Vulture culture

Tackling this subject, I admit, may simply be an excuse to achieve a long-held goal of using an Alan Parsons Project album as a post title. (Next up: finding a way to smuggle in a Supertramp reference.) But in truth, I was pointed in this direction by a couple of recent developments that revisited the well-worn topic of “law firm culture.”

The first was the most recent Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory, which confirmed the increasingly evident fact that for midsize and large law firms, Winter’s Here. Among the report’s contents was this warning:

“Law firms discount or ignore firm culture at their peril … the leaders of a firm whose partners pride themselves on their dedication to public service, a culture of collegiality and tolerance, and a commitment to share profits in a fair and transparent manner should acknowledge the importance of this culture to the firm’s success so far.”

I would be hard-pressed to find a sizeable law firm that demonstrably fits this description in reality, not just in its partners’ imagination. As Steven Harper points out, almost everything about large firms’ strategy and behaviour over the past several years can be described in precisely the opposite terms.

Law firm “culture” isn’t that hard to define, really. Culture is what people at the firm actually do every day. In harsher terms, it’s what people get away with. Culture is what actually happens. A law firm’s culture is the daily manifestation of its performance expectations and behavioural norms — what is encouraged and what is tolerated. So it’s not a matter of law firms “ignoring” culture — every firm has a culture, and most firms’ cultures are remarkably and depressingly similar. It’s a matter of recognizing that the culture that a law firm develops and sustains has an impact on productivity, retention and morale — in many cases, a catastrophic one.

“Collegiality” deserves a closer look, because almost every law firm insists that it maintains a “collegial” atmosphere. Stephen Mayson accurately points out that at most law firms, this is nonsense, driven by a misunderstanding of what “collegial” means:

Typically, partners are confusing collegiality with friendliness and sociability. Collegiate organisations make decisions in the long-term best interests of the firm, they are collaborative, and no individual is more important than the firm. What I hear described, though – most often in firms that claim to be collegiate – is an environment where personal and local interests are usually pursued in preference to the firm’s objectives. Work-hogging, and a refusal to cross-sell, are prevalent, fed by a personal billing and client origination culture. These firms are often low-trust partnerships, where it is not unusual for high billers to hold the firm to ransom or to throw their toys out of the pram when it looks as though they might not get their own way. This is collegiality?

It is not. But it is the culture of the typical law firm — the behaviours that are encouraged or tolerated.

The second development arose from my attendance at the Feeney Lecture at the University of Ottawa Law School, delivered this year by Mitch Kowalski on the subject of the changing legal marketplace. I was struck by the consistent and even predictable reactions from panellists and audience members to Mitch’s portrait of the legal profession’s future, which included a prominent role for “non-lawyer” owners and service providers.

Among the objections was the classic concern that law firms run by “shareholders” or in a “corporate manner” would see their standards and professionalism fatally compromised, and that — wait for it — the “collegial” nature and professional “culture” of law firms would be lost. See the foregoing paragraphs, especially Stephen Mayson’s diagnosis, and tell me precisely what it is that’s at risk here. Tell me how equity partners are any different, for all practical purposes, from non-lawyer equity shareholders. Tell me how the “de-equitization” of “underperforming” partners now being carried out by hundreds of lawyer-owned law firms across North America and Europe is an exemplar of professionalism and collegiality.

I would like to suggest that our positive (if not vibrantly self-admiring) vision of “law firm culture” belongs more to the realm of myth than to reality. There is nothing about an enterprise owned, operated and populated by lawyers that makes it markedly better than any other enterprise, and quite a bit that makes it noticeably worse.  The sooner we shake off our misconceptions in this regard, the sooner we can address, in an honest and grown-up way, what will happen when lawyers are no longer the only (or even the dominant) decision-makers in private legal enterprise. Miguel Pereira and Fergus Payne argue persuasively that law firms possessing an “ABS culture” will be focused primarily on financial performance — a state of affairs that is, in reality, no different than how today’s lawyer-owned law firms approach things. We’d be well-advised to remove the plank from our own eye before hunting for specks in anyone else’s.

Culture is important to law firms, but not in the way lawyers think. We cite “culture” as a bulwark against the unprofessional and uncollegial forces of the corporate, non-lawyer world, as a filter that differentiates us from the crowd. In reality, it seems to me, the tendencies we think we’re locking out with “culture” are often the very things we’re actually locking in.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.


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