June 24, 2019 Feature

Culture Dive: You Are Your Firm, but What Does That Mean?

Deian McBryde

What kind of law do you practice? You’ve heard that question 100 times, maybe 100 times this week alone. What’s the answer? Family, criminal, governmental contracts, or something like marshland fly-fishing indemnification? Slips but not falls? I’ll bet you have your elevator speech memorized and down pat.

firm culture

firm culture

Now try this question: What is your firm’s culture?

I’ll wait.

Maybe give me three adjectives?

Still waiting.

Okay, long enough. Maybe we should talk about this.

Culture Is Not Just in Yogurt

For humans in social groups, culture is everything. It’s how we talk to others, what we expect, and what we promise in return. Culture is how we affirm our tribe using shortcuts of expression, how we learn from each other without formal lessons, and how we distinguish someone who “gets us” from someone who never will. Culture gives context to our actions, defines our vision, and creates meaning. A refined culture is one with mature rules and sophistication in executing those rules. Someone versed in the culture moves through it like a stingray through the ocean, while the stranger flops around like, well, like me in the ocean.

Does Your Firm Have a Culture?

Trick question. The answer is “yes.” And if you are a solo practitioner or a partner of a small firm, that culture looks a lot like you. Are you chronically worried? Then your firm probably feels anxious. Are you always late for meetings? Then I’ll bet you run up to the last minute for filings, and billing, and ordering office supplies. Are you kind to dogs and small children? Your firm probably has laughter in it, even if you’re sitting there all alone. Are you impatient with waiters? Then maybe you’re impatient with people who dawdle. Generous? I’ll bet your firm is a giver.

Here’s a broad-brush painting: Some people run stingy law firms that don’t volunteer in the community and that make the office manager miserable about ordering new toner for the printer. Others have gregarious firms that are pleasant and generous, where employees and clients want to be and are happy to contribute. Neither one of these is necessarily the “best,” but folks in town likely know where you fall on the scale between them. Your colleagues, prospects, and even potential employees probably know you more by your culture than by your success in court.

Culture vs. Values

Values describe what’s fundamentally important to you. Values are individualized, but groups of people who believe in the same thing can share a set of values. Values are descriptive, not wishful thinking. “Wanting a better workplace” isn’t a value; neither is “wanting to run a better law firm.” I call treating wishes like values “notioning.” I “notion” wanting to eat more salads but don’t really value it—or I’d probably do it.

Culture is the expression of values through aspirational effort. If your firm says it believes in continuous improvement, your culture reinforces or questions that belief. To me, such a firm backs up its belief by measuring what matters and implementing strategies to correct underlying problems, not “notioning” about making changes. Culture describes what you do to support your values and represents the steps you take to either maintain the status quo or make changes in pursuit of an ideal.

Who Cares?

You do. Or should. Because culture is what tells your clients, your staff, your colleagues, judges, bankers, office suitemates, and vendors what to expect from you. Your firm’s culture is the biggest shingle you can hang that advertises who you are, not just what you do. Your website can say, “Experienced! Compassionate! Professional!” on every page, but if you don’t have a tissue ready for a wrongful death consultation, your pens are dry, you’re late to every meeting, and you talk but don’t listen, your client might not believe you. I mean, would you even believe you?

But you’re not stuck with a culture. You can make choices and make changes.

The Law Firm That Kicked Pigs

If you’ve never read Tom Baker’s 1999 gruesome kiddy classic, The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, then I recommend you find it. It’s a wicked reminder that “You reap what you sow. . . and then some.” Baker gives us the story of Robert, a malicious lad (because he’s English, hence, “lad” not “dude”) who tortures his sister by abusing her piggy bank until he realizes the joy of tormenting real pigs, which is fun but only until his escalating malevolence rains misery upon actual people. Robert gets his comeuppance in a way that horrifies and delights, and you find yourself considering his demise the way a defense attorney considers a grocery shopper caught on video dropping the grape that bears the blame for a tragic fall. As a family lawyer, I think of bad Robert as akin to the opposing counsel who approaches every case as an adult-sized version of the game Battleship, but with working nuclear weapons.

Had Robert gone to law school, you might imagine him as someone you’ve worked with before: the hotshot who dismisses everyone except any prospect with money; the partner who has the office manager spy on you waiting for an infraction; or the colleague who gives you odd looks when you leave early to catch your kid’s soccer game. Many solos and smalls set up shop because they got tired of working for those people, tired of tirades blasting them for missing billables and rude e-mails sent at 5:00 pm on Friday.

But here’s a problem: Many lawyers go out and make the same mistakes. Only now the brunt of these bad habits is aimed at clients, colleagues, judges, and, worse, themselves.

Clients Know. Do You?

I always reserve an hour for any 30-minute consultation. Why? Because my clients show up with more than papers and photos and complaints. My clients also show up with emotions. They talk, they cry, they explain, they grieve. I always have a tissue handy, and I never rush them out of the office. Why not? Because I want to be the firm that listens and then works on a solution that makes things better in the long run. This is who I want to be as a person, and that’s the culture I want reflected in my firm.

Not long ago, a client hired me over another firm, not because I promised low, low rates or because I had a solution ready to go before we’d even met. The client hired me because I listened to the whole story. I took careful notes and asked questions to show I was keeping up, but mostly I sat quietly and said, “That sounds really hard.” Which it was. It was also free for the client.

“Okay,” you say. “Giving out tissue, free consults, listening, yada-yada. That’s standard. Everyone listens!”

