The Cultural Lenses through which We Examine Law Firms

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By Gerry Riskin

Cultural differences define and influence every aspect of law firms’ operations, reputations and financial success. Describing a law firm’s culture is difficult, even for people who know the organization intimately. When asked to describe a culture, people typically resort to words like “collegial” or “democratic.” While terms like this may convey a general sense of a culture, greater definition is necessary to begin to clearly differentiate various law firms’ cultures, and use knowledge of those cultures to contribute to the management of the firms.

We have created and evolved a “Law Firm Cultural Assessment,” designed to recognize discrete differences among individual law firms and provide a more precise vocabulary to describe what those differences represent. Those differences can be be examined through these four lenses:

  • Collegiality: The manner in which people within a law firm deal with each other.
  • Strategic Focus: The degree to which the firm has a clear identity, both to itself and in relation to other firms.
  • Governance: The manner in which the firm deals with its people, and the way that its lawyers and staff deal with the firm.
  • Values: The belief systems that represent the collective aspirations of the members of the firm.

Details about law firm culture

Each lens examines a number of components, some of which are more complex than others. In fact, the comparative weight of these factors in the make-up of a culture becomes a feature of that culture.

1. Collegiality

  • Group collaboration – the ability and willingness of groups (practice groups, offices, client service teams, etc.) to work together.
  • Individual collaboration – the ability and willingness of individual lawyers to voluntarily work together on client matters.
  • Egalitarianism – the willingness of lawyers to support actions of others that are in the best interest of a client or the firm but may not be in the lawyer’s own immediate best interests.
  • Social interaction – the degree to which firm lawyers seek out opportunities to participate together in social situations.
  • Deviation – the degree to which behaviour in violation of firm mores is accepted.
  • Generationalism – the degree to which the firm’s value systems, approaches and vision differ according to age.

2. Strategic Focus

  • Horizon – the relative importance of short- and long-term implications in decision-making.
  • Ambition – the importance placed on maintaining and improving the firm’s reputation and recognition.
  • Execution – the importance placed on meeting goals and fulfilling expectations.
  • Vision – the importance placed on conveying a clear picture of the future.
  • Self-image – the importance placed on having an accurate and positive perception of the way the firm is viewed by outsiders.
  • Confidence – the confidence that members of the firm express as an institution in the accuracy of their vision and the correctness of their decisions.

3. Governance

  • Decision-making – the methods employed by the firm in reaching decisions.
  • Structure – the degree of institutional involvement in the management of individual lawyers’ practices.
  • Risk aversion – the firm’s willingness to accept risk in return for appropriate reward.
  • Communications – the degree to which lawyers are informed about the firm’s activities and issues.
  • Expectations – the degree to which lawyers and staff members have a clear understanding of what the firm expects from them.
  • Motivation – the firm’s ability to influence behaviour.

4. Values

  • Work ethic – the importance placed on how hard lawyers work in terms of time spent and hours produced.
  • Meritocracy – the degree to which personal performance is rewarded in relation to overall firm performance.
  • Responsibility – the level of control lawyers have over their client relationships.
  • Client focus – the balance of the firm’s interests compared to client’s interests.
  • Continuous improvement – the importance placed on the growth of lawyers’ knowledge and capabilities.
  • Trust – the degree of confidence by an individual that peers will not take actions adverse to that individual’s interests.

Many firms for whom we do strategic assignments incorporate a cultural assessment into the process. Some firms choose to explore their cultures on a stand-alone basis and follow up that assessment with action plans to fine-tune their cultures.

If you would like to discuss your own firm’s culture, write to us at:

culture@edge-international.com