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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Managing: The Family “Firm-First” Culture Part 2: Practical Steps

Thomas C Grella


  • Families interact in many ways. I believe there to be at least four typical activities in a functional family, each of which are applicable in a law firm.
Managing: The Family “Firm-First” Culture Part 2: Practical Steps
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In my last column, I proposed that an honest, strategic pursuit of law firm family culture is a worthy endeavor. I mentioned my belief that the typical characteristics of a family (the kind with parents, children and pets—except in my household) are members’ collective trust, openness, accountability and commitment. I discussed the meaning of each, and my belief that a similar culture is possible in a law firm. Due to column length limitations, I was not able to get practical regarding what a family culture might look like in a law firm. I will try to do so in this column, understanding that the specific activities my firm has undertaken are only examples and may not be appropriate for every firm.

Families interact in many ways. I believe there to be at least four typical activities in a functional family, each of which are applicable in a law firm.


Growing up in a 1960s–1970s suburb of Washington, D.C., was interesting, given Vietnam, Watergate and general civil unrest. Our family’s move to the area, however, was an opportunity for my parents to make sure the whole family took advantage of the educational resources available—from museums and church to art and cultural events (including about every military band concert).

For a law firm family, team building and education are important undertakings. In many firms—including my own in the distant past—education has been for lawyers only, and left to the individual to arrange using a limited CLE budget. Leaders who want to create a family culture need to understand that team building and education must be supported for all members. In our firm, in addition to traditional support of lawyer CLE, we have experimented with several other activities:

  1. Full firm retreats held annually, each having a unique focus. For example: a) bringing in a consultant to discuss personality traits and offer personality testing, b) a guest speaker shares an interactive, informative and fun presentation on implicit bias and c) team building by dividing all members into groups (purposely not based on practice group) and challenging each to work together at a local breakout room.
  2. Full firm quarterly meetings. In the past, staff held monthly meetings, attorneys held monthly meetings and never the twain shall meet. Now, on a quarterly basis, we have a full firm, one-hour meeting, always including a presentation on ethics, business development or another topic providing a greater understanding of practice group differences and needs.
  3. Practice group educational events. These take many different forms. In some cases, members of one practice group (including staff) attend educational programs supportive of their substantive area. All practice groups also conduct educational events that invite local business contacts. We’ve even developed cross-practice group events, from meetings to encourage greater understanding of substantive work to events that bring in local business contacts for the purposes of both cross-selling and community understanding of our mission.

Disney (Purely Social)

Growing up in a functional family includes activities that may be somewhat educational but are primarily for fun. A trip to Disney over a holiday break or our regular Sunday afternoon meal for all my extended Italian-American family come to mind.

In my law firm we have always had social events. In the past, these were limited to attorneys. Further, our firm administrator also holds events (usually lunches) for staff. More recently firm leadership has recognized that, though there is still a need for these exclusive social interactions, there is also great benefit in full firm activities. Examples include:

  • full firm social at a minor league baseball game;
  • annual holiday party;
  • during COVID, Zoom social events;
  • special occasion full firm lunches;
  • annual firm baking competition with proceeds going to a local charity;
  • firm public service projects benefiting the community, with time off to participate;
  • and an annual firm March Madness using a dual basketball goal that the firm purchased, which is akin to what might be seen at an amusement park. All members are included in this annual basket-shooting competition, held on the Friday before the NCAA Final Four.


As mentioned in the prior column, a functional family does not interpret unconditional acceptance as exclusive of discipline. In my view, those who denigrate the family culture in a business setting assume a dysfunctional family, where wrongful conduct is tolerated without consequence. Growing up in my Italian-American family, I can say for certain there was discipline, including punishment for improper conduct (unfortunately, in my case, I received more of this benefit of family culture than my sister).

The details of family culture discipline structures are beyond the limitations of this column. Just prior to my writing this column, our firm asked two members of the firm family to leave due to conduct failures. Leading the process in my firm for years, and now observing the process as led by others, I believe that the disciplinary systems within a typical functional family culture include similar characteristics:

  1. First, a purpose to see the member both rehabilitated and successful, both for the firm’s mission as well as the member’s purpose and mission.
  2. Second, is based on principles that the member both understands and has agreed to, including standards and norms required by firm leadership of all its members.
  3. Third, consists of a process that is fair and equally applied.
  4. Fourth, even though the process is established to produce positive rehabilitation and reconciliation with the firm, there must be a penalty or consequence for continued refusals to live up to agreed-upon standards. In a business organization, as in a traditional family, there is a point when relationship termination must be a possibility.


In every family, the time comes when a member leaves. In a traditional family, it could be due to discipline (as discussed above), which is not only departure but banishment. More commonly, however, departure is due to a member’s physical separation due to employment changes, graduation or marriage.

In the law firm setting, departure is often due to retirement, changes in employment or a member coming to the realization that the law firm setting is not the right fit. In each of these instances, there is a chance that departure will result in bitterness on the part of either the member or the firm and its leadership. As a firm leader, I have experienced this bitterness. In some seemingly selfish departures, this might be difficult to avoid. There are, however, structures that can be established by a firm that encourage it to continue to value departing members and recognize them as a part of the family even after they are no longer employed.

In our smaller firm setting, we continue to invite departing members to social activities and certain aspects of educational opportunities. In a larger firm setting, some firms have created alumni groups. As a former member of a larger firm, I am now a member of the Womble Bond Dickinson (U.S.) Alumni Network.

A lawyer friend once told me his former firm tried a family culture, which all the firm members enjoyed until the firm folded due to a lack of profitability. This has not been our experience. I believe that our recent growth and substantial profitability has been due to our collective family culture of commitment, trust, openness and accountability. If these characteristics are not achieved, I would agree with my friend that an espoused (but improperly structured) family culture will likely lead to failure. The flip side is that the sky’s the limit.