Every lawyer can tell you stories about horrible firm cultures. Maybe you even worked at a law firm that had one. At a firm with an objectively bad culture, everyone seems grumpy, nasty, or stressed out. This causes terrible morale throughout the firm. If you work at a firm with a bad culture like this, you do not enjoy the company of your colleagues and may start to dread Monday mornings. As a rainmaker, you may disagree with management’s decision-making and philosophy, feel like you have earned a voice but are not heard, and feel like you do not get the necessary support to do your job. The good news for lawyers with portable business and clients is that you can easily get out of this toxic culture. Other law firms with a “nicer” culture would love to have you.
Good Culture Just May Not Be a Good Fit
On the other hand, plenty of law firms have an objectively pleasant and collegial culture. You may enjoy the atmosphere and the people, but other elements of the firm culture do not work for you on an individual level. Let’s look at the different types of law firm cultures that may be more appealing to you.
Appreciate Life Milestones
As I said, the culture does not necessarily have to be bad; it may just not be suitable for you because of where you are in your life.
For example, I heard a story about the only single person working in a large transactional practice group at a major law firm. Every day, the group would shut down in the early evening to handle parental duties, including dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime. Afterward, they would reconvene to start working again well into the night. This schedule did not work for the single person because the evening work hours are also the prime hours for dating and socializing. She could not enjoy this time of her life working in this culture. This situation is unfortunate because this person loves her job and her colleagues. I do not know how it played out, but if her goal is to date and have an active social life, it likely won’t happen at her current law firm.
Perhaps this person will move to a new firm with a suitable schedule for dating and enjoying night-life. And because she loves the people and the work, she can return to her former firm when her lifestyle matches that culture. But in reality, when that time comes, her former colleagues’ children may have grown up, and they won’t work the same way, so they still may be out of sync in their life events.
Many other life milestones may or may not be important to you – the birth of a grandchild, a retiring spouse who wants to travel more, college visits with your kids, caring for elderly parents, your own health issues, and so on. Like the story above, the firm can be a wonderful place to work, but what if your current firm’s culture doesn’t mix with these milestones?
Some firms have a very cautious and conservative approach to how they do business. Others have an entrepreneurial spirit and are willing to take calculated risks. Does your firm’s level of risk tolerance help or hinder your practice?
Think about it this way – is there an emerging industry that you think you could build a practice? For instance, the cannabis industry is exploding across the country. You have the connections, the legal background, and the ambition to grow (no pun intended) a high-end cannabis law practice. However, your firm is risk-averse and refuses to get into “the drug business.” No matter how hard you try to convince them that this is a profitable area, you are refused entry into the market. Other law firms are embracing the cannabis industry and would welcome your talents. What about other emerging industries like cryptocurrency, video gaming, and legal online gambling?
Another example of a firm’s risk tolerance level is investing in start-up businesses. Most start-up businesses have limited capital which means not much money to pay lawyers. In exchange for legal fees or a reduction in legal fees, will your firm be willing to take some equity in the business? After all, who knows – maybe one of these start-ups will become the next Amazon. Obviously, taking equity instead of getting paid for your work is risky. However, will your firm even entertain this option? If not, there are probably firms out there that will listen to you and decide on an equity position on a case-by-case basis. In other words, the answer is not an absolute no.
And lastly, regarding risk tolerance, does your current firm see things like opening offices in new jurisdictions or merging with another firm as an opportunity or a threat? You may like the cautious and conservative approach, and there is nothing wrong with that. But you may wish to be in a place willing to take intelligent risks that can help you and the firm become even more successful.
A culture of flexibility can have many definitions – probably too many to capture here. However, as a successful partner, you have earned the right to some flexibility. To illustrate my point, the hottest topic about flexibility right now is remote work. I know some partners who were working remotely before the pandemic. They would be out of the office more than they were in it – often working from their vacation homes. But now that offices are reopening and firm management wants folks back in the office, they ask partners to lead by example by coming into the office. Do you still have the flexibility to decide for yourself when needed in the office or get your job done remotely? I did hear one firm call their culture “Attorneys as Adults,” which means the lawyers have the flexibility to work remotely or not on any given day – their choice.
