Developing Your Law Firm’s Culture: A Key to Success in Today’s Legal Market
By Kevin Chern
In the spring edition of Law Trends & News, attorney Savina P. Playter wrote an article titled “Changing Gears in Economic Downturn” about the rapid changes faced by the legal industry during recent economic trends. In her article, she gave very good tips on training, marketing, organization, mentoring and reconnecting with former friends, family and colleagues. Playter commented, “As the face of the economy changes, those changes are reflected in each sector and industry. The legal industry is not exempt from these rapid changes, and as lawyers face an uncertain future, they must create a shifting paradigm to manage their stress and legal costs.”
This month, I would like to spin off of those comments to discuss another key component in building a promising future and a successful business model for your law firm: culture. With recent economic, social and technological changes it is clear that the business world, legal profession and employees are changing, too. If you want to recruit and maintain the most talented, effective staff and attorneys for your law firm and provide top-notch client service, culture is something you have to think about when developing your law firm as a business and a service.
How Do We Define “Culture” in a Law Firm?
Often, when we market law firms to consumers, we define ourselves by talent. While talent is an important aspect of any law firm, the right kind of culture can be just as important. “Talent” is largely self-explanatory, but many attorneys and law firm administrators are not quite so clear when it comes to “culture.” When we talk about “talent” we refer to simple and often measurable concepts such as knowledge, experience or professional recognition.
So, when attorneys, talk about “culture,” what exactly does that mean? Basically, “culture” is a set of shared attitudes, behaviors, values, goals, practices and attributes that characterize an institution, organization or group. In other words, these characteristics are the traits and mindsets that are shared by individual employees and staff members who make up your law firm, in addition to the types of clientele you attract.
Every law firm has a culture that defines it, but few take an active, conscious role in defining that culture and ensuring that it is compatible with firm goals, desired clientele and employee satisfaction. The solo practitioner or law firm partner who does not think about culture, however, is missing an important opportunity, if not a necessary component of creating a successful law firm in today’s legal industry.
Culture will develop, with or without conscious guidance, and the culture that grows up accidentally may not be the one you would like to foster, nor the one that helps your law firm achieve its goals. In part, that is because the skills and mindset that make an effective lawyer are not the same skills and mindset that help build relationships, create a friendly environment, engender loyalty, or even grow a business.
Gerry Riskin, internationally recognized layer and author of the best seller The Successful Lawyer: Powerful Strategies for Transforming Your Practice, talked about this disconnect at the Get a Life Conference in 2009, and the laughter in the room full of attorneys indicated that nearly all of us recognized the truth of his words. But even armed with that knowledge, many attorneys simply are not aware of the way that their own personalities and methods of interacting steer the culture of the firm as a whole.
Does the Current Culture of Your Firm Accurately Reflect Your Goals and Priorities?
Building a law firm culture that furthers your aims means understanding the relationship between culture and success, and then taking steps to create and maintain a culture that supports those goals. The process of assessing and evolving your firm’s culture may take time, but the first step is asking critical questions:
- Does the current culture of your firm accurately reflect your goals and priorities? The first step is an honest look at your current firm culture in light of your goals and priorities. Are you currently acting like the firm you want to be? Assess the relationship, as well as the disconnection, between your vision for your firm and the culture that has organically grown up around you. Understanding the ways in which your current actions and environment do not reflect your values and vision is the first step toward redefining your firm culture.
- Is your culture built from the top down or from the bottom up? Now that you are consciously thinking about developing a positive culture that’s in line with your firm goals, consider the source of that culture. Shared values and shared goals keep your organization working more efficiently because everyone is working to accomplish the same result; there are no hidden agendas and warring priorities. The mission extends beyond revenue goals to a vision for the firm environment, type of clients you want to serve, relationship with the community and more. That vision may be communicated to the whole firm by a strong leader whose priorities are clear, or it may flow from the team as a whole. Law firms are traditionally top-down organizations and in many firms that structure will have become part of the culture by default. If you’re open to letting your team help define who you are as a company, be sure to communicate that openness and create an environment that encourages two-way communication.
- Do your attorneys and other law firm team members take ownership of the goals and priorities of your law firm? While a strong leader may be setting the overall goals and priorities of your law firm, it is important that your team embraces these goals wholeheartedly. Make sure that everyone in your law firm is on board with goals and priorities by establishing a sense of ownership. Lower level attorneys and staff members should understand that reaching cultural goals and priorities will be a win for everyone, not just partners. Help employees embrace your law firm culture by listening to their individual aspirations and crafting their roles within the law firm and incentives that will position people to flourish both as employees and unique individuals. By encouraging ownership in the planning process of your law firm’s culture, you can replace cynicism and mediocrity with zeal and tenacity. This will help build relationships among staff members, while also attracting clients to the energetic, positive vibe reflected by your law firm.
- Do your actions agree with your words? Many firms pay lip service to things like work-life balance and an openness to input from the trenches, but don’t operate in a way that supports those stated priorities. Telling your employees that you want to hear from them isn’t enough; actively encourage the interaction and make sure those who do step forward feel that their input is appreciated and seriously considered. Likewise, make sure that your allocation of resources matches your stated priorities. While there may be fluctuations and the occasional need to shift resources in the short-term, the work you assign and the money you spend says more about your goals and priorities than your pep talk at the weekly firm meeting or a mission statement on the wall. If you claim to value one thing but pour your energy and financial investment into another, the mixed message is confusing and interferes with the ability to create that all-important sense of common purpose.
Culture consciously crafted can be a powerful tool for your firm, helping to define your image to the community and your prospective clientele and increasing employee investment. The right culture draws the right people to you, whether those people are clients, employees, or others in your field. But culture ignored has just as significant an impact on your day-to-day operations, even if that impact is not consciously recognized. Make the choice to create and nurture a positive culture that reflects the goals and values of your firm.
Kevin Chern is the president of Total Attorneys, a technology-enabled services firm that provides legal marketing and practice management consulting services to more than 1400 solo practitioners and small firm attorneys. Under his leadership, Total Attorneys has become one of the country’s leading managed services firms in the legal industry, more than doubling revenues annually and joining the ranks of the Inc. 500 elite. For more information on Kevin Chern and Total Attorneys, visit www.totalattorneys.com.
© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.