Want a Great Law Firm Culture? Try Copying Silicon Valley

By Jules Miller

How important is a law firm’s culture? When you’re hiring new lawyers, it’s more important than you might think.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the first step to hiring great staff starts with some serious self-reflection. Do you know why the perfect candidate would want to work for you? Answering this generally comes down to defining your unique law firm culture and values.

Employees will choose to work at your company based on the work and your brand credibility, but also based on the perceived sense of happiness and accomplishment. Your company culture will be a major factor in determining the satisfaction, or even inspiration, your employees find when working for you.

Also, hiring based on culture leads to higher retention rates. The associate attorney role is consistently ranked as the unhappiest job in America, with 77 percent of attorneys leaving a firm by their fifth year.

Study after study shows that attorneys are willing to trade salary for increased intangibles such as job flexibility, leadership opportunities, and positive company culture. If you can clearly define your culture, people who align with that culture—and who know they’ll be happier at your company—are often willing to take lower salaries to work there. On top of that, they’re more likely to demonstrate a higher degree of loyalty and better overall team dynamics.  

Finding cultural inspiration for your firm

Law firms have not historically spent much time on company culture. However, tech startups in Silicon Valley have spent plenty of time on culture, and firms looking to build positive cultures can look to them for inspiration. In the startup world, companies take culture very seriously. In a lot of ways, the jobs in Silicon Valley are actually similar to those in the legal world. In short, people work incredibly long hours in highly competitive environments with much at stake.

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The difference is that tech companies offer candidates more than just a salary. They provide professional development and a sense of meaning by creating strong cultures. They spend an enormous amount of time throughout the hiring process determining cultural “fit” before bringing someone on.

This makes a huge difference. As Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos (which was acquired by Amazon for $1 billion) likes to say, “If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.”

Your first mistake is being generic

Once you commit to clearly defining your firm’s culture, remember to make sure it’s distinct. What is different about working at your firm than at your closest competitor?

Stay away from the trap of using generic buzzwords like “excellence” and “collaboration.” These are things that all lawyers must value to be successful. What are the unique values that distinguish you from your peers? These will truly define your culture.

Some law firms have taken the time to define their culture and values, but very few articulate their unique values. Here’s a real example of one mid-sized law firm’s values:

  • Integrity
  • Client Focus
  • Intellectual Rigor
  • Collaboration
  • Excellence

Can you name which firm this is? Unlikely. This is a bad example of defining culture and values  because the words are generic and are arguably prerequisites for practicing law in general.

Can you be a successful lawyer without integrity? Can you work on a client team without collaboration? Also, “excellence” is one of the most overused buzzwords in business. It really doesn’t have a meaning beyond communicating that people want to perform well in their job.

Unfortunately, most law firms that take the time to define their values fall into this trap.

What sets your firm apart?

They best way to avoid defining your culture with generic terms is to put yourself in the candidate’s shoes. Will she know what sets your firm apart from the several other firms with which she will be interviewing? If not, keep refining and going deeper into what makes your firm unique. If this exercise seems challenging, bring in experts like Evolve Law to facilitate the process.

Defining your culture and your values takes time, but it is worth it. This exercise should be done with your entire executive team and should include input from every single employee. If you’re not sure what your culture is, it can be eye opening to ask a junior member of your team for his or her honest feedback—it likely won’t be what you expect. One person or a core team can lead the charge when drafting the description of your culture and values, but everyone at the company should provide comments.

You should strongly encourage honest feedback, even if it is negative. Every team member’s perspective is valuable and will help you gain insight into running your business better.

Make culture-sync your mandate

Once you have determined your firm’s culture, relentlessly hire based on the culture and the values that you have articulated. There are many smart, highly-skilled attorneys in the candidate pool, but finding a culture-sync is what truly makes teams gel and achieve success.

This also holds true for promoting and firing. It can be challenging to part ways with the super smart workhorse who has a short temper and is difficult to work with (unless that is your defined culture!), but taking that step will immediately improve the effectiveness of the rest of the team and demonstrate how seriously you take your culture and values.

When it comes to hiring great people, defining your culture gives you a benchmark to measure against. The next steps are to determine your methods for attracting and retaining truly amazing talent. Download Hire for Success: 5 Secrets to Growing Your Law Firm, a free guide that will help you assess your strategies for finding and hiring exceptional candidates.

Download guide now

About Jules Miller

Jules is an investor, three-time entrepreneur, ‘intrapreneur,’ and hands-on operations expert. She is co-founder of Evolve Law, a community of entrepreneurs, law firms, in-house lawyers and legal services companies dedicated to accelerating the adoption of technology and innovation in the legal industry. She is also a Venture Partner at LunaCap Ventures, an early stage venture debt fund that focuses on Veteran, women and minority founders, and interim COO of Brava Investments, a holding company investing in companies that economically benefit women. Jules was previously co-founder and COO of Hire an Esquire, a B2B labor marketplace providing an on-demand workforce of attorneys to law firms and in-house legal departments. She also spent seven years as an ‘intraprenuer’ helping companies including Ernst & Young, Salesforce.com and Tiffany & Co. to launch and grow new business units. She earned her BA from UCLA and her MSc from The London School of Economics.

Categorized in: Business

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