Also, there is a well-documented war for legal talent going on, and a phenomenon called The Great Resignation. Basically, many law firms have too much work to do and insufficient help to get it done. This can be stressful for partners who are responsible for the client relationship. They may have to ask for more time to get things done or apologize for delays. One solution is to attract talent from another jurisdiction. While some firms will be flexible with the attitude, we do not care where they work as long as it helps you; other firms may say, nope – we only hire people who will be in the office. There is no right or wrong here – it’s just a cultural difference. The key is what works for you.
Another more typical example is flexibility in billing rates. I worked with a young, successful partner whom several prominent firms were recruiting. At a young age, he had already built a multi-million-dollar practice. In doing so, he developed an efficient system that allowed him to attract clients and be very profitable, using a reasonable hourly billing rate. Several firms that interviewed him said that he must raise his rates to align with the firm’s billing structure.
In some cases, they wanted him to more than double his rates. Knowing his practice and client base, this was unacceptable. He joined a firm that took the approach, “you clearly know what you are doing, keep doing it.” He had the flexibility to decide what was best for his practice and the firm.
Sense of Purpose
When it comes to firm culture and a sense of purpose, I ask the question, are your law firm’s cultural values aligned with your own? This can mean various things, as we all have our own unique sense of purpose. But, generally speaking, do you want to be at a law firm that only cares about making money, only cares about improving society, or something in between.
For example, law firms may require lawyers to perform a certain number of pro bono hours per year. Is the pro bono requirement a burden in the firm’s eyes, or is it embraced, appreciated, and encouraged? A firm with a culture that genuinely embraces pro bono legal services will give hours credit, let you staff your pro bono cases as you see fit, commit financial and other resources, and tout its successes. So maybe now that you have achieved financial success, you want to give back through helping others on a pro bono basis and find a firm that will encourage your efforts.
Another sense of purpose issue where you may or may not be aligned with your firm is in its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts. In a previous blog, I explained the Mansfield Rule, a pledge by most of the country’s largest law firms to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is an excellent first step for firms to do more than pay lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion. If this is an essential element to your sense of purpose, join a firm that is a Mansfield Rule participant. Another law firm cultural issue that can match your sense of purpose is its commitment to public policy. Again, if this is important to you, there are law firms that thrive in this area.
The above examples are macro firm cultural issues that can complement your own sense of purpose. However, there is also a personal micro-level. I remember a candidate who worked at a large international firm in a major city. At the time, he lived in an apartment with his wife and three children, with #4 on the way. He worked around the clock on huge deals, which kept him away from home. He and his wife agreed to move to the suburbs and join a sophisticated firm outside the city. Since he was used to working around the clock, he found it odd when the Managing Partner told him to go home and have dinner with his family. He would go home but soon realized that this was not the firm for him. He genuinely liked the people and culture but needed more. His true sense of purpose was working long hours to get deals done for his clients. Thus, he returned to his former firm.
We talked about flexibility in where you work. But we did not cover how you work. We all like to work in our own way. Some people want to close their door from 9-5, pound away on client files, and go home. Others like to get in the office at 11:00 a.m. and work until midnight. Some prefer lots of collaboration and team meetings, and others find this a waste of time. Regardless, I think the best culture for the individual allows them to work in a way that is the most productive for them. This is especially true for partners who have earned this right.
Likewise, some partners want to be at a firm that stresses and delivers a work-life balance. Others view this model as a recipe for laziness and complacency. Those who do not think work-life balance is important (and there is nothing wrong with this feeling) probably get frustrated hearing people brag about their rounds of golf, dinner time with the family, etc. They may grow resentful when they are alone in the office working. If this is you, there are firms that will fit your style.
