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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

How You can Assess a Law Firm’s Culture… Quietly

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Many law firms are attempting to “create” or advertise their firm’s culture by reference to the perks they offer.

Apply to work with us and get your birthday off, free Friday drinks and the best blue pens on the market!

While I do enjoy a good quality pen, it’s got nothing to do with culture.

The Challenge about Culture

Unfortunately assessing culture is very difficult for most job candidates.  Usually you’re just desperate to find a job – the chances you’re going to ask hard questions or ask to speak with people who aren’t presented on a silver platter are pretty slim.

You want a job.

You don’t want to rock the boat.

So what can we do about it?

Why Bother?

My guess is that most people spend more time researching their next phone then they do researching the firm that they might spend 20 years of their life at.

Not very smart.

I suspect it’s not because they don’t want to know more, but because they’re simply not sure how to go about it.

So to give you a helping hand, we’re going to take a look at one way to assess a law firm’s culture from the outside.

Want to Assess a Firm’s Culture? Look Up

The culture of a law firm is inevitably tied to the behaviour of its senior staff.

An important distinction here: it’s tied to the behaviour of its senior staff, not the policies written by the HR department.

Don’t fall for the “we’ve got a policy about that” trap. Policies have nothing to do with culture at all.  There are a tonne of firms who have policies which bear no resemblance to the actual behaviour of their people.

The reason that culture reflects the senior lawyers is fairly simple – it’s about how the firm was built in the first place.  Here’s how many firms came to be:

  1. A lawyer, or a group of lawyers with common approaches, decided to start a firm
  2. They opened their doors and saw some success
  3. They started hiring more lawyers – often from a pool of people they knew already
  4. Those lawyers started behaving like the founding partners – because in a small firm that’s what you need in order to survive
  5. Every new lawyer gradually copied the M.O of those who had come before.

People who don’t fit the mould normally leave the firm or are booted out.

Thus: culture is born.

A system where the unspoken rules, customs and behaviours of the firm are essentially self-managed.  Outliers don’t last too long, with rare exceptions. People become more senior in the firm only if they largely reflect the culture that was already there.

So we need to look up. But how do we do it?

Ignore the Firm’s Website

The absolute last place you’re going to find anything helpful is on the firm’s website.

The only useful information you’ll get there is a list of the partners’ names. Everything else can usually be ignored.

Start with People

Of course the best way to find out about a firm is to ask somebody who:

  1. works there; and
  2. you trust.


In doing that though, you need to ask the right questions if you want to find out about culture.  Just asking “what’s it like” is a complete waste of time.  They’ll say “yeah it’s alright” and that will be the end of the discussion. Ask more detail, specifics – find out what a day is like, who they work for, how people speak to each other, what kind of language people use, how the professional staff treat the non-professional staff.

But let’s assume you either can’t bring yourself to do that or don’t know anyone.

Enter… Social Media

If you can assess culture by assessing the senior lawyers, then here’s your job:

  1. find out who the senior lawyers are;
  2. see what kind of stuff they do publicly.

LinkedIn – Spy Mode

Make a list of all the senior lawyers you care about at the firm. This might be just the partners, or it might be the members of the group you’re looking to join. Chances are you’ll find their names and pictures somewhere on the firm’s website.

Next, head on over to LinkedIn. If you care about not being “seen” to spy on people, then adjust your settings so that people can’t see your profile information while you’re surfing.

Type in Spy Target 1’s name to the search bar at the top of the page and head to their profile.  Let’s assume you’re spying on me.  Here’s what you will find:

chris hargreaves linkedin profile

So why do we care?

Because, with a little attention to somebody’s LinkedIn profile we can find a lot about what kind of person they are.

And if we can get data on a few people in the same firm, we can start to get an impression of what the firm is like and the kind of people that work there.

Naturally you’re going to be making some snap decisions here, based on impressions rather than facts.  However, the more people inside a firm you can look at, the better picture you’ll get of what the firm does and doesn’t tolerate, and what kind of people hang out there.

Their Headline

A person’s headline will tell you:

  1. what they think of themselves
  2. whether they are trying to be “markety” in the way they describe things – eg “I help people solve problems” rather than “Senior Associate at [Firm]”
  3. whether their firm allows a sense of humour or not

Their Summary

You’ll probably get some similar, but more detailed, information here.

If this is just a cut and paste from their law firm website, then perhaps:

  1. their marketing team might have done it
  2. they don’t use LinkedIn much or don’t care to
  3. they are a bit boring.

Again – look for humour, self-deprecation, marketing talk, bombastic language and any phrases or words that give you a clue about the lawyer in question.

If they use Latin in their profile summary, then that probably says something about them…

Where the Rubber Hits the Road – Their Articles and Posts

[clickToTweet tweet=”You can’t assess culture with policies, perks, pay or parties.” quote=”You can’t assess culture with policies, perks, pay or parties.”]

While the headline and summary will give you a snapshot about a person, the best way to find out about them is by looking at what their activity is.

Why?  Because while most people think about their headline and summary and “craft” them in a deliberate way, many people don’t appreciate just how public their “likes”, comments and shares are. As a result, they are much less guarded and deliberate, and can often give you more accurate and honest information about someone.

How to find it? Head to somebody’s profile, and scroll to the part that says “[Person’s] Activity”.  Then click “See all activity”.

From there, you can quickly scroll through looking at the posts they have liked, written and commented upon.

Last – Compile, Collate, Assess

Just like you would if you were gathering evidence for a client, once you’ve done this enough (or until you get sick of it) you will be able to get a “feel” for the people in the firm.

Did you notice any trends in your assessment?

Are the people you looked at consistently:

  1. funny
  2. arrogant
  3. serious
  4. mild
  5. kind
  6. mean
  7. swearing
  8. polite?

Remember – Culture is People

You can’t assess culture with policies, perks, pay or parties.

You can only assess culture with people.

Happy Lawyering!

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