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August 24, 2022

Managing: Envisioning a Functional Family ‘Firm-First’ Culture

Thomas C. Grella
Culture is not what you label it, but it is how you live and lead by example.

Culture is not what you label it, but it is how you live and lead by example.

Ferrantraite / Getty Images

Prior to the pandemic, our leadership team had made great strides in creating a unique family-like culture at my law firm. As firm members went into lockdown mode, I wondered how this culture would fare. As the pandemic continued, the firm was given unique opportunities to show its support to our staff, and I believe that it did well (and that is what our 360-degree reviews tell us). Over the past two years, I have been concerned each time the firm has made a necessary reduction in professional staff for non-COVID-19-related reasons. I feared it might be interpreted incorrectly. At the onset of COVID, I had been worried how our closure and work-from-home policies would be received and what risk they posed to the culture our leadership team had worked hard to develop. Finally, most recently I was concerned how our desire to open the office (before other local firms but legally, of course) and push our 100% fully vaccinated staff to return to the office would affect morale, and therefore culture.

For several years I have thought of this culture at my law firm as a “family culture.” We strive to treat each other like members of a well-functioning family. However, as I have reviewed the number of law firms that espouse similar concepts in their values, and as I have studied what some consultants say about the dangers of a family culture, I questioned whether some folks understood what it is. In fairness, I concluded that perhaps I did not fully understand it either.

Recently, I have read articles and listened to podcasts that malign the notion of adopting a family culture, claiming it to be malicious and counter to organizational success. Family culture is defined by some consultants as including the characteristics of blind loyalty, unquestioned acceptance and belonging, and unconditional support—all assumed to result in avoidance of consequence for poor choices, and counter to any stated goal of high performance. The result, they say, is that leaders are weak and those who work for the business or firm become both lazy and entitled.

Debunking Negative Assumptions About Family Culture

I have come to realize several things regarding a law firm’s desire to develop a family culture.

First, culture is not what you label it, but it is how you live and lead by example, and it is created both by what is tolerated and what is enforced.

Second, those who criticize the idea of a family culture almost always describe this culture by use of characteristics observed in dysfunctional families.

Third, having a family culture and being a family are not one and the same. Family culture—one that is positive and effective— will incorporate the positive aspects of a well-functioning family unit, while understanding that the law firm, when doing so, is a professional organization in business to make a profit.

Fourth, given the variations of belief as to what it means to have a family culture, some definition needs to be given to the term based on the aspects of a properly functioning family, instead of the definition given by experts who seek to malign the term based on dysfunctional family traits.

Instead of characterizing a family culture as being made up of members who are blindly loyal, accept without thought, and provide unconditional support regardless of circumstance or adherence to agreed-upon values, a well-functioning family is a place where members display certain aspects of these characteristics. More importantly, a family culture provides an experience, personally to members and cooperatively to the organization, of both fulfillment and fun at work.

Family Culture: Personal and Organizational Fulfillment And Fun

Digging deeper into examples of these two qualities of family culture—fulfillment and fun—is beyond the scope of this column. Generally, however, those who grow up in a well-functioning family will tell you that through the years they were given opportunities that were rewarding, creative, interactive and exciting, with growth in life achieved through devotion, support and the collaborative participation of other members of the family— each as recipient and provider. I believe that this basically sums up the activities that lead to a fun and fulfilling family culture at work. Any business organization, including a law firm, can achieve fun and fulfillment for all its members if they are all given these same types of opportunities. Where the rubber meets the road, however, is whether the firm and its members agree and commit to certain subculture principles:


Can members of the firm count on each other to live up to agreed-upon values even in the most difficult of circumstances? This is different from a dysfunctional family culture where unconditional support is required of others, regardless of whether conduct supports or subverts mission and purpose.


Are leaders willing to treat all members of the firm as important enough to be provided high levels of organizational information, and do all members share that sense of security where they feel vulnerable enough to share actual thoughts and ideas on the topics of firm mission, vision and operations? A dysfunctional family culture might require loyalty and support among members, but usually with high levels of both secrecy and skepticism.


Are firm members appropriately held accountable to agreed-upon goals, objectives and standards? Accountability is one area where dysfunctional families woefully fail, while still adhering to the notion of unchecked loyalty and unconditional support. Functional families desire growth in their members. While insisting upon adherence to agreed-upon values, they remove controls and obstacles to allow for the type of education that results from both success and failure. A functional family culture does not overlook performance measures, feedback, punishment and reward. In a law firm it is crucial to review performance, assign responsibility, and apply rewards and discipline, all in a way that is fair and consistent. For those critics who believe that being a member of a family means you belong no matter what, truthfully, in a functional family culture, circumstances might occur where a member who does not, or refuses to, live up to values is asked to leave ... permanently.


Do members have a commitment to the firm and to each other? In a dysfunctional family the expected commitment is that of a blind, usually unhealthy, loyalty. In a functional family culture, loyalty is “firm-first” to the organization and all its members, but always and only if consistent with agreed-upon values.

Moving Out Of Survival Mode

It is my belief that if firm leaders establish and maintain a healthy family culture, it will lead to organizational success in achieving both vision and goals. Obviously, for several years, and maybe even when this column is published, many law firms have felt and may still feel that they are in survival mode. Perhaps, even after the crisis has subsided, life may never be “back to normal” as defined prior to early 2020. That understood, I believe that a family culture can be established and maintained regardless. If the family-like culture that so many firms espouse is truly desired post-pandemic, it’s time for law firm leaders to ask themselves a few important questions, and respond accordingly:

  • If the firm will expect members to physically return full time to the office, how will it either accommodate or address the needs of (or provide support to) those who can still meet goals but have become personally reliant upon remote work to meet their other life needs?
  • If the firm will remain remote, or go hybrid, without physical presence being required, how will the firm assure that the subculture principles described above are achieved to ensure the fun and fulfilling work experience of a family culture for both those in the office and those who are remote?

Thomas C. Grella

Attorney, McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA

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 protected]

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