What a law firm looks like today is dramatically different than what it looked like 50 years ago. Law firms benefitted from client expansion and demand for legal services, and grew exponentially. The sheer size of law firms today necessitates doing things differently than they have traditionally been done.
Partners don’t work down the hall from each other; they are in different countries. Relationships aren’t cultivated through daily interaction on work projects; work is specialized and thus siloed within particular teams. Associates don’t receive a broad legal work experience from which they learn judgment; they are pigeon-held in one practice, refining a specific skillset.
Much is written about the changes in the practice of law – less so about the shift in the experience of lawyers in law firms.
The effect of these changes on law firm culture cannot be overstated. Much is written about the changes in the practice of law – less so about the shift in the experience of lawyers in law firms.
Even so, there are opportunities for professionally satisfying work and a strong, recognizable culture within the large law firm of today. Here are three practical ways to move the needle in that direction.
1. Be Consistent
Law firm leaders have allowed bad behavior – problematic personalities – for too long. They have gotten into the habit of making exceptions to firm rules. “He’s an important partner, so we can let that expense overage slide, even though it’s against firm policy.” Everyone notices when decisions deviate from standard operating procedure, and resentment sets in for those playing by the rules.
Similarly, any legal marketer who has been through a merger will tell you one of the hardest parts is enforcing consistent use of the new brand. Lawyers, especially senior lawyers, do not like being told they must use or do something different. Walking the halls post-merger, you’ll hear the legacy firm name used in conversation or see the old logo on a PowerPoint. That’s a missed opportunity to foster team spirit.
People want to participate in something bigger than themselves
These examples are symptomatic of a firm which values the individual over the institution, and they are a drag on firm culture.
People want to participate in something bigger than themselves. Especially for Millennials (who make up an increasing percentage of your workforce and your clientele), this connection is imperative. Consistency can be a common thread that, if woven through all aspects of your firm, will convey stability and trust.
2. Build Camaraderie
We spend a lot of time at work, so it’s important to like the people we work with! Employee connection and engagement is a key indicator for increased productivity and higher retention rates.
We have seen success in this area when firms:
Celebrate together through victory memos, deal toys, or closing dinners.
Communicate constantly via multiple channels.
Encourage offsite retreats and meetings.
Incorporate fun and games.
Most importantly, encourage collaboration on all fronts. Engage lawyers in cross-functional, short-term projects outside their normal scope of work. Add a puzzle in the break room to encourage organic team work. Pick some volunteer or pro bono projects that allow for participation from a broad group.
When people secure trust and friendship at work, they are then more loyal and committed to the future success of the firm, which they want to pursue together.
3. Put Clients First
Consumers today (including consumers of legal services) want to connect on a different level with the brands they consume. Profit margin is still important, but the corporate world is increasingly leading with how they can make people’s lives better. Law firms would be smart to follow suit and put clients at the center of every decision leaders make.
Relationships should be emphasized over transactions.
Does opening a new office for five laterals mean more localized client service or more overhead that will be passed along on the bill? Is that rate increase a reflection of value delivered or an annual habit? Will this succession plan be an economic solution for us or a continuation of service solution for the client?
Relationships should be emphasized over transactions. Lawyers should be highly knowledgeable of clients’ businesses, and firms should focus on zippering-up connections from the senior partner’s relationship with the highest-level decision maker to the junior associate’s relationship with the middle manager. In addition to furthering client loyalty, this practice lawyer-proofs the firm. It’s much harder for a client with multiple points of contact, whose business is integrated in several practices, to follow a single departing lawyer to another firm.
For every decision, ask yourself, “How does this impact our clients?” Reflection on that point ensures you have your priorities on those most important to the future of your business – the people who pay you.
Putting these three suggestions into practice will help you build a strong, distinguishable culture for your firm and ensure it is positioned well to compete in the legal marketplace of today.
Heather McCullough, co-founder of Society 54, coaching and consulting on business development and client service best practices.