Defining ‘Good’ Law Firm Culture (and How Associates Are Shaping What It Means)

There have been thousands of pounds of ink that have been spilled trying to describe the concept of culture internally at firms. Indeed, a “better culture” is one of the top criteria that associates are seeking when they change jobs. Some firms have achieved that mark, and associates flock to them. Others are famous for being sharp-elbowed, and either don’t know or don’t care. So, what is a “good culture” in the context of a law firm, and how is it achieved? Furthermore, how are associates stepping into the driver’s seat to frame that definition?

Hiring & Retaining

When associates come for interviews, they are looking for insight into a law firm’s culture through words and actions. The firm is also looking for associates who are going to fit in. Some firms have an informal “no jerks” policy. That is one of the reasons they deploy partners and other attorneys from other practice groups to interview candidates — they want those who won’t be blinded by a potential superstar to evaluate whether the lawyer will play well with others. Another good hiring tactic — for cultural purposes — is to take a more informal step and meet with potential peers so that it does not feel like a formal interview.

Once associates are in the door, however, a firm should take steps to keep them, which is where culture critically comes into play. If there are partners who are known for their bad tempers and tend to treat their associates like servants, the firm is going to lose out.

The basic answer of how to retain top talent is humanity. In our contactless age, associates appreciate having more human, live (non-email) conversations with their partners. The kinds of conversations where they are asked about their mental well-being. The other element that means a lot? When partners express vulnerability and answer honestly when asked how things are going for them personally. It’s so simple, but so impactful. Associates need to be asked how their stress levels are and what can be done to address that. Otherwise, this talent is left feeling undervalued and dehumanized.

Policies & Practice

Associates who are unhappy often report that there is a serious dissonance between what the written policies are at the firm (i.e., parental leave, sick leave, flexible working) and what is actually allowed by the partners with whom they work. For instance, one male associate, approaching a partner about his upcoming parental leave, was greeted with “You’re not actually going to take that, right?”

There’s a relatively simple fix to this challenge: Partners must be educated about what the firm’s policies are and how to react to a lawyer who is expressing that they plan to take advantage of them. For example, those partners who did not have access to or did not take leave themselves may not be innately fluent in these discussions. HR needs to make sure they are.

Connectivity

An associate I placed once had a remarkable story. It was snowing, and he was holding a coffee for himself and another for his assistant. The person ahead of him neglected to hold the door for him – then turned to see that he was standing there, but kept walking. The galling fact? It was an associate he literally shared a wall with. They worked side by side, but had never spoken.

Encouraging interactions between associates will set them up for success and help them feel like they have an ally and give them more of a sense of belonging.

Some firms do a good job of setting up social events for all associates of a class year, making them into a cohort. Others focus on office-wide initiatives. Whatever a firm does to make their lawyers feel more connected to each other, the more loyal they seem to feel to the firm. It isn’t rocket science: If the firm works to facilitate relationships, associates will be less interested in leaving their friends than they will if they feel siloed.

Flexibility

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a game changer when it comes to people’s expectations of flexibility. Many associates made the decision to move over the past year to be closer to family or lessen their mortgage payment. In doing so, many have come to realize they are very successful working from their homes at the hours of their choosing. Rigidity is no longer well-received, especially in a world where we’ve all been working remotely. Yes, firms are conservative by nature, but those that allow associates to transfer between offices (or even practice groups) are awarded the cultural gold star. The firms that continue to rely heavily on a five-day-a-week facetime requirement will leak talent. Those that treat associates like adults who can manage their own work will win.

Hierarchy

The corner office—a symbol that you’ve truly made it. At one Bay Area-based firm, the corner office is a video game room. Associates and partners and administrative staff sit together in an open plan office, listening to and learning from each other. Offices are available on a hoteling basis for private calls or negotiations, but most of the work is done in the open. Literally sitting shoulder to shoulder doesn’t allow for anyone to be holier than thou. This firm is routinely cited as having one of the best, flattest, most inclusive and most mentor-rich cultures.

Some people thrive in hierarchy, but most millennials don’t seem to. They want to be listened to and recognized for the ways in which they are experts. They want advancement to be based on merit, not tenure. They do not respond to anything that is lockstep. Law firms will never be a free-for-all, but steps away from rigid systems get rave reviews.

Is there a formula for a “good” or “happy” culture? No. Some of it is a secret sauce, and it can vary dramatically between offices. But some elements are consistent among the firms that associates complain most about, as well as the features they praise. Firms should recognize that the way they have always done things may not actually be the only way forward. A new generation of associates is telling us clearly what they want and need, and the old way of doing things may be falling out of fashion.

 

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