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A Firm's Culture Is What Matters Most, Contributed by A. Harrison Barnes, Employment Research Institute

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

By A. Harrison Barnes, BCG Attorney Search  

Your success and happiness as an attorney may have less to do with your legal abilities than with your thoughtful choice of a firm that fits you culturally. People want to be around others they’re in sync with, and when that happens, everyone benefits.

ALL LAW FIRM CULTURES ARE DIFFERENT

Just as the work, salary, and prestige level differs among law firms, so do the cultures. Consider these variations:

Style is definitely valued over substance.

Substance is definitely valued over style.

Staff wears Birkenstocks; everyone is on a first-name basis.

Associates address partners as Mr. or Ms.

Associates make appointments with partners before speaking with them.

Partners chew tobacco in the office and during firm meetings.

Family connections are valued over ability.

Extreme secrecy with associates is considered prudent.

A solid effort over six or seven years makes an associate eligible for partner.

Associates bill 1,600-1,700 hours on a regular basis, considered a good effort.

Associates are hired and then universally encouraged to leave after five or six years of service.

Even when collapsing economically, a firm portrays itself to associates as strong and powerful.

We’ve heard about Albert Einstein flunking grade school. Perhaps he was too concerned with the theoretical over the practical. Whatever the reason, Einstein did not experience success there because the school could not understand where he was coming from. Will the attorneys in your firm understand where you’re coming from?

LAW STUDENTS OFTEN FAIL TO CONSIDER A FIRM’S CULTURE

Many law students and attorneys are motivated more by prestige and money than the cultures of the firms they’re considering. This is a grave mistake.

When evaluating offers, the greatest guarantor of success is a good fit. Unfortunately, most future attorneys don’t think this way, because they have been programmed to be driven and competitive.

Law students and practicing attorneys alike often evaluate each other based on snagging jobs at the largest, most prestigious, highest-paying firms. The pressure can be enormous. But what looks best to others is not necessarily what’s best for them.

FAILURE TO CONSIDER FIRM CULTURE CAN PREMATURELY END LEGAL CAREERS

It’s easy enough to find out about a law firm’s compensation structure or billable hour requirements, or even its prestige level. More difficult is to evaluate a firm’s culture and whether you’ll be happy there over the course of your career.

Law students graduating with a lot of student debt understandably may weigh salary heavily. However, while salary is important, choosing a firm that is the right fit for you may enhance your chances of having a stable career in the law ― and a stable life. If you go to a firm just for the money, you may wind up so disgruntled that you leave law altogether. Promising attorneys who join the largest, most prestigious firms sometimes end up doing something completely different, not because those paths intrigued them but because they could not find satisfaction at the prominent firm that was a bad cultural fit.

When considering a law firm, ask yourself, Is this a place where I’ll feel accepted? Will I be surrounded by people who share my values and goals? Will this firm complement my lifestyle?

RESEARCHING A FIRM’S CULTURE BEFORE THE INTERVIEW

Once you’ve gotten an interview, do your research: How big is the office? What is the salary? The minimum billable-hour requirements? This helps establish how well the firm is doing financially and how it has grown over time. But for the culture, you’ll have to dig a little deeper.

— Partner/Associate Ratio

Do you thrive in a collaborative yet competitive atmosphere where you can distinguish yourself? If you do you may feel comfortable where each partner has multiple associates and the partnership track relates to your performance over time. Conversely, others may prefer a place with fewer associates for each partner, where partnership is more a function of longevity than star performance. What environment will help you thrive as an attorney ― one where you are primarily assigned to one partner, or where you are free to work with a variety of individuals in a practice group?

— Diversity

All firms have an anti-discrimination policy, but some are more proactive and committed than others. Is it important that there be attorneys of color or different sexual orientations? The firm’s NALP form can provide you with that information.

— Home v. Satellite Office

Where is the firm’s main office? The personality of the main office often carries over to the satellite offices, wherever they may be. Frequently, satellite offices of large firms score big in associate-satisfaction surveys. We’ve found that some of the best opportunities for personal growth exist in satellite offices.

That said, some firms may be as different from office to office as two separate firms in the same city. Can you rely on your law-school friend in Dallas to tell you about life at the Los Angeles office? Maybe not. Find out about the firm as a whole and then how the offices relate to and identify with each other. You may prefer to practice in the head office if becoming involved in firm management is important to you over time.

Conversely, some attorneys in satellite offices feel less secure about their careers because management decisions are made remotely; likewise, satellite partners may be less confident promising promotions to their associates. Partners in a satellite office may also be uncertain about the courses of their own careers.

On rare occasion, a large firm will open a satellite to suit one particular client or practice group, only to suddenly close it based upon management decisions in the home office. When evaluating a satellite office, ask yourself (and when appropriate, your interviewers): Does the office appear stable? Who are its clients? Does it generate its own clients or serve those of the main office only? Does it have a history of promoting associates to partner?

— Office Location

Of all the factors, this can actually be the least important, since so many satellites simply reflect the home office. A California firm whose attorneys typically wear Hawaiian shirts may have a New York office with that same atmosphere; the Washington, DC, branch of a New York firm may benefit from sophisticated corporate deal work. The city is no predictor ― you’ll find laid-back firms in Chicago down the block from offices you wouldn’t think of entering without formal business attire. The key is understanding the various cultures of the firms themselves.

— Clientele

Whom does the firm represent? Young Internet start-ups, or large tobacco companies? The industries a firm targets can tell you a lot. How risk-averse is the firm? Will it represent a young company with an uncertain future? Or will it forgo business in an effort to preserve a few solid relationships with long-standing clients? How much of the firm’s revenue is based on any one client? If a law firm won’t allow a sole client to represent more than a small percentage of its overall business, you know it won’t allow its long-term economic health to rely on the companies it represents. Firms that represent entrepreneurial clients can be fast-paced and exciting, and those smaller clients may also be less conservative and crave your insight.

