- 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.