Workplace culture can be a powerful glue that holds teams together. It can also be fragile, and it needs to be nurtured. The Brief finds out how law firms can maintain their values and ensure consistency across their teams.

The days when the values of many law firms began and ended with “maximising profit per partner” are long gone. Most of the businesses to which The Brief speaks appear genuinely committed to making a difference both for their clients and their people.

If anything the pandemic has accelerated this and, although universal home-working created obvious challenges to the maintenance of workplace culture, the efforts made by many firms to hold regular online social events often added to cohesion. So did the fact it was as easy to hold a video conference with a colleague in another city, or country, as with someone who would usually sit in the same room.

However, the nature of the legal sector, with many different practice areas, some of which never overlap, can create challenges. A history of mergers and acquisitions, and the habit of entire teams to decamp from one firm to another following a lateral hire, further complicates matters.

So, how do legal businesses successfully establish and maintain a meaningful firm-wide culture?

Establishing values

Julie Norris, regulatory partner at the London firm Kingsley Napley, says the first step to nurturing a positive workplace culture is to establish what the actual values of the organisation are by “conducting an audit of cultural values, bottom up and top down”.

Once the firm’s real values have been identified, she continues, they may need to be “distilled”, particularly if silos have developed within the firm or “there are structural impediments to a unified culture”.

Structural issues

According to Norris, “Certain structures in law firms create real problems for owners and managers in trying to embed the firm’s values across the piece. We can see this most obviously when a firm merges or takes on a lateral hire, but it can also pose a risk when a firm has multiple offices or even when different teams work differently and espouse different values.

“There is no one solution to this conundrum, but all solutions begin and end with communication. Communicating first to establish any points of difference and, thereafter, to ensure the values of the firm feature in all that is said and done by senior management, and all those that work in the firm.

“Culture needs to be a focal part of the firm’s risk management strategy.”

At a practical level she also recommends including the firm’s values as part of appraisal KPIs.

Fostering engagement

Norris is not alone in focusing on communication and measurement. Sarah Goulbourne, co-founder of gunnercooke, says, “Culture is incredibly important to us as a firm and is the main thing that sets us apart from other businesses operating in our [fee sharing] model.

“We have four main values: innovation, teamwork, brilliant client service and ‘nudge’, which means we don’t tell people what to do but we encourage them to come with us.

“During the recruitment process, candidates are not only interviewed on their business plan, but on their values, to ensure these are in alignment with gunnercooke’s, signing a copy of our Values Charter before joining. Our ‘Measuring Stick’ initiative aims to assess engagement with lawyers when they join the firm, and again after three and 12 months.

“Other communication tools include an internal magazine, a regular email newsletter and an intranet, where we share positive stories and good news from across the firm. The leadership team regularly check in with both new and old partners, and staff surveys are undertaken to help evolve our initiatives and culture with everyone’s input.”

Goulbourne is also conscious of the risk of silos developing. She says, “Now that the fee share model is becoming an increasingly popular choice for lawyers, we are seeing more people join alongside their full team, which is fantastic.

“To avoid working in silos we encourage collaboration, cross-referrals and teamwork across different practice areas, teams and jurisdictions, and many of our partners work with multiple partners, associates and paralegals on a regular basis.”

Collaborative culture

Excello Law is another new-model firm and, according to its HR and recruitment director Jo Losty, was established with a business model and core values that were based on founder George Bisnought’s personal experiences as a solicitor working in private practice and industry.

She says, "From day one, we dismissed the hierarchies, billing targets, office politics and competition between partners and teams that can foster stress and negativity and instead focused on our four key values of integrity, excellence, happiness and agility.

"By giving lawyers the complete freedom to manage their working day as they choose, to let them decide who they want to work for and the fee structure they wish to charge, you create a more engaged and collaborative culture. Lawyers are empowered to develop client relationships, rewarded for referral work, and trust the experience and seniority of their colleagues.

"Although our lawyers can choose where they work, we have developed a national network of nine free-to-use offices which provide venues for teamwork, networking and social events. Outside of lockdown, we have an active events calendar with good opportunities for lawyers to meet up and get to know each other better.

“This also includes more structured events such as practice group meetings and training events, as well as our national conferences, but there is always a big element of fun. During lockdown we worked hard to keep those opportunities going from virtual coffee mornings, book club, and our hotly contested Excellar Awards, awarded for the best lockdown pictures and other ideas.

"But ultimately culture is led from the top. We foster a supportive and more relaxed style.  From our communications and branding – light, colourful, engaging – to the culture of recognising success, expressing thanks and having fun, everything we do is focused on keeping what we believe to be a very special culture alive."  

A quiet word

Both Excello and gunnercooke are new model firms, established this century by founders who had a clear idea of how they wanted their businesses to operate. Many law firms, though, have long histories and will often still harbour individuals who don’t buy into notions of shared “culture” or “values” – people who have always done it “their way” and don’t see any reason to change.

In these cases Norris says it is incumbent on senior management to make their expectations clear. “There can be a lot of weight behind a message from the senior leadership team or a quiet word from the senior partner to explain that this is not how the firm behaves or does not align with the firm’s shared values and workplace culture.

“Remember that positive peer pressure can often be effective in these situations,” she concludes.

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