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Law firm management

Shifting the culture of law firms

REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Culture typically is the most difficult of the five SmartLaw pillars (clients, culture, data, process, and technology) to tackle. With client focus and intelligent use of technology, firms can more easily decide on some key policies, implement and enforce those, and expect to begin to see some results from the efforts in short order.

Culture is different. Culture cannot be dictated, determined, or directed. Firms can implement policies intended to influence the desired culture, but unlike client focus or technology, culture is the product of something else.

As we adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, there is a greater need for firms to consider their culture. Moving toward a new normal—it’s an opportune time to assess and determine what permanent operational changes should be implemented.

Culture happens when people collaborate

The SmartLaw concept is intended to create a discussion within the industry, and more importantly, your firm. SmartLaw is not prescriptive. There’s no specific type of culture that works for everyone. Every firm will have differences—and that’s a good thing.

As explained in ‘The future of law—technology and more’, the framework of SmartLaw has five parts that overlap and work together. At the very least, a firm’s culture must support a client focus and intelligent use of technology. And to create a culture, people need to be collaborative. And therein lies the problem in a lot of instances.  Most people in law firms work in silos—true at every level. Partners may come together to work on a certain matter, but for the most part, partners compete as much as they cooperate. Associates are in clear competition with their peers from day one. Information technology, knowledge management, and business development teams typically work in parallel as if for different companies. And most importantly, there are lawyers and ‘non-lawyers’. And never the twain shall meet.

The term ‘non-lawyer’ needs to disappear

Does Memorial Sloan Kettering refer to their nurses and orderlies as ‘non-doctors’? Does Goldman Sachs call their quants ‘non-bankers’?

So why use a term that can be perceived as dismissive and demeaning, such as ‘non-lawyer’, and set the tone that the term is acceptable behaviour by those in your firm? Regardless of the culture you have or aspire to, you can start building a modern, inclusive, and healthy culture by removing ‘non-lawyer’ from your firm’s lexicon.

And this terminological excision is not simply an act of political correctness. It’s a reflection of the important role that businesspeople, technology experts, and support personnel of all disciplines play in the modern delivery of legal services.

There is no doubt that legal expertise is of paramount importance to clients but gone are the days that the best lawyers working without collaboration can deliver the best legal service. Now it takes a team of experts from a number of fields working in concert to achieve the firm’s goals.

Culture equals unity of purpose

More than ever, there are plenty of other obstacles to achieving a unified culture within law firms—generational and geographical divides, departmental and practice group rivalries and jealousies, management debacles, communication breakdowns, and leadership vacuums that create distrust, uncertainty, and fear.

A SmartLaw-driven culture begins by creating trust, alignment, and unity of purpose across the entirety of the firm, from the most senior partner to the most junior IT analyst. This will require a revolution in education.

Firms are good about offering ‘continuing competence’ courses for their lawyers and clients, but they should also offer legal business courses for their own employees. Support teams need to require their team members to learn about the actual business the firm operates. They cannot work in isolation as if they’re working for a tech company, an event planner, or a design studio.

All other functions need to be focused on benefiting the firm’s clients. At the same time, it’s not enough for the firm’s lawyers to know the law, they need to know about the business they are in too—such as:

  • How does the firm make money?
  • What does writing-off work do to the bottom line?
  • What’s the difference between revenue and profit?

Not everyone at the firm needs to become a business expert, but everyone needs to know what the firm does and how it functions so that they can understand their role, value, and purpose. At that point, whether individual people like each other or not, they can work together with respect and trust that everyone else on the team, whether lawyer, technologist, marketer, or businessperson, is actively working to achieve the same goal.

And then, with just a few changes in organisational practices—good culture will be the result.

For more information about SmartLaw, download our report here.

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