I thought we had finally made it, that we were that unique 21st-century midsized law firm where boundaries had been broken and where results achieved for those we serve steadily flow from a culture based upon a relationship and trust among all members of a highly skilled and diverse team. Then, early on a warm summer afternoon, the lights went out at our firm because of a violent thunderstorm. After the usual two or three flickers of light to test the fault current, the power went out for the rest of the afternoon. This brought our organizational health into question as we confronted the quandary of law firm culture.
As I have written before, my firm has made a commitment to a certain type of culture. We have done so by having all attorneys in the firm pledge themselves to shared values and by frequently and consistently reinforcing these values in full firm meetings. It is a firm-first commitment, focusing on those we serve: clients, community and each other.
When our power went off, many of our members were focused on client business, some trying to meet tight deadlines. Unlike an ice storm, where the well-being of our members might be at risk by not shutting down the office, such a concern wasn’t present. There was plenty of light and the building remained at a comfortable temperature. Leaders of the firm, not knowing how long the power would remain unavailable, decided to keep the office open. Though we were not able to operate our server, most members could have worked on battery power. We are also fortunate to have a system that allows us limited continued internet service during power outages. Our chief operating officer could have also used help in various ways on tasks that do not require electricity.
My point is that opportunities to serve existed, and most employees jumped in to help serve. However, in the midst of this powerless afternoon, a social media post by a newer firm member hit the internet, suggesting that the failure of our firm leaders to shut down the office was evidence of greed, of not wanting to pay our staff for the few hours we might give them by shutting down early.
Where had we gone wrong? In all of our planning to transition our firm culture from the past, had we simply failed in our quest to be that shining city on a hill—that beacon of light to serve as an example of a law firm that others in our profession should aspire to emulate? I like to believe that is not the case. However, through this experience, I came to realize that there are a few important practical considerations for leaders to understand and implement if they truly want to change the culture of their law firm for the long term.
Fold in the New
My close friends are well aware of my passion for cooking Italian food. After nine cooking classes in different regions of Italy, there are certain recipes with which I have become quite proficient. One dessert that seems to be a favorite of those I cook for is an almond limoncello torte. A very important final step in preparing the batter is a “folding in” of beaten egg whites. The purpose of this process is to create a light and airy batter. In a similar fashion law firm leaders create
The law firm that survives the constant change we now experience will recognize that the culture sought, and perhaps experienced, is subject to change every time the team changes. New members bring to the table their gifts and talents, but also, frequently, they carry
Live the Dream
Regardless of the commitment to teamwork and family expressed on their websites, most law firms continue to have organizational structures that look either like a pyramid or are top-down tiered in some fashion. These types of organizational structures are not conducive to true team dynamics and relationship-based service. Unfortunately, rules created by bar regulators that protect the exclusive privilege of lawyers to practice law also tend to reinforce boundaries and divisions that are naturally created in tiered organizational structures. Due to this present reality, leaders need to be innovative in taking steps to counter the walls that are created—ones that not only teach culture principles but also are evidence that leaders live the culture espoused. Here are a few to consider:
- Open firm functions to everyone. For instance, if you have a business development social event, determine the participants along the lines of practice area instead of including lawyers only.
- Minimize labels such as “lawyers/staff,” “lawyer/nonlawyer” or “partner/associate.” Perhaps we are all team members or colleagues instead.
- Provide professional development opportunities for all members, ones that not only benefit the firm but also personal development or job satisfaction.
- Give all members an opportunity to lead others, even when those led include lawyers or partners.
- Give all members an opportunity to publicly present. For instance, the chief operating officer shouldn’t be the only person who isn’t licensed to ever lead a portion of a firm-wide meeting.
Adopt a Growth Orientation
In the Christian
As in other areas of organizational behavior, if a law firm truly desires real cultural progress, it basically comes down to leaders helping team members understand the true commitment and themselves living consistently within the standards they desire for the organization and establishing a firm-wide passion for continual growth—while understanding that setbacks experienced are learning opportunities rather than failures.