"Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with a passion” - Brian Chesky, Co-Founder, CEO, Airbnb
“How would you describe the culture in your firm? A question very often asked by prospective recruits, legal journalists, and legal rankings organisations. A glance at many firms’ promotional material suggests that they value their culture, and in many cases regard it as unique, and something to be treasured. However, when asked directly, many resort to clichés, such as “collegiate”, “we aren’t one size fits all”, “no face time”, and have an “open door policy”. Not only do such statements not allow the firm’s individual aspects to be showcased, they are often found to be empty platitudes, with a lot of firms not having any system in place to ensure a consistent culture.
Why culture is important
The obvious importance of nurturing the right kind of culture is that a team working towards shared goals works most effectively if the environments in which they work is the one most conducive to achieving those goals. Numerous studies have also shown that employees value firm culture as the most important factor in choosing an employer, and staying with that team. The people with whom an employee works every day, and especially the person to whom he or she reports, is a critical factor in retaining, and attracting, staff.
“It’s been a hard day’s night” – Lennon & McCartney
However, as the shared goal of most law firms is to achieve the maximum billable hours, while delivering the best quality legal services, this has often led to a culture of long hours, hard work, and self-sacrifice. Although it can be argued that some firms, especially the Wall St firms, remunerate at a level to compensate for this kind of lifestyle, many lawyers are now focused on genuine work/life balance, and the flexibility to build families and pursue interests outside of the firm. This means top firms often lose mid-level associates to in-house roles, offshore firms, or firms with more focus on flexible working. It is difficult for firms to counteract this trend, though many are now offering better maternity packages, and are more flexible in regard to remote working (although in practice, many associates find this impractical, without the resources available in the office). Some firms do not see the need to change this, and are comfortable with this natural attrition. As one US Firm Partner commented “we have a culture of hard work and excellence, with exceptional rewards for those who make it. It is only natural some are going to fall by the wayside”.
“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”— Malcolm Forbes
Diversity is no longer just a buzzword, with many firms valuing a diverse work force, and many job-hunters now seeking out firms where they will work in a diverse team, drawing on the different strengths and weaknesses of varied backgrounds. However, how to achieve diversity is one of the more contested topics. Most managing partners, and COO / HR Directors, that we spoke with on this matter, would not go as far as a policy of positive discrimination, as they are usually searching for an in-demand, highly specialised skill-set, and so this would not be practical, or desirable. At the entry level, the gender diversity is well-balanced, however, in many firms, there is a much higher percentage of male partners. This is an issue that firms are trying to address by encouraging a culture of mentorship for junior female lawyers with partnership ambitions, along with structuring a partnership path that is compatible with family commitments. Partnership selection processes are also becoming increasingly transparent, with more rigorous processes to try to ensure less gender discrimination, especially in firms with a developed COO and HR function, but many remain opaque. Many firms now actively, and publicly support LGBTQ initiatives, and there are numerous examples of openly gay partners, and senior business support professionals. Diversity of ethnicity is harder to achieve, due to the need for Chinese language skills in so many roles, but, other than language issues, most lawyers felt that ethnicity was not such a predominant theme in Hong Kong, compared to London, for example.
Team Spirit and Social
"For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack" - Rudyard Kipling
Team spirit is considered vital in any collaborative process, as the cohesion of the group is vital to successfully achieving the desired goals. Some lawyers have raised the point that it is, at times, less relevant to their profession, as many tasks (drafting, reviewing etc) are undertaken individually. Although they will often contribute to a team effort, there is not necessarily much need for a collaborative mindset, and some lawyers would prefer to be left alone to complete their tasks, and manage their office hours, according to their individual workload. Such employees are not usually overly enamoured with team-building activities, but most firms, and their staff, value some effort to maintain an atmosphere that allows some fun and social bonding, amongst the hard work. Traditionally in the international firms this has tended to mean team drinks, dinners, and team sports; dragon boating etc. However, a number of lawyers we spoke to believed at times it was difficult organising social events that would be relevant or suitable for the diverse workforce. For example, drinks after work are more difficult for lawyers with young families, or from a culture where drinking is not the norm. There was also some concern expressed that non-attendance of social events may impact negatively on promotion chances, as associates sometimes used the occasions to forge closer relationships with partners.
These concerns aside, most of the firms with whom we spoke encouraged an active social life within the firm, and welcomed occasional celebratory events, which raise the mood of the office, in what can be a stressful environment. Events such as lion dancing, and firms encouraging their teams to bring in children to meet with Santa Claus, were particularly well received.
Training and Development
“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay” — Henry Ford
Most firms now see the need for, and have in force, some formal training and development program, in addition to associates learning from partners. But, how does this program contribute to, and maintain the firm’s culture? For many employers, this is about incorporating training that relates to the culture they wish to achieve and project, and goes to the heart of the importance of the values of the firm. Soft skills training is important, to allow technical lawyers to communicate more effectively with peers, managers, and perhaps, most importantly, with those they manage. Again, this is sometimes met with scepticism: “Why am I introducing myself while holding a yellow, sponge ball?” was the comment of one associate. But it is a more commonly held belief that communication skills, and training around diversity and inclusion, can help to ensure that the firm’s stated cultural aims are lived out each day by its people.
From wide-ranging discussions with numerous associates, partners, and business support professionals, the three main themes in regard to firm’s culture seemed to be:
The firm needs to have a strong sense of the kind of unique culture it wants to achieve
This needs to be communicated clearly from the top down
This needs to be encouraged through appropriate activities, and reinforced through training
Written by Ben Cooper
Ben is the managing director of Ashford Benjamin and is a Barrister by training. He has been providing Executive Search and career consultancy services to the legal profession for over 10 years.