Edge International

Do You Understand your Firm’s DNA? What Are the Good and the Bad Bits?

Sean Larkan

The DNA acronym is sometimes used with reference to the inherent characteristics of a firm or a part of the firm. Unlike the originating definition of DNA – an organic chemical of complex molecular structure which codes genetic information for transmission of inherited traits – which is fixed, the important thing about this loose use of the term “DNA” to describe firms is that it can, with effort, be adapted.

I find this quite a handy concept and tool in discussions with clients, particularly where I am trying to persuade them to adopt certain principles, systems or practices – or make them part of their DNA. A handy off-shoot is that people invariably “get it” right away. It seems to gel.

I use “DNA” quite loosely to describe the intrinsic workings of the heart and soul of an organisation – i.e., what really makes it tick or, perhaps, not tick; what helps it succeed or not.

When something good truly becomes part of your DNA, it happens virtually automatically and becomes the way things are done with little or no leadership or management intervention. In this sense it is closely linked to culture (“how we do things around here”) but I like to distinguish between them, as culture, coupled with leadership, really determines whether some things become part of your DNA or not.

This DNA concept is important and has significant ramifications for every law firm. This is because what comprises your DNA will determine your success, failure or mediocrity.

Bearing mind that a firm’s DNA can comprise good and bad bits, let us consider briefly some of the advantages of making certain principles, structures, practices and so on positive parts of your DNA:

  • People who come into the firm become quickly inducted into the way things are done;
  • People see existing people doing things in a particular way and follow suit;
  • This saves on leadership and management time, cuts back on training, and avoids micromanagement or the need to follow up;
  • In some respects, these things become a type of ritual, therefore automatic and requiring little or no discipline to get them done;
  • It saves time, which is a precious commodity;
  • It means these principles, concepts or systems walk around in the heads of everyone in the firm;
  • This sets semiformal but very powerful guidelines and standards;
  • As noted above, it is an easy way to discuss such concepts and inculcate them in a firm, as people almost immediately “get it”.

On the other side of the coin, what are some of the disadvantages of having less good things as part of your firm’s DNA? Every firm has these “bad bits”:

  • It is very difficult (if not, at times, impossible) to get rid of negative attributes, particularly if your culture is not conducive and leadership is not forceful. Getting rid of them takes some guidance, structure, possibly new systems, good leadership and management, and the right culture, and these are not always easy to source at the same time;
  • Because they are part of your firm’s DNA, the downsides are not always obvious because the firm has “always done things this way.” This can be dangerous. An obvious example would be an unconscious bias towards hiring from a particular ethnic group or gender, or even a range of schools;
  • Invariably, when steps are taken to address negative attributes regarding how you conduct business, there will be pushback from some partners who may be loathe to change how things have always been done. This is particularly true where the change may be uncomfortable for them.

What are some of the really important things you should try to make part of your firm’s DNA? Obviously, this will differ from firm to firm and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but here are some examples that should apply to most firms:

  • Every person in the firm, whether fee earner or support staff, has a particular person who is responsible and accountable for their personal well-being and professional development and success. It is astonishing how few firms achieve this in practice and, as a result, too many people “fall through the cracks” and never reach their full potential, or perform to their potential for the firm;
  • Everyone in the firm has a common and correct understanding of “brand,” and the role they can play in strengthening it. “Brand”, after all, is why people want to work at the firm, why clients want to use the firm, and why others want to refer people to the firm;
  • Self-management, responsibility-taking and accountability are sine qua non for all firm personnel, from the most junior to the most senior;
  • Every partner is responsible to build the capital fabric of the firm – i.e., contribute to what I call the foundational, long-term, fundamental and intrinsic strength and value of the firm. This is a massive challenge for most partners, who tend to think short-term and only about their practices and clients, without paying too much attention to the firm’s future or to leaving something of value behind when they one day leave;
  • No compromise on ethical standards and practices;
  • Cultural diversity in the workplace is, in the widest sense, the norm, so that the firm hires people from all sorts of different backgrounds regardless of race, religion, personal preferences and culture;
  • Being strict about hiring the right people, putting them in the correct roles, and moving on the management of people who are not well situated;
  • Everyone in the firm accepting the three key principles: accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It is surprising how powerful these obvious attributes can be when they become part of the DNA in the way everyone conducts themselves in an organisation. It also makes for a much happier workplace;
  • Outstanding support services and operations. Some may be surprised to see this one on the list, as these back-office functions are not normally given priority status or attention. However, every successful organisation today recognises the importance of ensuring that such services and operations form an integral part of their service or product offerings to clients and customers. How a law firm delivers in these areas is as important as the complex legal work done by fee earners.

What are the things you don’t want as part of your DNA?

  • Avoidance – that is, not addressing important or damaging aspects of the firm’s operations or practices. Unfortunately, this a common trait amongst law firms, even successful ones;
  • Poor working capital and data management. How many times do firms do analysis around cash flow or working capital management, report on this and get partner agreement around the need to “tackle debtors” – only to find that six months later matters are not only not improved but may be even worse?
  • Lack of diversity;
  • Lack of genuine interest in the firm’s most important asset: its people – or in the success of others in the firm;
  • A primary focus on money.

I hope this article prompts you to do an exercise whereby you try to identify the DNA of your firm. Be brutally honest about the good things and also about the not-so-good things. This exercise can form a powerful starting point to planning the future you want for your firm.