Maybe. But here’s what else goes along with that: Because I want my clients to talk to me, they know how to reach me even when the office is closed. I encourage them to update me often, and I work hard to write my pleadings in such a way that they not only hear my voice but their voice, too. I ask clients how often they want me to give them an update, and then I try hard to honor that. I set my internal deadlines early to give clients time to read, absorb, and respond to draft pleadings. And I put my money where my mouth is: I bill in three-minute increments, not six, because I want clients to have the freedom to call or e-mail or text me twice as often to stay on top of their anxieties. I no-charge and bill lower rates for many tasks, and I include everything on the bill where they can see it.

I look for ways to express that culture consciously with my work and my procedures. When things need people-centered solutions, my assistant often proclaims, “That’s our culture!” She means communication, openness, empathy, engagement, accuracy, fairness, transparency, and the biggie, benefit of the doubt.

But here’s what I don’t do. I don’t promise anyone an immediate turnaround. I don’t offer to meet late nights or on weekends. I don’t keep my assistant at the office overtime or ask her to come in on weekends unless we’re getting ready for trial, and even then, I prefer we shed some less important things to get prepared during the week. I outsource if I need to. I don’t let clients (or anyone) yell at me. I don’t start work without a retainer, I pause when a case hits its replenishment point, and I withdraw if a client won’t pay or cooperate. Because that’s our culture, too. Safety, respect, dignity, and professionalism.

Culture Dive

Jump in! Try these questions for yourself, or adapt them to share with your team:

  1. What are three things we want clients to believe about our firm? Should clients think of you as honest to a fault? Aggressive and ready to win at all costs? Will you throw yourself in front of a train for them, or are you going to try to stop the train even if there’s ground lost? Knowing the answers can determine the customers and associates you want, and might affect the income you generate.
  2. When clients call us on their case, do they expect help or heartache? There’s no right answer. I don’t do much flat-fee work, so telephone pleasantries don’t really bother me, but if you’re capped on your bill, do you have time for people to call you all the time? Maybe you’d be nicer by e-mail or text?
  3. Do staff and vendors stay because they like the team and respect the work? Is it the pay or the résumé boost? Why? My assistant is probably one of the few people on the planet who can handle all my moods from super-friendly to ultra-focused, or from open-minded yogi to “Please just do it my way this time.” It’s crazy but she acts like it’s fun, and that’s because she takes my values seriously and gives me the benefit of the doubt that I am working for the good of the client and the firm—that’s our culture! So, whether you value 1,800 billable hours a year or four weeks of vacation off-the-grid, what are you doing to get your team on board?
  4. How much do we value learning versus knowing? Everyone thinks they’re an awesome teacher and coach but, sadly, it’s not true. If you value learning, then you also value patience, mistakes, and time to do it right the second time, which is an expensive culture to maintain. What if it’s okay to decide that teaching isn’t what you do best? How would you help teammates learn and grow without being the teacher yourself?
  5. Where are our boundaries? Do you always say “yes” to a client with cash? What about people who push? Do you say “no” to prospects who can’t pay? I do tons of volunteer work, so I rarely take pro bono clients. And boundaries are not only for clients. Vendors who embrace relationship, accountability, and are willing to engage when things get confusing are those who stick around, but vendors who get annoyed when explaining an invoice aren’t a good fit for me.
  6. How do we handle feedback, the good and the bad? Exit surveys and net-promoter scores are great, but there’s not a lot of skin in the game when it’s all over. So, during the engagement, I ask clients, “How’s it going working with us? Do you have any feedback on how we can be better?” It’s great when they tell me how much they love working with me and how nice I am. It’s harder if they tell me they felt I hadn’t really heard their question or my draft was not right on the mark. Still, it’s easier to hear it now than to worry about a complaint later.

A Culture Dive Statement

Your values finish the thought, “We believe.” After that, add, “and so we” and describe what you do (or will do) to make that value operational. You’ll end up with a good description of your culture, real or aspirational.

Here’s one: “We believe that people should be heard and listened to, and so we give the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.”

Or: “We believe in working without worrying about collections, and so we rarely start a case without a paid retainer.”

You Choose

My mother used to say, “If someone’s talking about you, first figure out whether it’s true or not. If not, don’t worry about it. But if it’s true, then ask whether you care. If you don’t care, don’t worry about it. Now, if it’s true and you care, then ask whether you can change it. If it’s true and you care and you can change it, then get busy and make it better.”

Culture is everything to humans, and, happily, there’s not just one right way. There’s not one best way to be a law firm or a lawyer, either. You get to choose, within limits. When you do, look at your entire operation to see if the things you value follow throughout the organization. If you value making a lot of money, create the systems to reinforce that culture. If you like floating in the office at 11:00 am and working until midnight, set it up so that you and your team can be great and your clients know what to expect.

Take a Culture Dive by choosing what to keep, discard, or change, and finding ways to let your culture flow through your operation (even if it’s just you). And remember the advice given by that guru of thought leadership, Dolly Parton, who said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

BYO Culture Dive Statement

  • We believe __________ and so we __________.

More Culture Dives

  • At our firm, we believe in __________.
  • Our clients can count on us to always __________.
  • My staff would tell you our number-one goal is __________.
  • It might lose us a client, but we never __________.
  • If I lose sleep over work, it’s because __________.
  • The biggest challenge to making my firm reflect my values is __________.
  • If I have to choose between the culture of my firm or making a client happy, I will choose __________.
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By Deian McBryde

Deian McBryde (mcbrydelaw.com) is a family and general law practitioner in New Mexico. Before becoming an attorney, Deian worked as an insurance executive, performed jazz in New York City, developed IPO materials for investment banks, owned a yoga studio, led a team of adult/youth educators for a technology company, and worked as a large-scale organizational behavior and change management consultant. Deian is chair-elect of the Solo & Small Firm Section of the State Bar of New Mexico and has been nominated to serve as member-at-large on the ABA GPSolo Division Council.