As firms become more institutionalized and reliant on revenue from larger clients, they become more conservative and risk averse for fear of losing those clients. That’s when associates and partners can become increasingly conservative, and a cover-your-rear mentality develops where people worry about saying the wrong thing. These cultures can represent predictability and stability that’s comforting to many associates, but the converse is true for the less risk-averse associate who may want to avoid that type of client stability.

A firm’s clients can also help shape the culture. Take dress codes. Many law firms instituted business-casual dress to attract younger, dressed-down technology clients, while in other cases white shirts and ties for men are de rigueur. Most firms try to strike a balance by staying casual during the uncomfortably hot summer months and returning to business attire the rest of the year.

— Firm Governance

Lawyers have to run the business of their law firm, and the business model they choose says a lot about the culture and core values of the organization.

The democratic firm allows each lawyer to become involved in the decision making, from new hires to compensation to long-term planning. In many large firms, democracy may include only partners, so a junior associate will not be making high-level management decisions, or even weighing in with an opinion. Nonetheless, many democratically run firms involve associates in some way, such as on pro-bono committees or participating in summer associate entertaining and recruiting. This culture, entirely inclusive, sometimes means too much administration bogging down each lawyer’s already heavy workload. Participation and integration may come at the cost of expediency or consistency.

Other law firms govern via a small, centralized committee of decision makers, resulting in greater consistency in firm vision and management. This culture, more exclusive in terms of governance, may turn off the young attorney who wants to be a part of the decision-making and planning efforts of a firm. In this model, it’s beneficial to learn how these leaders are chosen what they value.

What’s more important than the governance itself is the reason behind a firm’s business model choice. Asking partners why things are the way they are at the firm helps define a firm’s culture and vision for the future. If the goals of the business match yours, you’ve likely found a culture in which you will be happy and succeed.

— Word on the Street

Is the firm you’re interviewing with known as a sweatshop or a quality-of-life firm? Whatever you hear, don’t jump to conclusions! While hearing about others’ experience can have some value, broad generalizations about a firm’s culture are often just that. Even if a reputation is mostly on target, you may be looking to join a practice area or work with a partner decidedly unlike the overall firm culture.

What people say about a firm may help you define only in the broadest way whether you fit into the culture. For example, a “white-shoe” firm now refers to a large practice with large corporate clients with whom it has long-standing relationships. This type of firm offers security, a more formal environment, and strong ties to clients (sometimes dating back 100 years) who are unlikely to leave.

“Lifestyle” or “quality of life” firms tend to place a premium on associates having outside lives. This could mean slightly lower billable-hour requirements, or a part-time, telecommuting, flex-time, or non-partnership track. Most firms claim to value their associates’ quality of life. Don’t take these labels at face value, and investigate what that term means within a particular firm.

You may also want to look at the politics of a firm. Some firms actively recruit attorneys of various national origins, races, or sexual orientations. Others have a commitment to pro bono that rewards associates for dedication to non-billable pursuits. Many politically active firms boast partners who have held prestigious posts in elected offices. Some are famous for ties with certain parties or administrations; others have “raised” eminent judges or professors. Do the research to determine whether the firm is comprised of your kind of attorney.

LEARNING ABOUT THE FIRM CULTURE DURING THE INTERVIEW

When interviewing, the single most important way to find out what the firm culture is like is to ask. Sure, you may get the company line, but you can certainly evaluate the sincerity and enthusiasm of the response. Ask each person to describe the firm’s culture and community, and what that means to them. Ask your interviewers to compare their firm with others in the same market. Remember, all those lawyers dealt with the same decision you’ll be faced with: Why this firm? Find out how each lawyer got in front of you, and ask how they feel about their decision to practice there. These stories are gold. Plus, asking such questions will ingratiate you with the interviewer.

Your first interview may be on campus but once you are called back for an interview at the firm, look around the office. How do partners and associates treat support staff? Are doors closed or open? Do people call each other by their first names, or more formally? Note people’s work styles and compare them with yours. Old-school law firm environment, or modern team approach?

Along with this, never lose sight of the fact that you’re there to offer them something. Spending too much time wondering what the firm can do for you will get in the way of showing a potential employer what a good match you are. It’s a two-way street, so demonstrating what you’re made of is just as important as evaluating the scene.

WEIGHING THE OFFER

An offer is a firm’s way of stating that they think you are a good fit for it. A law firm will not extend an offer to someone it doesn’t like, doesn’t respect, and with whom it doesn’t want to spend its time. It’s looked at you long and hard, and it has a stake in making this work. But ultimately you need to decide if it’s a good fit for you, especially if you are lucky to have more than one job offer to consider.

Still don’t know? Ask to go back. Law firms are generally accommodating in scheduling post-offer lunches or meetings. Everyone understands that accepting a new offer is a big decision. Sometimes it’s easier to evaluate your fit when you don’t feel the pressure of performing in an interview.

CONCLUSION

Find the right culture and your job won’t feel like work. What will make the difference over time is not a $5,000 salary differential but whether you feel comfortable and appreciated.

A former attorney and law professor, A. Harrison Barnes began his recruiting career with the founding of BCG Attorney search in 2000. From these beginnings the company has grown into the Employment Research Institute; headquartered in Pasadena California, the firm comprises more than 150 employment-related websites, newsmagazines, recruiting firms, and other companies. These companies collectively serve every facet of the employment industry, ranging from niche industries such as law to low-cost, short-term temporary employment. Harrison remains personally involved in the recruiting field to this day, regularly writing motivational articles for job seekers through his website www.HarrisonBarnes.com.  

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