Is Your Firm’s Culture a Toxic Cesspool?

When I decided to approach the topic of bad law firm cultures, I assured myself that I would do so with a reasonably balanced and moderate view.

With that in mind, the words “toxic cesspool” were pretty much mandatory for the title.

Before we leap into the fray here, I want to clarify what we’re talking about.

You cannot develop a good law firm culture by writing more policiesClick To Tweet

I’m not talking about bullying.

Although bullying will certainly contribute to a toxic firm culture, it’s probably a topic in and of itself.

I’m more looking at the intangibles of firm culture – the kinds of firms where you could easily walk in and think that everything was normal, only to find after a few years that you had lost the will to get up in the morning and want to leave the profession entirely.

What you’re going to find (if you haven’t already) is that what a law firm says about it’s culture, and what the culture actually is, are sometimes very different things.

What is Law Firm Culture?

Defining it is hard enough to start with, but Google always gives a good place to being.  I like the definition of culture that looks like this:

the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society

Culture influences everything inside a law firm.

For the good.

And for the bad.

Culture can be responsible for a firm who excels in service delivery. Or expertise in the law.

It creates firms that “feel” a particular way: fun, serious, hard working, casual, quirky, demanding.

But where does it come from? And where does it NOT come from?

Some Things that Don’t Influence Law Firm Culture at All

Policies.

I don’t care how many policies about staff, hours, interactions, birthdays, leave, complaints, supervision, training and snorkeling your firm has: none of them have any impact at all on your firm’s culture. Sorry HR – but you know it’s true.

Perks.

Perks don’t make up for toxic culture. Having your birthday off doesn’t make up for the fact that you don’t want to come back the next day. Nor do Friday night drinks, extravagant parties or hefty bonuses.

At least – not after a while.

Pay

Similar to perks, although being paid a weighty salary is a strong motivator for a time, it’s not going to last for too long in the face of an otherwise awful environment. Money is both nice, and necessary – but sanity is nicer and extremely critical.

So Where’s it Come From?

Consider where most firms begin.

A person, or some people, decide to open a firm.

They have ideas, mannerisms and habits that inform the nature of their fledgling business. They talk in a particular way, act in a particular manner, and work using a unique style.

As they grow, they hire lawyers to join their team. Some lawyers fit in, and others don’t. The ones that do are the ones who are a “good culture fit” – meaning they mostly agree with the general philosophies that already exist about how to talk, act and work.

Over time, those things that initially were based on the personalities of the founding partners simply become the norm.

They are enshrined in the way the firm functions. The firm develops a reputation for X, Y and Z – and people who work well in an environment of X, Y and Z have a tendency to last longer, work better, and be more effective employees.

And so a law firm’s culture is born.

What Turns a Law Firm’s Culture Toxic?

I think it’s important to consider the word “toxic” in more detail here.

Chocolate, while delicious and relatively harmless to you and I, is toxic for a dog.

And so it is with law firm culture. Just because you find a culture toxic, doesn’t mean that it’s objectively toxic to everyone. It might be, but not necessarily.

But human nature suggests a few ways where a firm culture can become unpalatable.

You’re going to see that most of my examples come back to one thing: leadership. The fact is that culture is almost always a by-product of the leaders of a firm. The ways they talk, act and work are replicated over and over again by the people that work for them. Their opinions become societal norms, and it’s often up to them to try and address cultural issues.

Magnification

One workaholic in a law firm startup might be needed. Perhaps 2 or 3 while the firm finds its legs in the first few years.

But what happens if every staff member, day in, day out, for the next 10 years is expected to put in the same 20 hour days that were required at the start?

A simple short term requirement has become a cultural norm. Those who don’t do it at frowned upon or feel like they’re letting the team down. They quickly leave, and the rest remain exactly at they have been – tired.

Many things are small levels multiplied to greater degrees become problem areas. Taking the foibles of an individual and applying them (usually not on purpose) to the “way things should be” is a recipe for disaster.

Taking Hands Off the Wheel

Sometimes cultures turn south because the leaders take their eyes off the ball.

Perhaps the firm is growing fast and they haven’t taken the time to be deliberate about developing their culture.

Perhaps they have no management skills and aren’t aware that it’s something they need to take care of.

And perhaps they simply aren’t very observant.

Whatever it is, if the leadership of the firm doesn’t engage, or doesn’t care, then culture can quickly take a turn for the worse.

Doing it On Purpose

Sometimes toxic cultures exist precisely because that’s what somebody has decided should exist.

Some partners of law firms want their staff to work 20 hours a day.

They can’t say it out aloud, because that’s not cool anymore, but they can create an unspoken norm – a culture – of being a workaholic being the only way of doing things.

It’s not that common.

But it definitely exists.

Sometimes It’s Not the Whole Firm

Bigger firms in particular have sub-cultures, but it can happen anywhere.

Perhaps the lawyers act one way, and the non-lawyers act another.

Perhaps accounts is different to marketing is different to support staff is different to the mail room.

Maybe the Building and Construction team has a shocking culture and a constant staff churn, but the Banking and Finance team are a tight knit group of long term employees who genuinely love coming to work each day.

This is why believing the law firm rhetoric about how great their firm culture is can be a trap – a firm might “mostly” have a great culture, but until you know the team itself you don’t really know anything for sure.

Can you Influence your Firm’s Culture?

There’s a thought.

Just because you’re not the managing partner doesn’t mean you can’t influence the firm’s culture at all. Sure it’ll be hard, and possibly ineffective, but it’s worth a shot.

Feel like your firm should be friendlier? Then be friendly.

Don’t think that the constant swearing is good for the soul? Then keep your own language clean and positive.

Finding people anything-ist? Then ensure you’re the opposite.

In short (and via cliche):

be the change you want to see in the world your firm

So What to Do if you’re Trapped in a Bad Law Firm Culture?

This is a very hard situation for a junior lawyer.

I realise that you probably need a job and it was probably hard to get the one you have.

There are no hard and fast rules for this kind of thing, because the nature of “toxic” is so subjective.

Here are a few thoughts in no particular order:

  • talking to HR about it is probably a waste of time;
  • consider the source of the issue – is it you, your boss, your colleagues – and try and articulate the real problem
  • from there consider whether a change of your own attitude might be needed
  • in doing so, get input from a trusted mentor or colleague
  • don’t waste time and energy whinging to everyone you meet about it – it rarely accomplishes anything and doesn’t help you improve your situation
  • if it’s a culture issue and not simply a side-effect of legal practice, then don’t assume that you’re not cut out to be a lawyer
  • if you’re going to quit, try and find a new job before you do
  • don’t let your feelings about your workplace interfere with your duty to your client – your professional integrity is important and it’s not something you want to lose.

 

What would you do? What have you done?

Happy Lawyering!

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