Circling in the wings around almost any discussion of management and leadership issues in law firms, sometimes touted as a virtue above all others and sometimes only alluded to with caution, as one would might a wraith, is the issue of a firm’s “culture.”

A few observations about culture in Law Land:

  • Firms and their lawyers invoke “culture” on the order of, I’d guess, 10—100 times more often than is customary in any other for-profit industry I know of. We are positively obsessed by it.
  • It is always and everywhere: (a) highly distinctive to our firm; (b) collaborative; (c) collegial; (d) a key reason clients hire us; and (e) a key reason people work here.
  • You think I’m kidding about “collaborative” and “collegial?” A Google search on “law firm culture collaborative collegial” returns 7,220,000 results.
  • When asked to describe the firm’s culture in terminology that’s not functionally interchangeable with that of every Tom, Dick, and Harry law firm, we are struck mute.

Nevertheless, far be it from me to deny that there is something, after all, to the notion of a firm’s “culture.” I choose to believe two things about it, however.

First, your firm’s culture is just about the very last thing a client would cite when explaining how they chose to work with you (or not). The reason is simple enough: Clients choose law firms, and lawyers, based on perceived value and benefits to them, and your firm’s culture is completely irrelevant on that score to clients. Yes, there are characteristics we may reflexively lump under “culture” which provide tangible client benefits, but they actually have nothing to do with culture at all. Clients care about:

  • Whether they’re hiring a bunch of really nice people they enjoy spending a lot of time with to work through a matter in close coordination, or whether they’re hiring nasty, alpha predators to teach somebody a lesson. (There are degrees in between, but you get my drift.) This is not culture: This is personality type and disposition.
  • For matters that cross practice areas and/or geographies, whether your firm’s partners cooperate readily internally and play nicely among yourselves, so that the best lawyer at your firm for that exact matter gets the actual assignment and it’s not hoarded by the solitary partner who signs the bills—if it’s that type of matter. This is not culture: This is usually determined by compensation structure and incentives.
  • Alternatively, for matters where a name brand hired gun is what the client is looking for, that they can hire that pistol-packing individual and have them and them only run the matter. This is not culture: See above.

Finally, a very simple thought experiment: When was the last time you heard a corporation cite its “culture” as a reason to patronize its products or services? Have you ever heard, say, Procter & Gamble or Ikea, or for that matter BMW or Giorgio Armani, use that as part of their pitch? Preposterous, and rightly so. Clients, my dear, just don’t give a damn.

Still.

We need to be able to talk about “culture” in sharper, more pointed, and more trenchant ways. Because it does matter. It matters to the ultimate question facing any organization: Its very survival.

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