Some lawyers actually prefer the culture portrayed in the second pic.
Over recent weeks, the degree to which law firms have provided their people with satisfactory management, pay, career development and work/life balance has become clear thanks to the thousands of submissions in the RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work At 2022 survey.
Last but not least is culture. One man’s meat is another woman’s poison, and a firm which delights one camp with its character may alienate another. Firms placing toward the top of the rankings managed to thread the needle, and while the character of the firms might vary enormously, their cultures shared a coherence, strength and positive reception from a significant proportion of respondents.
The Top 5
It can take years to bed in a great culture, which means the firms which have it don’t generally appear overnight. The triumvirate of firms in the top spot – Burges Salmon, Osborne Clarke, and Travers Smith – have placed around the top of the culture rankings for years.
"Everyone is genuinely nice, which is good because I'd settle for false niceness," said a trainee at Burges Salmon (88%). Voted as the RollOnFriday Best Law Firm to Work At 2022, staff praised the firm for "maintaining a positive and inclusive atmosphere".
"So this is where all the normal lawyers have been hiding?" said a senior lawyer. "The culture is surely as good as it gets working for a major law firm. Friendly, welcoming and concerned about making sure everyone that works there is happy and actually gets to enjoy life."
Another senior lawyer said the firm provided financial and psychological support when two members of their immediate family "developed chronic health problems". Which "in turn, allowed me to support the firm during the hardest times, but also to remain motivated to work."
Osborne Clarke (88%) shared the first spot. "Whilst we don't seem to have a motto or mantra, 'non mentula sim' would seem apt (let me not be a prick)," said a senior lawyer.
Another Osborne Clarke lawyer said they had worked at two other London firms, with a "partnership of psychopaths who didn't care about their staff, their fellow partners, or indeed anything other than brown-nosing their clients and filling their boots." In contrast, partners at Osborne Clarke worked "in collaboration with each other and their staff, in a way that works for everyone. It's so f*cking lovely I sometimes can't believe how lucky I am." Another lawyer agreed: "Partners treat everyone like people, not interchangeable tools of which there are plenty more to be found if this one breaks."
"It’s very focussed on wellbeing and mental health," said an OC lawyer. "Longevity in the firm is promoted and you feel looked after in that respect. Burn-out doesn’t really occur."
Also in the top spot was Travers Smith (88%). A lawyer said the during the pandemic, the firm "tried hard to maintain its culture" while staff worked from home and "senior management put in a huge effort to look out for its people". He added that the firm "does genuinely care about the wellbeing of its lawyers over profit and that is to be commended."
"There is a huge focus in being a good person," said another lawyer. "I can call anyone in the firm and I’ll know they’ll do there best to help me."
"The culture is why I wouldn't work at another firm in the city," summarised another lawyer.
Mills & Reeve (87%) came fourth, and was praised for being "full of nice people."
"Generally, dickheads don't prosper," said a junior lawyer. "It's a very comforting feeling to never have to worry about our firm being implicated in the latest bullying/misconduct/mismanagement scandal on RoF's pages. I hope that isn't tempting fate."
"The firm is full of genuine people who care and are kind to each other," said a Business Services member of staff. "We're delighted for each other's achievements and support each other when the going is tough. I honestly feel like I have 1200 really good friends as well as colleagues!"
"Every now and then the firm will make a random gesture of goodwill," said a lawyer, "such as sending sunflower seeds to everyone in the post or arranging an ice cream van in the carpark in the middle of summer."
Although not everyone was convinced. "The culture is a bit too happy clappy for me," said one Mills & Reeve lawyer, "but perhaps I am too much of a grumpy old man."
In 5th spot was TLT (86%). "Breathe of fresh air compared to my last firm - sustainability, aggressive growth, ambition and diversity underpin TLT's culture," said one happy lawyer.
In the middle of the pack, a common concern was the impact of Covid on the culture at firms.
"There has been a struggle to create a culture post-Covid," said a lawyer at Eversheds Sutherland (66%). "There has been a lack of budget for any staff social events. In stark contrast to other firms’ offerings the canteen is stacked with foods which is much lower quality, but costs the same as Pret".
"We've lost a large number of seniors, rethinking their life choices due to Covid, who actually did all the pastoral/team building work. No one wants to go for drinks/dinner/cake with a stale old partner who can only talk shop," said a lawyer at Clifford Chance (66%). Another CC lawyer said "it used to be quite a social environment, but ever since all those Covid-measures, social live has died out and a new breed of 'unsocialised' junior associates has yet to learn what culture could look like."
