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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, Employment Research Institute

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

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