Rejecting Toxic Law Firm Culture: How to Create a Better Culture for Your Firm

Written by Charlie Braithwaite
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Rejecting Toxic Law Firm Culture: How to Create a Better Culture for Your Firm
High angle shot of a group of students studying in a coffee shop

It’s crunch time for law firm culture. Growing concerns and awareness of what some might term “toxic law firm culture” have peaked in recent years. 

Pre-pandemic, the worst law firm culture often came from law firms that prioritised performance at all costs. Work-life balance in many firms paled in significance to racking up fee-earning hours. More pain, more gain—right?

Not necessarily. In fact, not at all. 

The legal sector is waking up to the importance of positive law firm culture, thanks largely to The Great Resignation. Law firms are struggling to fill job vacancies, with junior lawyers report that they are burning out at record levels. The labour shortage is so severe that newly qualified associates are starting on salaries as high as £150,000 per year.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Firms that get their culture right will create better workplaces, increase employee engagement, and transform their performance levels. So, what do we mean by “get their culture right”—and how can firms begin the process

This article delves into the industry’s current law firm culture crisis, explores the importance of culture (and what happens when firms get it right/wrong), and provides a 5-step framework for creating the best law firm culture at your firm. 

Toxic law firm culture and what’s behind it

The past few years have shined a light on the legal sector’s culture crisis.

For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic made “all work, no play” cultures even less palatable than before. Putting in 80 hours a week is one thing when surrounded by colleagues, but doing so in the confines of your own home is for most people unsustainable. 

This is especially true when it comes to the younger generations. Gen Z and Millennials are less accepting of always-on, burnout-inducing workplaces—and they will happily leave a job if they don’t like their current firm’s culture. Indeed, recent surveys show that over half of junior lawyers are open to new opportunities that provide them with a better work-life balance

The alternative to a strong work-life balance and positive law firm culture can be high burnout and poor mental health.

The statistics make for grim reading: According to Law Care, 69% of all UK and Ireland-based lawyers report having suffered from periods of negative mental health, while 47% of lawyers don’t believe they received adequate support from their employers when working from home. 

In other words, the past few years have been the perfect storm. 

Lawyers have been as busy as ever, yet they’ve been cooped up in their own homes without social contact. Work-life balance has been scarce. However, the younger generations recognise its importance, so have left in droves to join firms that allow them more balance. Those who stayed have suffered the consequences: deteriorating levels of mental health. 

This sort of toxic law firm culture has necessitated a deep and immediate change for a lot of law firms. 

How law firms with the best culture operate

Rejecting Toxic Law Firm Culture: How to Create a Better Culture for Your Firm
High angle shot of a group of students studying in a coffee shop

Detail-orientated lawyers might think that workplace culture is a woolly, hard-to-measure concept. But this isn’t exactly true—strong cultures provide firms with a range of invaluable benefits. 

In great cultures, employees are engaged. They perform better, work harder, and are more loyal to the firm. In turn, unlike in toxic cultures, this reduces churn, which can be incredibly costly to both firms’ bottom lines and their overall culture.

But what makes a good culture, and what happens when firms get their culture wrong? Let’s dive into the four cultural cornerstones that create high-performing law firms. 

1. Work/life balance

More isn’t always merrier. Working lawyers to the bone might result in more billable hours in the short term, but it also increases burnout and employee turnover in the long term. One step forward, two steps back. 

Consider recent reports of junior lawyers working up to 14 hours a day. This is clearly unsustainable—so is it any surprise lawyers are leaving the profession in droves?

However, by promoting work-life balance, firms can ensure their employees are fresh, ready to go, and enjoy their work. Take Goodwin Proctor’s “Recharge on Goodwin” scheme, for example, where the firm organises and pays for their staff to go on holiday. 

Flexible working hours and easier workloads can also make a huge difference. For the latter, technology comes in useful. 

When law firms automate time-consuming tasks that drain lawyers’ time, energy, and love for their work, they help to increase job satisfaction and efficiency. Indeed, Wolters Kluwer reports that 84% of legal departments plan to increase their technology investments to boost productivity. 

2. Mental health awareness

There’s a strong link between work-life balance and improved mental health. However, no matter how hard firms try, they ultimately can’t control how their employees feel. So what can they do?

For starters, firms must understand the importance of mental health and actively encourage employees to speak about how they feel. Or, if they want to go one step further, they can take a leaf out of Baker McKenzie’s book by introducing comprehensive wellbeing initiatives for their staff. 

