6 Steps For Law Firms Looking To Improve Their Culture

By Jennifer Johnson and Kathleen Pearson
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Law360 (July 29, 2020, 3:51 PM EDT) --
Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson
Kathleen Pearson
Kathleen Pearson
Less than three years ago, legal thought leader and professor Mark Cohen wrote: "Legal culture was forged by white, middle-aged lawyers for their peer group … [it] is rigid, hierarchical, pedigree-centric, internally-focused, cautious, reactive, and rewards input, not output."[1]

Cohen went on to show how these cultural characteristics were holding law firms back, limiting their markets, and leading to client dissatisfaction.

Cohen's ideas seem even more resonant today. Because of COVID-19, we are seeing emerging changes to the very definition of "workplace," which gives firms the opportunity to examine how culture can be shaped to do things differently. We believe firms can create inclusive, client-facing and innovation-welcoming cultures — if they are prepared to take on the hard work of change — by examining the entire law firm ecosystem and everyone in it.

To overcome the inherent inertia, law firm leaders need to be intentional, measured and patient (yet determined) when shaping cultural change. And although leadership is essential, a culture will not change just because a managing partner demands it. It is a group journey, and there needs to be guideposts and milestones along the way.

What is culture, anyway?

A useful model of organizational culture[2] has been proposed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology emeritus professor Edward Schein. In Schein's model, culture is a combination of three factors:

  • Values: These are openly shared opinions about what is and is not right in the organization. "The client comes first" is a value that many law firms espouse.

  • Artifacts: These are the tangible manifestations of culture — things that would be noticed by an outside visitor to your firm; for example, the way people dress — casual vs. business, the decor of the office lobby — functional vs. imposing, and the technologies that the firm implements and how they are used.

  • Assumptions: These are the unspoken beliefs and habits that influence people's actions. For example, what is the best way to get ahead in the firm — to compete or to collaborate? Assumptions may not be obvious and, if not addressed, they can undermine the other two factors.

To change culture, you must work on all three of these factors concurrently; all three reinforce each other. For example, if the firm's published values about the primacy of client service contradict attorneys' inbuilt assumptions about individual profitability, the culture will not change.

We offer the following ideas for kick-starting and driving firms' cultural change programs.

1. Diagnose your current culture.

Do not assume you know what it is — challenge your beliefs! Start by gathering information from as many sources as possible.

Survey clients, partners, associates, office staff, referral sources — anyone who has direct experience with your firm and the way your people work. In particular, pay close attention to your people's underlying assumptions about what is important to the firm. Analyze where these assumptions may be in conflict with the inclusive, open culture that you aspire.

Once you have completed the assessment, create an honest statement of where you are today, and then be very specific about what you want to change and why.

2. Define your purpose.

This is a critical step to which many firms have only paid lip service. A purpose statement encapsulates your firm's reason for being. It needs to be short, memorable and unique. It should define what your firm aspires to be for all your stakeholders — clients, employees, partners and the community. Do not be satisfied with a bland purpose statement that could be true of any firm — find what is unique about your situation.

3. Determine your values.

Values are extensions of your purpose — guideposts that help your people make critical choices about how they behave. For example, what is more important to your firm, satisfying a client's short-term demand or building an associate's long-term career? Your firm's values should help your people answer that question when a choice is necessary.

Your values must map to behaviors, and we recommend creating very specific statements of behaviors that will support what you are trying to accomplish, as well as those that are out of step with your values.   

A powerful approach used by many organizations is to assign a cross-functional team to define their values as a set of five short, memorable guiding principles. Each principle would include a mission statement outlining the behaviors implied.  

Also, consider a recognition and reward program, whereby team members could nominate co-workers who exude the guiding principles in exemplary ways.

4. Create artifacts to bring the values to life.

Organizations may choose to invest in tangible manifestations of the new culture they want to install.

For example, if a firm adopts community leadership as one of its core values, they can hire an executive-level leader to lead community-focused efforts and create a matching grants program, whereby the firm provides cash donations to organizations where their employees volunteered. The firm can also establish an internal recognition program to honor employees who demonstrated commitment to their communities. The cost of such initiatives may not be insignificant, but they can pay back huge dividends in the firm's reputation and employee loyalty.

One important component of artifacts involves the tone and manner of organizational communications. Many organizations have recognized the need to manage their "employee brands" — to curate the content and format of formal communications to employees so they reinforce the values of the firm. We also advise leaders to be transparent when communicating the firm's overarching strategy, so that people understand where the firm is going and their role in bringing it to life.

Leaders who need to facilitate cultural change should also demonstrate openness, humility and vulnerability. Creating a culture where you can say "I don't know" helps to unfreeze the current culture and opens up opportunities for people from outside the leadership team to contribute valuable ideas and perspectives.

5. Align your rewards and measures.

We advise firms to look carefully at their processes related to measurement and reward — ensure that the right behaviors are being highlighted. For example, a firm whose core values include community participation might consider adding this to their criteria for promotion to partnership.

We also advocate for a balanced-scorecard approach to performance management that establishes metrics and key performance indicators aligned with the firm's values. For example, if "delighting clients" is one of the firm's core values, each practice group would report performance against that value (this might be accomplished through client surveys). Ideally every individual professional would have their own performance scorecards aligned to the values.

6. Hire for cultural fit.

Your culture will be shaped by future recruits as much as, or even more than, your current employees. To build a truly durable culture, you must be proactive about the types of people you bring into the organization. Ensure that job specifications and role descriptions reflect the purpose and values you are trying to embed. Train those involved in recruiting to recognize candidates who can demonstrate cultural fit in equal measure to technical competence.

For example, if your intent is to create a culture where people will take initiative and go the extra mile in client service, you may wish to look for people who have demonstrated intrapreneurship in previous positions.

Conclusion

We believe that the COVID-19 crisis represents an inflection point for law firm culture. As the saying goes, "Never let a good crisis go to waste."

Law firm culture has been built around the artifact of physical office walls, which enforce the proximity of colleagues and team members. Now that firms are working virtually, the old walls are down and new opportunities for cross-functional collaboration are opening up.

We have seen evidence of this: Far from hindering productivity, the new virtual work environment is enabling greater participation, dialogue and collaboration, and it is encouraging people to support each other beyond their individual interests.

Smart law firm leaders will take advantage of this moment to start a journey of cultural transformation. Working in a focused, intentional manner, they will apply the techniques and tools we've discussed here to build healthy cultures that support partners, associates, business services teams and clients alike.



Jennifer Johnson is founder and CEO at Calibrate Legal Inc.

Kathleen Pearson is chief human resources officer at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP


The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcohen1/2017/07/03/goodbye-guild-laws-changing-culture/#951f96f70e80

[2] https://www.managementstudyhq.com/edgar-schein-model-theory.html

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