Fundamentally a law firm’s culture is created and influenced by behaviour. A positive culture results when good behaviours are reinforced, and bad behaviours are called out and dealt with in a timely and appropriate way. Equally a negative culture is the result of good behaviours being expected, but not celebrated, and bad behaviours being tolerated and inadvertently institutionalised as acceptable.
Because culture isn’t on the clock and therefore not attributably fee earning, and because it isn’t a metric of success or perceived by some to be a prerequisite to success, law firm culture tends to be created organically. Culture is largely a result of the way we do things round here.
The business school canard of values defining culture (a favoured firm fig leaf) is devalued by the fact that so many firms share the same generic set of values, and some even share them with the likes of Enron and RBS circa Fred Goodwin. Both had ostensibly exemplary values yet permitted behaviours more Stasi than saintly.
Culture, unless it is defined and differentiated by behaviours which are themselves defined i.e. codified, becomes a distinctly slippery concept when your firm isn’t all in the same location. Most lawyers in international firms will recognise this.
Consider the nuanced (or not so nuanced) cultural differences between offices in the same firm but not the same country. Nations divided by a common lawyerly language is only the tip of an often rather icy berg.
Which brings us to the chilling effects of Covid as we once again plough our lonely lockdown furrows. If, transmission of culture is by behavioural osmosis and therefore proximity, then its R rate is going to be vanishingly low right now.
But surely, behaviours are still evidenced if only virtually, and we can make our legal (and not so legal) commentary on them, and share all our insecure overachievements at the watercooler of social media?
Simple answer … No! It’s increasingly well documented that social media is as often as not creating more rather than less isolation. We are virtually connected, but in reality disconnected from our firms. Perhaps we should rebrand it social distancing media?
Try this experiment. Sadly, you’ll have to imagine it, as it requires you to project back to a time when you could meet your colleagues face to face. Watch in your mind’s eye the ebb and flow of conversation. Note the orderly way in which you all wait for each other to speak.
Hmm…not so much?
We all talk at the same time and over each other: organically building on themes and creating new ones, riffing on ideas, shouting, agreeing, arguing. Now that is social media.
Enforced isolation leaves our behaviour led cultures etiolating by the day. Without the currency of non-digital dialogue, we are letting our firm’s culture slip through our fingers.
Now try another experiment. Ring a few lawyer mates and ask them what they do that’s different from other law firms. Most will tell you that all firms do pretty much the same thing in the same way. So, why should lawyer A stay at firm X when they can move to the apparently identical firm Y? Why indeed?
What price loyalty?
It's arguable that if loyalty has a price then it’s not loyalty. If money is the currency of loyalty, then the highest bid will eventually win in an endless eBay of employment, c.f. the current race to the top in NQ salaries.
RollonFriday’s Firm of the Year Survey is illuminating here. Their research shows that the two most significant reasons lawyers give for loyalty to their firm are people and culture. Both of which are in short, or dislocated, supply for now, which means ‘the ties that bind’ are fraying, to say the least.
Codifying, then exemplifying and celebrating your culture is the vaccine for this viral side effect. And those wise enough to immunise themselves against this impact of a virus that most virologists suggest will be hanging around like a bad smell for the foreseeable, will be the winners.
In time, ‘what did you do in the pandemic’? will not just be a question for parents, it will be a question for Partners as well!
Richard Butler is co-author with Damian O’Malley of the recently published How your law firm can stop boiling frogs and start creating Emotional Ownership available on Amazon here.
Thanks Richard. Thought-provoking.
Initial reaction - what firms trumpet as their "people" and "culture", which they claim ranks them above other firms is based on a perception, rather than reality of what 'other firms' are doing.
How many times in silver circle firms did I hear "Well, our culture is much better than a Magic Circle firm". Interested to hear the opinions of others who have made the transition.
I heard this a lot in a non-Big 4 accounting firm. The regular pushback to salary/career progression requests was that 'our culture is different to the Big 4' and it was the 'people' that make it different. This was not borne out by later experience in a Big4 - much nicer, team-oriented people and management had a genuine, shared interest in feedback, career progression and respectful salary/bonus conversations.
Then of course, there is the bottomless pit of how we define 'culture' in law firms ....
"Ring a few lawyer mates and ask them what they do that’s different from other law firms. Most will tell you that all firms do pretty much the same thing in the same way."
Yes, although I would argue that's the result of being static in one place. Short of leaving for another firm, the only first-hand exposure to the fact a firm might have a better or worse culture than its lawyers realise is secondments to clients. But that can easily be discounted as comparing apples to oranges.
In a larger firm like mine where each practice group is a fiefdom, my experience is that the culture is determined by the people ruling them - so the partner mix within a department (and who has power there) is absolutely integral.