At Freshfields (63%), dialling down social events wasn't just due to Covid, according to some staff. One said: "Unsurprisingly given some of the events that Freshfields has been involved in/linked to, the drinking/party culture has changed a lot over the last 10/15 years".
A non-progressive or stale partnership affected the culture at a number of firms. "Boomer partners dictate culture. Very disappointing." said a lawyer at DLA Piper (63%). "A large proportion of the partner group have a real Hotel California vibe. They’ve all checked out, but they just can’t leave." said a lawyer at Womble Bond Dickinson (61%). " No ability to sell; no ability to share; all about self interest - just get as many points as they can, do as little as they can, then retire late as they can. So yesterday."
At the other end of the generational divide, other firms were criticised for "jumping on every woke bandwagon possible". A lawyer at Kennedys (66%) said the firm was "on the verge of buying into cancel culture". While another Kennedys lawyer said the firm's "viewpoint is very north London, Guardian reading, Twitter minority".
A traditional culture at elite firms was highlighted by some staff. "The stereotype is relatively fair," said a lawyer at Slaughter and May (54%), "words like academic, hierarchical, perfectionist, dignified etc. all spring to mind. Some people will hate that, other people love it." A Business Services employee at the firm said that while their team was lovely, "I do my best to avoid anyone who actually practices law."
Other firms were lambasted for only paying lip service to wellbeing schemes. "I would like more focus on culture beyond words and client focused initiatives," said a lawyer at Simmons & Simmons (69%). "The firm likes to paint itself as being flexible and putting mental health first - but that is just a facade especially in transactional departments. I would like to see much greater support for working parents and support for people’s mental health."
An increasing pressure to bill more was a common gripe by staff who felt the culture of their firm was changing for the worse.
"The old Shearman culture is very much on its way out, and a new culture based on sky-high salaries and an expectation of total 24/7 dedication to work is coming in," said a trainee at Shearman & Sterling (76%). "Most people are fairly nice irrespective of this, but there are non-negligible numbers of angry, stressed-out people constantly teetering on the verge of a meltdown."
"The Americans have taken over and are killing NRF one cheesy slogan at a time," said a trainee at Norton Rose Fulbright (52%) "A focus on billable performance has taken over the firm."
"The beating heart has gone from the business," said a senior lawyer at DWF (61%), "it is all about making money now."
"The firm is having an identity crisis. It still likes to think that it is your best mate (and wants you to think that too) but acts like your worst enemy," said a lawyer at Charles Russell Speechlys (56%). "We are still on 'friendly firm' salaries, but are expected to work like we're employed by a much bigger dog. Hilariously, the firm has signed up to the 'Mindful Business Charter'...but if a client says jump we must ask ""how high?"
A non-collaborative approach was to blame for an erosion of culture at other firms. "Each team is more of a fort than a silo," said a Business Services member of staff at BLM (51%). "Inside your own fort, things can be nice and friendly, but only if you're local. Trying to get another team to do something can be like screaming into the void - unless you have a friend on the inside of that fort."
Plexus came 58th with a score of 49%, described by one member of staff as "a draconian work house...with the occasional doughnut."
"It’s a weird place, partners come and go faster than Taylor Swift’s boyfriends," said one senior lawyer.
"The Manchester office is probably the worst place to be in," said another lawyer. "Ruled by a few Chorlton types who profess to be liberal leaning fair minded and tolerant but are in fact the complete opposite. They would stab you in the back or the front for a decent paying RTA case."
Slater & Gordon (47%) placed 59th. "The culture is basically f*cked," said a senior lawyer. "You cant imagine how bad morale is. The ROF articles don't even scratch surface," said a Business Services member of staff.
"They started this ‘connected working’ culture & for a while everyone bought into it," said a partner. "It’s now obvious to everyone that being cash strapped means that they use it as an excuse to close offices."
Watson Farley & Williams (41%) came 60th. "There is no culture here," said a senior lawyer. "That would imply the partners had character."
"Horrible. Only alphas or people not willing to rock the boat will do well here," said a lawyer. "Bad behaviour is brushed under the carpet...a very sexist place to work. Emotions are frowned upon unless it’s an angry male partner swearing down the corridor."
At the bottom was Knights (31%). "I'm not sure there is a culture really - lots of legacy firms bolted together," said one lawyer.
"What’s the point paying a fortune to buy firms when all the good people walk out pretty much day one?" said another lawyer. "Seems like a poor return."
A Business Services member of staff questioned how "under-the-radar, en-masse redundancies of long-serving, loyal support staff (usually just as Knights has made yet another regional acquisition) really fits in with a 'friendly, down-to-earth business' and 'a culture of respect, collaboration, positivity and transparency' (as boasted on the website)."