Here is another thought regarding the personal style culture. It is common for a law firm’s rainmakers to also be in leadership positions. It is just the nature of the beast. If you bring in business, you will probably be asked (or ask yourself) to be on the Executive Committee, serve as Managing Partner, lead a local office, or head up a practice area. Maybe this is something that you want to do – or maybe not. I have known many lawyers that simply want to practice law. Maybe they left their own firm to get away from these responsibilities or don’t want to be involved in office politics. For whatever reason, they are not interested. This attitude is either embraced by or frowned upon by law firms. You should choose to be involved in management as much or as little as you choose without negative consequences.
If you read a value statement from any business, including a law firm, it will often tout how vital its employees are to the organization. These statements will say that the firm cares about the wellness of each one of its employees. But does your firm care about your wellness? Do you care if they care?
For example, if exercise is important to you, can you go to the gym before the office or take a run at lunchtime? Do you catch grief for your exercise regime? Or, on the other hand, do you personally not care so much about exercise, but the firm does. You will not be training for the firm-sponsored 5k or marathon, and the firm should respect that decision.
On a related note, because some firms are so busy, the lawyers rarely leave the office to eat lunch or dinner. So, the firm is generous in ordering food. Nice touch, but can you make dietary requests? Do they appreciate that you are a vegan, a diabetic, on Weight Watchers, or have food allergies, etc.? Are you an outcast for not ordering with the gang but bringing your own food?
And maybe part of the firm’s culture is alcohol. Every social event is planned around alcohol – happy hours, partner barbeques, client dinners and events, and holiday parties. You do not drink or want to be involved in drinking. You may avoid alcohol for health reasons, religious reasons, addiction, or medical reasons. Or maybe, you do not think it is professional to get drunk with colleagues and clients. Regardless, you should feel comfortable and shouldn’t be ostracized for not partaking, even if this means skipping events altogether. On the other hand, you may enjoy having a drink to unwind with colleagues, and you love these social events.
Does your law firm’s culture embrace new technologies, or are they stuck in the old-fashioned way of doing things? I have seen a technology culture impact lawyers in two ways. First, from an administrative standpoint. Does the firm have state-of-the-art and integrated accounting, marketing, and conflict systems in this area? Those with the right technology can onboard new clients effectively and efficiently. For those who do not, time and resources are wasted. Also, does your firm have updated communication systems in place, or do you need to change the toner in the fax machine? Do you have support staff in place to troubleshoot when technology fails?
The other way I see how a technology culture can benefit partners is in practice management. As a successful partner managing clients and a busy legal practice, do you have the necessary tools to complete your work? If not, will the firm support your technology needs or make you jump through hoops to get what you need? For example, there are many AI software programs for litigators and transactional lawyers. Will your firm invest in these programs? And just as important, will they train you and have the right IT professionals in place to keep them running? Also, are you up all night worrying that your client’s work product or other sensitive information is not adequately protected? These are important issues to you – are they essential to your firm and part of its culture?
In many law firms, the compensation model often drives the culture – or at least it is a significant part of the firm culture. This happens in several ways. First, if you are in an eat what you kill culture, the culture probably is not best for collaboration. Perhaps you would rather collaborate and share the spoils based upon each team member’s efforts. Second, maybe the firm’s compensation model requires a minimum number of billable hours. This could be problematic for a rainmaker. You know you are better off drumming up new business on the golf course rather than working files.
Now there is another compensation concern that could impact a law firm partner. Recently, a few large law firms significantly raised salaries at all levels for associate attorneys. The feeling in the marketplace is that other firms will follow suit. How does this impact partners? Well, with significant student debt and a hot market, they could lose valuable team members. Does your firm’s culture allow it to see and react to this trend? Having to replace and train talent could make the life of a partner more difficult.
Scratching the Surface
This blog aims to show that there are different kinds of law firm cultures. We usually think of the horrible culture discussed in the opening paragraph when we think of culture. If this is your life, making a change is a no-brainer. But even if your firm has a nice culture, there are other types of law firm cultures that may be a better fit for your individual needs. It is our job to know which firms offer which cultures. If you want to explore which firms are a better fit for you, give us a call. Our service to find the exact right perfect-fit law firm for you is complimentary so you have nothing to lose.