Is culture something entirely different?

Here’a a working hypothesis for today’s conversation: you can’t help it – every firm has a culture. However, for law firm leadership the concern should be less about good versus bad, and more about ensuring a culture that is aligned with the aspirations of those wth whom you wish to share the advernture of partnership.

This seems worth discussing, given the excessive rate of partner churn in so many law firms today.

Partner Turnover, Growth and Stability

What causes a firm like K&L Gates, according to American Lawyer, to be the “number one gainer” of partners in 2009, but in 2011 they were the “number one loser” of partners, and the “number two loser” of partners (percentage wise) for the five year period 2009-2013?

I suggest the answer lies in firm culture.

But as I mentioned above, this is not a good versus bad issue. Culture – as fuzzy as it sounds — is how a firm is day to day. What its behaviors are, what it feels like and what it cares about. There is a strong correlation between a firm’s culture and what it most values. Not what it says about these things on the website or in recruiting materials; but where investments are made and stakes put in the ground. Eloquent copy describing a shared commitment to client service, community, collegiality, and collaboration are common. There is often a world of difference between what the website says and what the law firm is.

In fact, a keen focus on certain of these firm characteristics may make a culture a better fit for one individual than the next; but there is nothing inherently wrong with any of them. Cultures vary greatly. For example:

One firm may be family orientated, committed to a serious balance between work and personal life in an environment that provides quality services to clients while earning a reasonable level of income;
Another firm might be committed to driving the greatest level of profitability possible; in this culture there exists the expectation of a continual sacrifice of personal time in order to yield those profits.
There are obviously countless variations between these two extremes; but the point is that they are both cultures. Neither is good nor bad. A person attracted to one is not likely to be attracted to the other. It is reasonable to think that one landing in or recruited into a culture that does not align with personal values and objectives will not last long in such a firm.

Without regard to the type, firm cultures range from strong to weak. Those with strong cultures have a high degree of consistency between their behaviors, policies, procedures and practices. They hire, train, recognize, promote and compensate in ways that further strengthen that culture.

Weak cultured firms are the opposite. There is little consistency in what they do and how they do it.

Strong Culture Is No Accident

A strong culture does not just happen. Leaders of those firms have an understanding of what is important to partners, and direct the development of the firm in a manner that progressively builds on and strengthens culture.

A strong culture helps shape and define successful hiring (hires that further strengthen the firm for an extended period of time) at all levels of the organization. To maximize success in hiring, a firm must understand its own culture and have the skills to draw out the aspirations and values of prospective hires.

So back to K&L Gates and firms like them — the more rapidly a firm grows the more difficult it is to maintain culture and hire in a manner that consistently reinforces that culture. Think about the challenges a firm faces when it is on the acquisition fast track. Each incoming group of laterals brings varied practice and cultural make-ups. At the same time injecting lateral hires with varying aspirations . The successful integration of those firms and individuals is very difficult, if not impossible.

So my theory for the day is two fold; firms that have a strong culture and knowingly recruit individuals and groups with values and aspirations that align with that culture will enjoy the benefits of a higher retention rate. Those that have a weak culture (probably synonymous with but not exclusive to rapid growth) will continue to have a high rate of turnover . And, if you are going to grow extremely fast, you’d better be extremely profitable…because compensation is likely to be the only glue that will hold those hires in your firm.