3. Mentorship

Unfortunately, junior lawyers often bear the brunt of toxic workplace culture. That’s not to say that senior lawyers escape it entirely, but the statistics show that younger lawyers work far longer days. They’re the ones forced to pick up the grunt work and grind it out day after day. 

While this is sometimes simply part of the job, firms can make life more bearable for junior lawyers by providing ongoing mentorship opportunities. Most lawyers will gladly tough it out in the short-term—so long as they benefit in the long-term. 

This is even more important post-pandemic. Remote working hampered mentoring opportunities, with 57% of lawyers saying mentorship has taken a hit at their firms since the pandemic began. 

By providing mentorship opportunities, firms can upskill their junior staff while keeping them engaged and productive. Win-win. Consider that 91% of employees with mentors are happy in their jobs. Mentorship doesn’t even have to be formal or prescriptive—72% of millennial lawyers say that informal mentorship has been fundamental to their career success. 

4. Recognition and rewards

Legal work can sometimes be a slog—that’s unavoidable. But it’s all worth it if lawyers are recognised and rewarded for their performance. 

Firms should actively celebrate employees who go the extra mile, whether individually or by supporting their colleagues. Firms can’t let dedication and hard work go unnoticed. If they do, employees who consistently go above and beyond will begin to feel disillusioned. 

By publicly recognising and rewarding great work, firms will incentivise all their staff—from paralegals to named partners—to consistently raise their performance levels. 

5 steps to building the right law firm culture

Enough of the theory—let’s dig into the five steps firms can take to build a winning culture. 

1. Take stock of your current culture

As management consultant and all-round business guru Peter Drucker once commented, “What gets measured gets managed”. Therefore, if you want to improve your firm’s culture, you must measure what it’s currently like.

Start by seeking out feedback. Ask your team to complete anonymous employee surveys—this will encourage them to speak truthfully. 

Ideally, include a mix of quantitative (e.g. “on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate our culture as things stand”) and qualitative (e.g. “How can we improve our culture moving forward”) questions. 

Seek out negative feedback—this exercise is pointless otherwise. It might be painful to hear, but you can’t create a better law firm culture by sweeping problems under the rug. 

2. Identify what is/isn’t working

Once everybody has completed the survey, evaluate the answers. Pay attention to what your junior and your senior lawyers have to say. The answers to your survey will clearly demonstrate what your firm’s doing well, and most importantly, what you need to improve moving forward. You can then identify high-priority issues that you should fix as soon as possible. 

3. Define your vision and values 

Work out what your dream firm looks like, defining your vision and values. Keep the survey answers in mind when doing this. If your colleagues all complain about a lack of work-life balance, don’t conjure up a future where your staff all gladly work 80 hours a week and never complain. 

Remember: make your firm’s culture distinct. 

As Jules Miller, Co-Founder of Evolve Law, states: “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 are what really define your culture.”

For more tips on how to define your vision and values, check out this blog post.  

4. Work out how to get there

What do you need to do to get where you want to go?

Make sure you involve everybody in this process. Those at the top might set a firm’s culture, but it only survives if everybody buys in. “One person or a core team can lead the charge on drafting the description of your culture and values, but everyone at the company should provide comments,” comments Jules Miller. 

Remember: you can’t impose a specific culture on employees who are unwilling or unable to fulfil your vision. 

Set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timebound) goals when creating your firm’s cultural roadmap. Perhaps you want to improve employee retention rates by 25% next year. Or maybe you want 75% of employees to say they’d recommend working at your firm when you complete your next employee survey. 

Setting SMART goals makes it easier to understand what you’re trying to achieve, by when, and to know when you’ve achieved it. 

5. Reassess, reevaluate, revise

Building your culture isn’t a “set it and forget about it” activity. Culture is an ever-evolving beast that takes a life of its own unless it’s constantly monitored, measured, modified, and maximised. 

Prioritise law firm culture to transform performance 

We hope you’ve found the 5 tips listed above helpful. However, remember that you’ll only unlock the benefits of having a great culture if you make it a priority moving forward. 

Understand the impact that culture has on other key metrics, including employee engagement, performance, and revenue. Therefore, by optimising your culture, you can maximise your law firm’s performance. 

So, what are you waiting for? The time to create the best law firm culture is today. 

Categorized in: Business, Professional Development, Wellness and Mental Health