Authentic Magnetic Law Firm Culture An Operational Imperative

In today’s competitive legal market, firms are looking to set themselves apart, which can be difficult to do in a meaningful way. The number one way to make your firm standout is through your firm’s culture, but not all firms understand culture. Culture is more than a warm and fuzzy buzzword-of-the-moment; it’s what makes your firm tick, the values and belief system from which you operate every day—and it’s become a deciding factor in determining who clients want to work with and who candidates want to work for.

Why Is Culture So Vital in Today’s Market? It’s Good for Business, and It’s Just Good, Period.

Your law firm vets candidates carefully before choosing to bring them on board, and the inevitable and somewhat undefinable “fit” is a critical component of the ultimate decision. Rest assured, clients and candidates are studying your firm and its culture with the same level of scrutiny. So having a solid, authentic organizational culture can give you an edge over your competitors. “Culture sets the stage in how we do business,” says Terry M. Isner, CEO of Jaffe. “Culture and values are a big part of branding. Clients and laterals look at organizations to see if the environment is what they want to be a part of before deciding to do work with a specific firm.”

Most candidates today truly care about what their firm stands for and want a feel for the workplace environment before they make the leap. Similarly, companies want to work with firms that share a similar culture to their own, as they often view their firms as extensions of their own organizations. And firms want to attract and retain not only talented professionals who will be a good fit for their firm, but who will also be attractive to current and prospective clients.

The Benefits of Having a Transparent (and Compelling) Culture

Businesses are positioned for better growth, retention and longevity when they foster meaningful business attitudes and behaviors that are put into practice every day (i.e., “walking the talk”). Here are some specific advantages:

Brand identity. 

We all know that branding is about much more than a memorable designed logo. Your organizational culture contributes to how clients, potential clients and the public view your organization. For example, if yours is a high-tech culture emphasizing innovation—and that is what your target clients are all about—this like-mindedness will help drive business development and long-term client loyalty. But it requires more than a great PR campaign. If it is not authentic, the market will just roll their collective eyes. “Go through a branding exercise with a third party,” suggests Isner. “Find out who you are and what your competitive advantage is. This is not a marketing initiative. Involve HR; they hold the key to culture in a firm.”

Employee morale.

It’s human nature to want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves; everyone, even individual contributors, craves that sense of belonging. By bringing employees together on the same platform of values and philosophies, your culture provides a notion of workplace unity and helps ensure everyone is working together toward a common set of goals. When employees believe they are in a great environment and are part of something significant, they are more likely to work harder and stay on board for the long haul. Caution: This must include everyone. If your revenue generators enjoy a meaningful work experience and your administrative staff does not, it won’t work. 1 +(-1) = 0.

Talent acquisition.

With social media and other digital channels, the marketplace is more connected than ever before. When you have a feel-good firm culture—one that makes your people feel appreciated and engaged—your current and former employees will spread the word. This viral advertising will be a boon for your hiring efforts since candidates nowadays are in search of a balanced work life that makes them feel happy and fulfilled while facilitating success, however they define it.

So How Can You Better Define Your Firm Culture?

Whether you are aware of it or not, your firm already has a culture. The trick is to understand it and be able to clearly articulate it—and change it if you must. Changing your firm’s culture is difficult, but it’s not impossible. So how can you get a better handle on your firm’s core personality—and use it as a competitive advantage?

