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Turn bad law firm culture into good in a single campaign

Written by: Paul Roberts
Published on: 28 Aug 2018

Turn around your bad law firm culture and increase teamwork, good will, morale, skill sets, knowledge and even innovation in a law firm with one campaign.


A while back, I was giving a talk to a group of lawyers about the theory of change management and to be honest, they didn't seem all that engaged in what is a pretty important field of knowledge to have a grasp of, these days.

Afterwards, a friend of mine, a lawyer, came over to me and saw me scratching my head and questioning exactly how good at giving a presentation I actually was. He seemed to read my mind and told me something that has stuck with me ever since.

"You have to keep it in mind that law is a ridiculously competitive profession. From the outset, they've all been competing against each other to get ahead. From uni to where they are now and where they're trying to get to. This is all new to them. Helping each other out and the idea of working as a team, as a firm, for the greater good, stuff like that... It's alien."

He shrugged, gave a sympathetic smile and left me to ponder how right he was.

Barriers to collaboration in the competitive law firm environment 

Law isan incredibly competitive environment and this can breed a great degree of excellence and profit. But it also poses problems commonly found in all firms, to some degree. These culminate into a single problem that can be defined as 'bad culture':

  • Arrogance and selfishness among individuals who have excelled in this environment, which can get out of control if poorly managed.
  • 'Politics' (read jealousy, delicate pride and rivalry etc) between individuals, teams and departments that so often gets in the way of progress and speedy decision making.
  • Problems with staff retention. Because this culture is institutionalized, it can be hard for lawyers to make a choice between firms if every place feels the same. This is one reason why money often becomes the prime motivator- if it's the same environment everywhere, they may as well get a better paycheque, right? People leave just to do the same job up the road for a few grand more. And unless a great career is guaranteed, the lack of a good culture and working environment may keep pushing them elsewhere. Even to other industries. For those trying to implement the likes of long term change strategies like continual improvement in their firm, this short termism trend in employment is a killer.
  • Poor morale. An obvious one. If everyone is out for number one, deep down, it can become a very lonely place and trust can be hard to come by. As can help. Is anyone interested in you, really? Beyond their minimum obligations? If you're lucky, you may strike it with a great team and manager but the competitiveness and its effects are always lurking.
  • Bad management practices. How often do you see great lawyers become awful managers? Probably more than you'd like. Being a good lawyer and being a good manager are two very different things. Yet time served and quality of lawyering is still a big factor when it comes to appointing managers in many law firms. Personal achievement- years worked, hours billed and complexity of work carried out is still the yardstick for advancement. Helping and leading others comes second. If at all.
  • A lack of innovation. Innovation can come from the individual, certainly, but no man is an island. Ideas in business often come from interaction and sharing with others. If everyone is looking inward and hoarding ideas for impressing the boss and nobody else, innovation is stifled.

The list goes on.

So how do you combat a centuries old culture?

How to beat to the self-interest culture

How about you use all that self interest to further benevolence by making helping others a key performance indicator (KPI). A 'hand up' metric, so to speak.

Essentially, a new personal KPI across the firm would be set, to show how much you do throughout the year to help those around you 'up'. How much you help encourage and aid each other's progression and career. How much you help make someone a better lawyer. You could even extend this to those in functions like finance, IT and marketing, if you really wanted it to be a part of your firm culture.

Sending links to helpful articles, sharing your colleagues work via social media, emailing with help on cases, recommending courses and books, inviting people to networking events, having 1:1 discussions, mentoring sessions, business idea sessions... All this is tracked by the individual and management and confirmed by those you've helped.

How much you do to help your colleagues affects your performance rating, appraisal and reward for the year. Helping others amounts to helping yourself.

Potential wins from a good working culture

  • Better knowledge sharing as people share both industry and non industry content, knowledge and experience with each other.
  • Better skill development would come from things like mentoring sessions, networking events and business idea sessions. Plus the hand upactivity itself is a development of social and managerial skills.
  • Better teamwork would come from advancement being tied to your efforts to help your team. A natural by-product would be greater team relationships in the long run.
  • Better management practice as those who perform best in this KPI would be the ones advanced into management positions. Their better KPI in this area (along with other factors, of course) would help those in charge select better candidates for roles that require aiding and developing others. This would help ensure a higher standard of future managers in the long run.
  • Increased innovation would flow for several reasons. The content shared to others could spark ideas in new minds. Deliberately thinking about ways to help others is an act of innovation in itself. Sitting down with colleagues to discuss ideas and angles about the legal industry, business practice and personal career development would see two minds or more working together and who knows what that could bring to the table? New product ideas. Better service provision. New markets to sell to.
  • Higher morale and increased staff retention from the working environment simply being better. How nicer would it be to work in a place where people are actually looking out for and actively trying to help each other be better? How would that compare to a firm that still maintains the cutthroat norm? Even if they were offering more money? I'd argue this kind of culture and practice would hold its own for many compared to how things are currently.
  • Better personal performance would still be a priority indicator for staff. Thishand upculture could have the potential to improve that too. If everyone is doing their bit to improve their colleagues, everyone should be getting better. Not only would individuals be getting help, knowledge and ideas from a colleague, but their own endeavours to help them would see their own performance increase in these areas as they see and do new things for others. For example; if you need to find a good article to pass to your colleague for your hand upKPI, you will have to read the article yourself. In doing so, you're ensuring you increase your knowledge base and perspective in the process. Improving the performance of your colleagues is having the same effect on yours. And isn't that what you need to get ahead in this world?

Courage to change

This article has been my attempt at a hand upfor those who read it. An idea to explore. Personal output and skill in case handling is, of course, of vital importance but so is working together for the common good of the firm. I believe an approach like this could work and work very well for that common good and the people chasing it.

But implementing an idea such as this would require incredible courage from those leading a firm and resolution to see it work, or else it would easily fall to the wayside as just another HR gimmick.

Would your firm be brave enough to try this? Do you think this could work? What would be required for such a campaign? Do you have a version of this in place already?

Please, let me know your thoughts.

Paul Roberts is a project communications assistant at a law firm