completely different ways. The first of these firms, during the initial discussions about who to include and who not to include in their yet to be launched alumni programme, felt the initial focus should be on lawyers and not all former employees (“them and us” was still alive and well back in 2008).

The other firm, I would have to say, has an excellent programme. It is open and inclusive, offering invitations to legal and non-legal workshops, events and training and making available their office space should you need somewhere to work (this was long before shared workspaces came along) – irrespective of your industry (granted this does not apply, I would imagine, to alumni at other law firms). Things have changed since the launch but the fact that their starting point was non-inclusive spoke volumes about their culture. In fact, I could point to one former firm whose current alumni website allows you to select only a practice or department (all legal) as your last business unit…perhaps things don’t change after all?

Culture for me is born of the people you interact with and build relationships with. It is, in my experience, influenced very much by leadership. They have the ability, beyond any other people in an organisation, to shape people’s experiences and to define the value and affinity you feel to an organisation. The tone is set and defined by them – granted, this is no small responsibility. Time for law firm leaders to step up.

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