How to Challenge Norms and Build a Strong Law Firm Culture

Written by Teresa Matich10 minutes well spent
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law firm culture

When it comes to legal work, there’s a lot of pressure on attorneys to be practically superhuman. From long hours to poor work-life balance to inequitable compensation, many attorneys struggle to succeed within a law firm culture that isn’t as supportive as it could be—and that struggle holds lawyers (and law firms) back from reaching their full potential.

Creating and nurturing a law firm culture that supports lawyers (both as attorneys and as human beings) and treats everyone fairly is critical to your firm’s success. Assumptions about the inevitability of highly competitive, work-to-burnout toxic law firm culture do persist in the industry. However, challenging these norms empowers law firms to help their employees, clients, and business thrive.

In this post, we’ll explore what a strong law firm culture looks like and how to build it at your firm, guided by insights from Cynthia Morgan-Reed of Vanst Law, a law firm CEO who has consciously created a positive lawyer culture at her virtual law firm. Vanst Law won the 2019 Reisman Award for best new law firm. 

Law firm culture challenges and changes

“Unfortunately, I think a lot of people define law firm culture in what it’s not,” Cynthia said in an interview with us at the 2019 Clio Cloud Conference.

To Cynthia, there’s a problem with how we can view law firm culture as “generally not always positive and not always supportive, and generally not helpful for business development.” Instead, she suggests reframing lawyer culture as a “culture that will support you as you want to grow your business, and do business development. It will support you as a human, if you want to be a spiritual, holistic person who also happens to practice law as your career.”’

In traditional law firm cultures, it’s often assumed that prestige comes first and is the ultimate goal. Attorneys can work extremely hard to fit into a framework that values competition and working to the bone for the benefit of their practice. This can come at the expense of work-life balance, equitable compensation, and even personal happiness. 

Indeed, according to Clio’s 2018 Legal Trends Report, 75% of lawyers frequently or always work outside of business hours, with 39% of lawyers saying that those extended hours negatively impacted their personal lives. 

“It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, frankly,” Cynthia said. “And yet attorneys—because we’re very type-A, ribbon-motivated people who also want to feel prestigious—buy into it. I think if people looked at the bottom line and realized, you know, there is no wizard behind the curtain, they would perhaps look at their law firm a bit differently.”

Cynthia outlined a few other common challenges she sees within law firm cultures.

Undervalued work.

person sitting on the ground holding money

Before founding Vanst Law, Cynthia felt undervalued for her work.

“I knew that I was not being paid what I was worth at my current law firm, and I was a partner there,” she explained. “And so, at about six months pregnant, I went out and started interviewing at other law firms because I thought, ‘You know, it’s not just enough for me to have some data from colleagues and friends. I should really go figure out the marketplace myself and figure out if I could get a job that would pay more.’”

Though she found a position with higher pay, working in that traditional law firm still didn’t feel right. “I knew that would impact the rates I was charging my clients and so forth,” she said. “I decided to go out and become a solo attorney—and I did that primarily because I believed in my worth and I wanted to be paid what I was worth.”

Workplace inequality. 

Underlying inequality is another common challenge. As Cynthia noted, after she started as a solo attorney, “I still was hearing all of the stories from my colleagues and friends who were back in traditional law of the inequities they were experiencing, the discrimination based on gender and sex, and the unhappiness that they felt. And so I said, ‘There’s got to be a different model.’”

Strong law firm culture can help

Unbalanced work-life situations, undervalued pay, and issues of discrimination can fester as problems in unfettered lawyer cultures. But innovative approaches to law firm culture can be an answer—restructuring the culture from a place of strength by:

  • Rebalancing work-life for lawyers. By shifting a firm’s culture away from prestige and towards productivity and engagement, lawyers can achieve better work-life balance, avoid burnout, and feel more valued.  
  • Prioritizing equality. A workplace culture that values fair, equal treatment for all staff breeds happier, more effective employees.

By taking steps to strengthen lawyer culture at your law firm, you can be a part of this industry change—while also building a more energized, effective, and motivated workplace for your employees.

As Cynthia put it, “You can actually be a human and not have to simply work all the time and live to work, but actually just work to live.”

Steps to creating your law firm culture

Nurturing a strong law firm culture benefits both employees and the firm as a whole. When a firm has a healthy, strong lawyer culture, employees are more engaged and productive. This means employees feel better and get better results for their firm.

