January/February 2019


The Quandary of Law Firm Culture

Thomas C. Grella

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 lasting preferred culture when they have a plan to fold in new members.

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 a baggage of distrust and skepticism learned from years of working in dissimilar environments. It’s simply insufficient to hand them a copy of a vision statement, or merely discuss a unique and perfect culture, in a job interview. Like egg whites into batter, they need to be folded in. This is easier said than done because it requires true commitment by leaders. Practically, instead of just talking a great game and hoping it sinks in, law firms need to consider a kinder, gentler, yet more aggressive, approach. A former popular news channel host used to claim himself a “culture warrior.” I’m not sure if he qualified, but perhaps law firms should consider naming their own culture warrior or protector—a specific individual assigned the task of gently, when necessary, correcting firm members when it appears their actions or activities risk damaging culture—yet also encouraging and giving positive recognition of conduct that supports the firm’s desired culture.

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 church there is a concept known as “sanctification.” Simply put, it’s a process where a person gets closer to perfect while understanding that true perfection isn’t attainable in this life. It’s a general concept that law firm leaders might consider, in a secular sense, when it comes to the “perfect” culture that is being sought. A failure to adopt this perspective will result in frustration as well as a false sense of failure in leadership. Appropriately adopting this mindset, however, law firm leaders should understand that a key to continued success is having a growth orientation. This includes a firm having achievable goals to celebrate as growth continues. Crucial to this orientation is the realization that the ultimate goal is growth itself, with the understanding that the firm never actually “arrives.” Growth as the goal, as opposed to achieving an ultimate goal through growth.

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.


Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years. Email him.