Assessing and Changing Firm Culture

Volume 40 Number 4

By

About the Author

Wendy L. Werner, principal of Werner Associates LLC, is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s Law Career Paths Task Force and is a member of the Publishing Board.

Law Practice Magazine | July/August 2014 | The Annual Big Ideas IssueFOR MANY YEARS, lawyers assumed that their firm culture was pretty much the same as the law firm down the block. Or, perhaps more accurately, they didn’t think about law firm culture at all. Lawyers, clients and outside observers of firms may have noted that litigation departments appeared more erratically paced than transactional departments or that lawyers with distinct personalities might affect the people who worked for them, but the idea of an “organizational culture” seemed remote. Quite possibly the rankings of large law firm summer associate programs by law students started to bring the variances to the fore. But if you ask many lawyers about their firm culture, the description you receive will likely be overly general and unfocused.

Why is this difficult, and what difference does it make?

If you ask a person on the street to define the differences in business culture between IBM and Apple, you’ll get distinct answers, correct or not. And it may also be true that culture, as perceived by others, is not an accurate representation of what happens inside an organization. But if you want to bring about change within your organization or cement cultural aspects of your firm that you perceive are important, you must be able to define the current culture and take steps to either foster or change that culture as you move forward.

What is “culture” in an organization? Wikipedia’s entry gets it right:

Organizational culture is the behavior of humans who are part of an organization and the meanings that the people react to their actions. Culture includes the organization values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving, and even thinking and feeling. Organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders.

In the June 2006 issue of the Academy of Management Journal, Davide Ravasi and Majken Schultz further state that organizational culture is “a set of shared mental assumptions that guide interpretation and action in organizations by defining appropriate behavior for various situations.”

If you’ve been at the same firm for your entire career, because you’ve been living with the same shared norms and values for an extended time, accurately assessing your firm culture may be difficult. For that reason alone, when you undertake an assessment, make sure that you ask people inside and outside your organization about their perceptions of your culture. Within your firm, ask people at all levels. Remember that the vast majority of clients are not attorneys, so it is critical to understand their perception of your firm, as their observations may be considerably different than those of the lawyers. Include your support staff, your accounting firm, clients and other service providers. Understand that the way you word your inquiry should change depending on the role that each of these parties plays in your business.

TO WHAT END?

There are a number of reasons that you want to understand your firm’s culture, and here are several examples:

  • To learn what kinds of people are most successful in your firm’s culture, better fostering employee selection. What are the personality characteristics and capabilities of your top performers, and how can you recruit more people like them?
  • To have an accurate perception about how the firm projects externally. Are there perceptions you want to retain or some you want to change?
  • To cultivate change in the direction that you would like it to go. If you don’t know where you are now, determining the steps to take to get to your desired destination is difficult.
  • To think about leadership succession consistent with your desired culture. Cultivating leadership that is in step with your desired future is important.
  • To create a more diverse or inclusive culture or organization. Once you have greater clarity about your organizational culture, you can more effectively recruit candidates who will be successful at your firm.
  • To get client feedback about what it’s really like to work with your firm.
  • To obtain preliminary information that will help when creating a firm marketing plan. Before implementing a plan, it is important to know how your firm culture is perceived by the marketplace. Assess your culture first to know where you stand.

CONDUCTING A CULTURE AUDIT

A culture audit need not be an elaborate process, but rather than giving your colleagues and constituents a blank page, it makes sense to generate some guidelines to determine characteristics. Utilize your associate development committee, your management committee, your partners or do it on your own. Granted, this internally generated list might skew the results, but you should have some idea about descriptors that you or your colleagues have heard or thought describe your firm’s culture. If you have specific thoughts about areas for aspiration, include those, too. You want to have some sense of whether you are headed down the road in the direction of your desired outcome. Create a list that includes ranking. A prioritized list allows you to determine what is really important. Remember as well that when you ask for input, you cannot kill the messenger. Make sure that your process allows for the anonymity of respondents—in particular those inside the firm—should they want it.

PARSING THE RESULTS

Once you have gathered the information, you need to make some sense of the feedback. Create a list of the top cultural characteristics of your firm gleaned from the process and discuss them with the specific groups that may want to use them for marketing, recruitment and client retention. What are the key characteristics of your firm? Are any of the results surprising? Do they fit your firm’s self-perception or were there major differences between the internal and external feedback? Share the results with those who participated. You can do so selectively, but because you asked for input, you should share at least some of the findings with the people who assisted you, particularly in those areas where they gave specific input.

There’s no point to this exercise unless you use the results. Funnel them to the right people and incorporate them into what you do now, or what you want to do differently in the future. For recruitment, seek out candidates who can thrive in your environment, or alter the environment in the direction you feel is necessary. Use the results from your clients to shore up relationships and to foster others. Highlight your positive characteristics in your marketing materials. If you identify areas that need to be changed, take concrete steps to move your culture in a new direction.

If you don’t know who you are, you can’t become who you want to be.

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