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Law firm culture 101: what is it and how to grow it

Law firm culture - what it is and how to create it

Modern law firm culture is as diverse as the culture at large.

While the stereotypically conservative, dark-wood-and-mahogany old-boys’ clubs undoubtedly still exist in some parts of the country, many modern firms are shaping themselves to fit the needs of modern professionals.

Cultures have shifted so much that a prominent women’s’ magazine publishes a yearly list of the best law firms for women – and the list is long. Other old-guard firms are boasting about free snacks and a business casual dress code to entice workers back to the office.

These efforts may seem like no big deal today, but just a couple of decades ago, very few law firms veered this far from the “norm.”

While that certainly signals progress, law firm culture is about much more than gender, race, age, or the availability of snacks.

So, what is culture?

Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss.

In this two-part series on law firm culture, we’ll explore some of the critical cultural issues impacting firms today.

In Part 1 (the article you’re reading now), we’ll begin by trying to define law firm culture. Next, we’ll review some policies and practices of firms that are revered for their culture. Finally, we’ll talk about ways that new firms can create a culture that pleases partners and employees alike.

In Part 2 of the series, we’ll explore ways that existing firms can determine whether their culture has become toxic to the professionals who work there. And, if that is the case, we’ll discuss methods of initiating cultural changes that foster professional growth and fulfillment without sacrificing work ethic.

What is law firm culture?

A search of the literature surrounding workplace culture in general (and law firm culture specifically) shows that culture is a whole host of variables that make up the collective attitude of a place.

Law firm culture, for example, might include “core values, communication norms, time and output expectations of lawyers, career development opportunities, social connections between colleagues, and approach to decision making.”

More broadly speaking, workplace culture includes things like management style, available benefits, the way the workplace is decorated, and the personalities and beliefs of the people who work there.

In essence, culture is a conglomeration of all the things that can make employees happy or unhappy in the workplace.

That’s precisely why culture is so important — your employees’ job satisfaction and performance depend on it.

What does a positive law firm culture look like?

Even harder than defining law firm culture is determining what a positive law firm culture looks like.

To help in this regard, we looked at the 2023 list of the top law firms to work for and paid particular attention to those firms that ranked highest in terms of “firm culture.” Here are some of the perks we discovered among those firms — most of which were big firms, by the way:

  • Offering up to 25 billable-hour credits for “wellness hours”
  • Collaborative cultures where mentoring and training are top priorities
  • Promotion of friendship and camaraderie among employees at all levels
  • Prioritization of hiring employees who speak multiple languages
  • Relaxed culture
  • Offering bonuses for contributions related to teaching, diversity and innovation
  • Fitness stipends
  • In-house “associate-only” lounges
  • Free-market work systems
  • Flex-time programs with prorated billable hours/compensation

 

Of course, these are all just one-off initiatives, but they provide a good peek into the types of things that foster an overall positive culture in the large-firm environment.

For some smaller firms, creating a positive work environment is a core tenant.

One such firm, which is often recognized and awarded as a “great place to work,” boasts a 97% employee satisfaction rating.

When polled, the firm’s employees reported several factors that made them happy, such as: (1) having a management structure that is honest and ethical in its business practices, (2) having available resources and equipment necessary for them to do their jobs, (3) being made to feel welcome upon joining the firm, and (4) having pride in the fact that they work for the firm.

From a review of these resources, it seems that positive firm culture starts with management and is heavily influenced by things like collaboration, professional development initiatives, plentiful resources, at least some sense of being casual or relaxed, and a commitment to employee wellness.

How to create a positive law firm culture

If your firm doesn’t resemble those highlighted in the above section, don’t worry. We’ll talk about how to improve a less-than-perfect existing culture in Part 2 of this series.

For now, we’d like to speak to those of you who are building new firms and have the opportunity to shape a culture that your employees will love. Here’s what we suggest:

Make sure management is aligned on values.

As you venture out to your new firm, you may be tempted to partner with individuals whose work you respect but whose values differ greatly from yours. That may be a mistake. In order for a positive culture to begin and grow within a law firm, all of the partners need to be in alignment on things like overall values, treatment of employees, firm diversity, and the like.

Be mindful of culture in hiring practices.

The same level of alignment needs to occur when picking associates and other non-attorney professionals. Be thorough with your interview processes. Make sure potential employees share the firm’s core values and are attracted to the overall culture. This is important for short-term happiness, and employees who fit your firm’s culture will generally last longer than employees who feel like outsiders.

Continue to support employees with a positive culture.

Finally, make sure that employees are aware of (and using) the cultural resources the firm provides. It’s great to give attorneys a 25-billable-hour credit for wellness, for example, but if no one uses the credit, is it really benefiting culture? Firms can also enhance culture just by paying attention. If someone is working too many hours, encourage them to cut back. If particular employees are more efficient working remotely, allow reasonable remote-work options.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the modern practice of law is flexibility.

Gone are the days when every employee has to look alike, sound alike, dress alike, and work the same 80-hour work weeks. These days, you can design a practice culture that works for all of your employees.

We look forward to seeing what your new law firm culture looks like.

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.

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