In my last blog I posed a simple question – is your firm’s culture putting your firm at risk? My thoughts at that time were built entirely from the law firm perspective and were focused on internal issues and lawyers’ preferences. This month I want to add to this discussion some vitally important “voices” critical to the successful evolution of any culture – those of the clients. Their perspectives link your culture to the demands/needs of the most important people to any law firm – those who pay for your services. Ignoring this connection can also put your firm at risk.
While most lawyers view their firm’s culture as an agreed upon set of behavioral norms developed between/among each other, the clients’ demands and needs must be served by the culture as well. Otherwise, the clients will notice the shortcomings and find a competitor who behaves in a manner more closely aligned with their expectations. For example, consider a law firm that is internally “selling” a lifestyle culture to recruits and laterals and has commensurately lower billable hour requirements yet externally pays full market compensation for talent because some or all of the Partners are pursuing large clients known for fast-paced transactions that often require all-niters. At some point a Partner will miss an important deadline because of this lack of cultural focus on 24/7 service. That client will be sure to tell all relevant peers to avoid your firm.
There is a broad range of cultures within law firms and an equally broad array of descriptions of these cultures. Once we get beyond all of the universally applied and equally undifferentiated adjectives (e.g., collegial, respectful, client-focused) and get to the core of the environment, we see organizations such as:
This list is not intended to be all inclusive. There are many variations on these but this is intended to be a small sample to add some structure to this post.
Now look at this list through the eyes of you largest clients. Based on what you know about their businesses, legal needs, and stated expectations for their law firms, which culture would they select for your firm? If that choice does not align with the message you are promoting internally and selling to laterals and recruits then you have a serious problem that can put your firm at risk.
Many Partners view their culture as an inward-focused description that defines a unique working environment that is shared only among lawyers. They also think they unilaterally determine the culture and everything it entails. Unfortunately, this is only half of the calculus for a cultural evaluation. Your culture determines the types of clients your firm wants because it defines the types of clients that will want your firm. As with all aspects of law firm leadership, consider the client’s voice in this important and defining discussion.