Edge International


The Four Cardinal Virtues of Law Firm Culture

The Four Cardinal Virtues of Law Firm Culture

Law firm “culture” isn’t that hard to define. Culture is what people at the law firm actually do every day — or, less sunnily, what people get away with doing.

I’ve worked in organizations that struck committees to study and define the organizational culture, but that failed to appreciate that the most accurate definition of culture is what actually happens around here. A law firm’s culture is the daily manifestation of its explicit performance expectations and implicit behavioral norms — what is encouraged and what is tolerated. And the culture that a law firm develops and sustains has an impact on its productivity, retention rates, and morale — positive or negative, as the case might be.

What behaviors does your firm encourage, and what behaviors does it tolerate? If your firm is typical of the genre, it encourages:

Your firm’s culture, if typical, also tolerates:

I’m sorry to recite a list of such unpleasant cultural features. But the foregoing collection of encouraged and tolerated behaviors is so common within law firms as to virtually constitute a definition of the species. 

Whether this accurately describes your firm or not, what is indisputable is that a firm that develops and maintains a culture that prioritizes behavioral norms in polar opposition to these will be an outstanding exception to the general rule, and will accordingly reap tremendous benefits in terms of morale, productivity, recruitment, and differentiation.

If you want your firm to develop that kind of outstanding culture, you must do everything you can to encourage practical, everyday behaviors that will bring about these cultural conditions, and to apply a zero-tolerance approach to behaviors that will ruin it.

Allow me to suggest four “cardinal virtues” for law firm culture — core cultural values that law firms can and should prioritize and incentivize — along with examples of how they might be exemplified and how they would be violated.

A. Consideration For Clients. Displaying a genuine interest in, affection for, and devotion to the overall welfare of the firm’s clients.

B. Respect For Colleagues. Treating both lawyers and staff members thoughtfully, professionally, and in a collegial and kindly manner.

C. Service To Community. Contributing valuable time and real efforts to the firm’s community service commitment.

D. Care For Oneself. Paying close attention to maintaining one’s physical, mental, and emotional health, and seeking assistance when necessary.

Not all of these cultural values are easily measured in practical terms, but many of their associated behaviors can be assessed. Survey clients about whether they are happy with the level of care they received from each person in the firm. Ask colleagues and employees to anonymously assess that person’s conduct towards them and others. Ask the person to file an annual report detailing his or her community service efforts. And retain the services of a counsellor to regularly assess the health and well-being of all lawyers and employees.

Your firm’s culture is expressed by what actually happens there every day. Decide upfront what kind of culture you want, identify the behaviors that will exemplify and develop that culture, and take active steps to encourage and measure those behaviors. That’s how to make a real culture, and how to make a culture real.