  • Take a good look in the mirror. (You knew this was coming.) Figure out who you are as an organization. Is your firm uniquely collaborative and team-focused? Are your lawyers ambitious perfectionists in all they do? Is there a particular social effort that is near and dear to your firm’s heart? Branding exercises can help you dig deep and assemble the pieces into something cohesive.
  • Talk to clients and employees. Ask your clients, staff and lawyers what they ideally want in a law firm. “At 3M, we care deeply about the culture of the law firms we work with as we see the firm as an extension of our legal function,” explains Joseph Otterstetter, Associate General Counsel, International Operations at 3M. “Some firms are a better fit for us than others. We assess this every year to make sure we remain aligned.” Does your firm measure up? If not, ask what is missing from the relationship and how the firm may be falling short. This undoubtedly requires a degree of bravery and honesty but can reveal essential information that will help you course-correct on your culture journey. But do not ask the question if you do not intend to embrace the answers, whatever they may be, or your sincerity will be questioned.
  • Determine where you want to be. Figure out where you are today as described in the preceding bullets. Then decide where you want to be tomorrow, in terms of both perception and reality. Involve HR, marketing and your business development professionals to help you. Be sure to understand the “why.” An objective without purpose will surely fail.
  • Get full leadership buy-in. Shaping a definitive culture requires merging inspired talk with leadership action. As the behavior of firm leaders is always in the spotlight—and sets the tone for the entire organization—culture strategy without leadership support will fail. “An announcement from management that the culture is changing does not make partners listen,” says Melissa Margulies, Client Service and Professional Development Counsel at Ballard Spahr. Make sure your partners understand why culture is so important for the organization. The onus is on them to consistently model behavior that is in step with the desired culture.
  • Cultivate your culture story through communication. Your entire workforce is part of your firm’s culture, so make them aware and talk about it frequently. Culture will affect the way you service clients, how employees treat one another and the type of people you let into the firm. “Everyone at the firm must be able to articulate the culture,” says Kevin Hogarth, Global Director of People & Culture for Norton Rose Fulbright. “Say it on the website and in materials; tell stories about the firm and the individuals.” Highlight your culture through your social media channels and repeat the stories in prospective-client pitches and RFPs. Make talking about your culture second nature.
  • Coach your people. Developing a clear, compelling and straightforward message about your firm culture will help your workforce buy-in to it and sell it to others. Help your lawyers and staff hone in on their message so that they can describe it easily and consistently. Empower them to be your everyday culture ambassadors. Just do not ask them to tell a story they do not believe. They will resent it and it could be your downfall. “Help your lawyers hone the message so they can talk about it consistently,” Margulies says. “Lawyers should be able to articulate the firm’s values comfortably whether talking about a pro bono opportunity, diversity and inclusion or the way in which lawyers at the firm collaborate on a project. Those are indicators that the values are alive and are not just words in a mission statement.”

Behavior—of employees and leaders— drives your firm’s culture. Identify the behaviors that will exemplify your culture. To reinforce what you are trying to build, promote and encourage positive, collaborative actions and address behavior that compromises your goals. “Culture is a bit like opinions: everyone seems to have one, but some are better formed than others,” says Otterstetter. “The biggest impact on a firm’s culture is the people they hire and retain. It sends a message if you keep lawyers, for example, who are good business generators but horrible colleagues. They can cause disruption and disengagement. Legal excellence is table stakes these days, and we look to hire firms that share our values of collaboration, integrity, value, and creativity.”

A Culture Shift Takes Time—But It’s Worth the Effort

Changing or strengthening your firm's culture is not a one-off project with quick execution. Rather, it can take several years to define and implement the changes necessary to support transformative shifts in behavior and perception. Patience and perseverance are critical. “Culture is a significant part of attracting and retaining talent—and culture drives behavior,” Hogarth explains. “It is possible to change culture. It requires bravery, frankness and honesty with yourself. Talk to clients and internal people about what they want and how the firm is falling short today. You will have a culture whether you are focused on it or not, so be thoughtful and consistent. Help it be the culture you want it to be.”

Shifting your organizational culture will not come without intentional work, but the effort is worthwhile on every level. Unlike organizations that do not understand or value culture, culture-savvy organizations have the opportunity to create a strong point of differentiation. Take the reins and define your firm’s culture before it defines your firm. There is no more powerful way to shape the workforce and brand image you aspire to have and pave the way for future growth. Remember, beauty comes from within.


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