Culture in the Law Office – Does it Matter?
Every organisation has a culture, whether you are aware of it or not. Invariably, the longer the organisation has been in existence, the more entrenched and discernible is its culture. Law offices or law firms, whatever they are called, are no different from any other business organisation. They all have a definite culture. The culture of one law office may not be identical to the culture of another law office. The culture of one law office may make working there easier and more attractive or make it less easy and less attractive. Some law offices are more adaptable than others and there may be an attitude in some that allow genuine concern about the culture of that office to influence the way that culture is shaped. Others may be so inflexible that raising the subject is tantamount to rebellion.
What is office culture?
When most people think of ‘culture’ they imagine poets, singers, music, composers, architects, language, art….not how people behave in law offices! However, culture is just as applicable to an office, any office, including a law office, as it is to a city or a nation, albeit rather more restricted in its diversity. The word ‘culture’ generally refers to the beliefs, practices and values shared by a particular group of people. Applied to a law office it is the shared values of the people who work in that office. In small law offices, one or perhaps two lawyers may be the norm and their values and ways of doing things will be prevalent throughout. In larger law offices, there will be a larger number of lawyers and many other people working with them. The law firm culture may be an inherited feature from the early days of the practice, usually formed by the founder or founders.
An office culture, unlike its furniture or electronic equipment, cannot be seen as a physical object. It cannot be touched or smelled. However, it is noticeable in the way people in that law office commonly behave with each other, how they make decisions, how they resolve problems or differences of opinions, how they achieve their goals.
If you are a newcomer to a law firm, you need to understand the culture of that firm as quickly as possible. By the firm’s culture, it is the way it actually operates, rather than a list of ‘value statements.’ Everyone is familiar with the mission statements that are usually prevalent in any reasonably sized organisation. They abound in law offices as well. Typical values that might crop up in a firm’s mission statement are things like:
- “dedication to our clients;”
- “every lawyer’s opinion is respected;”
- “we promote inclusivity;”
- “we reward initiative;”
These are general statements that don’t really reveal the true culture of the firm. You need to dig a bit deeper to find out exactly what makes the office tick.
Questions that can be asked that may reveal more about your law office culture
These are some of the ways that you can find out more about your law firm’s culture.
#1 Do your fellow lawyers show interest in each other’s successes and failures? Are successes celebrated and are problems discussed or shared?
#2 how approachable are the senior members of the firm? Are there organised ways that new associates are able to meet senior members?
#3 What great successes have the firm had in the past? Was this due to a single lawyer’s initiative and expertise or was there a collaborative approach?
#4 How fixed does the atmosphere in the office feel? Is the discussion encouraged? Does it feel that you are treading on eggshells when talking to senior colleagues?
#5 What is the attitude towards change in the office? Are trends in the law and the practice of it regularly discussed and changes suggested?
Every office has a ‘culture.’ It may take time to understand just what it is and how you need to fit into it and what room there is to influence it. Law offices have just as much an identifiable culture as any other business. Every newcomer to a law office needs to discover what that culture is to make the relationships they have in that office as smooth as possible.