Here are some tips for building a strong lawyer culture:

1. Assess your current situation.

Start by taking an honest look at what your law firm culture looks like now—the good, and the less good. What will you keep? What will you change? If your firm is new or you’re considering starting a new firm, consider your experiences at previous law firms. Take a leaf out of Cynthia’s book. What aspects of lawyer culture would you keep—or avoid—from those experiences?

2. Define your values.

How to Challenge Norms and Build a Strong Law Firm Culture

A clear statement of your firm’s vision and values serves as a roadmap and creates a sense of unity among employees. Plus, the experience of creating, conceptualizing and defining a firm’s vision and values can be helpful in considering a firm’s culture. Read this post on defining your vision and values for steps to do this effectively.

3. Explore your options.

The way you run your firm should reflect your culture and what’s most important to you. There’s no cookie-cutter “best” law firm culture to emulate, so explore different law firm models and how they may serve your unique firm. 

For Cynthia, this meant embracing a virtual law firm model that reflected the firm’s values of transparency, consistency, and equity. “In the virtual model that I created, we flattened that pyramid and we created a daisy chain where everyone is treated equitably based on the fact that we’re going to be consistent with how we communicate. We’re going to be transparent with the formulas and the expectations that we have for the attorneys, and we’re going to offer a supportive culture that’s going to help them thrive with creating more business and living a meaningful life.”

To learn more about how to build and operate a virtual law firm, this webinar is a good resource. 

4. Put it in writing.

writing notes

It’s all well and good to take the time to strategize a more effective culture for your law firm—but it won’t work for the whole team if it’s all just an idea in your head. 

Write down your values and what’s important to your firm’s culture. Once you’ve articulated these on paper, make them easily accessible. Put them around the office so the values and your law firm’s culture guidelines are always in view.

5. Reassess, reevaluate, revise.

Look at your law firm culture at regular intervals to determine if things need changing. Consider giving a senior member of your firm’s team responsibility for maintaining a strong firm culture. At Palace Law, for example, Jordan Couch is a partner who has also taken on the role of cultural ambassador at the firm—so he’s accountable for ensuring the team prioritizes the firm’s culture in every aspect of the business.

“Part of my job is making sure we at Palace Law are embracing our firm culture, are hiring on it, are making decisions based on it, and are encouraging people to advocate for themselves and for our firm around our culture,” Jordan explained in this episode of Clio’s Daily Matters podcast.

6. Involve everyone.

Because it impacts everyone at your firm, developing strong law firm culture isn’t a one-person task. Involve staff and other lawyers in every stage of the process. You may be surprised at what comes up. And you may come across some great ideas for a strong law firm culture.

Law firm culture and the hiring process

coaching photo

It’s a given that you want to hire the best possible candidates to join your team. But how do you measure what makes a candidate “the best”? Keeping your law firm culture in mind during the hiring process is key. Instead of being hyper-focused on skills alone, look for individuals that also are a solid lawyer culture fit. 

Here are a few tips to consider when hiring for culture fit:

  • Showcase your culture from the start. Be clear about your firm’s culture and values in the job posting. By including these details, you’re more likely to find candidates that feel they align with the model that you’re striving for. This can also help your firm stand out to exceptional new hires that find the specific culture appealing.
  • Talk about it. By the time you’re interviewing, you’ve likely already discovered whether a candidate has the experience and skills required for the role. Use the interview to have an open discussion about law firm culture to get a feel of if the candidate’s values align with the firm’s. Ask work-culture-related and behavioral questions like:
    • What types of law firm cultures do you thrive in? Why?
    • What types of law firm cultures have not been a good fit for you? Why?
  • Seek different perspectives. Don’t get too narrowly focused on one type of person that you think might fit any particular role. Just because someone doesn’t look like you or have the same background, it doesn’t mean they won’t thrive in your lawyer culture. In fact, having attorneys with differing perspectives adds valuable experiences and points of view that can strengthen your firm. 

Conclusion: Build a strong culture for a more successful firm

A strong law firm culture is an opportunity to set your law firm apart from the pack. It clearly tellspotential clients and staff exactly what your firm stands for and the values it practices day-to-day. By building a stronger culture that aligns with the values that are important to you, you can effectively create an environment that makes lawyers more supported and motivated. When people feel like they are valued, they tend to be more engaged and productive. That’s a win for them, and for your business.

As Cynthia has shown, it’s possible to run a law firm and also cultivate happy lawyers.

“I’m trying to change the culture, and I’m trying to do that one attorney at a time, and literally it’s going to take one attorney at a time to change the culture,” she said. “So when an attorney comes and says, ‘I’m so happy,’ ‘I’m so thankful,’ ‘I’m so glad’—that makes my day.”

Categorized in: Business

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