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Method can measure a firm’s culture

|Written By Daryl-Lynn Carlson

The “culture” of a law firm is widely perceived to be an intangible factor to quantify, although firm consultancy Edge International has adapted a way to do so.

But the Vancouver-based consultancy principal, Patrick McKenna, has so far had no Canadian law firm takers to ply the cultural inventory survey.

‘We had a large Texas-based firm three years ago that, when American Lawyer did its survey of satisfaction and moral of associates, the law firm had scored down near bottom, abysmal,’ says Patrick McKenna. ‘We had opportunity to take them through the culture inventory with the associates participating to identify some of the issues that were leading to the dissatisfaction.’

Yet McKenna says the survey is now tried and true, complete with a comparative data base accrued over six years with a complement of American firms that have embraced the assessment as integral to their growth and prosperity.

“We had a large Texas-based firm three years ago that, when American Lawyer did its survey of satisfaction and moral of associates, the law firm had scored down near bottom, abysmal,” says McKenna. “We had opportunity to take them through the culture inventory with the associates participating to identify some of the issues that were leading to the dissatisfaction.”

Based on the culture inventory, the firm’s executive team assessed the weaknesses. They formulated an action plan, executed the recommendations, and the following year “they were in the top quartile” of the magazine’s associates survey, says McKenna.

Edge International became interested in the possibility of measuring law firm culture when a flurry of mergers began stirring up the profession a decade ago.

McKenna and his fellow principals saw potential for disaster if two wrongly-suited firms went ahead with a merger.

“There can be different cultures and melding two different cultures can be very difficult,” he points out.

But how would the firms know? “You can just see two managing partners sitting down together over lunch and one managing partner says, ‘Tell me about your culture,’ and the other says, ‘We’re a very collegial bunch,’ and the first managing partner says, ‘Are you? So are we!’ and that’s as far as the conversation goes.”

“But it goes much deeper than that.”

Edge set out to find who in the academic world might “understand this flimsy thing called organizational culture” and be assessing workplace differences in the corporate sector.

They found Prof. Dan Denison, a PhD with the University of Michigan who has done leading studies and writings about corporate culture and organizational effectiveness.

“He was doing interesting things,” enthuses McKenna of Denison, who’s now based in Lausanne, Switzerland. “He was attempting to quantify culture, to create an instrument to allow people in organizations to measure culture and be able to through that measurement process and direst their minds to how they could enhance, strengthen, and devote attention to certain aspects of their culture.”

Edge approached Denison and adapted the organizational measure for law firms.

Over six years, Denison has assisted with building up a database to enable law firms to quantify their results relative to other firms.

Here’s how it works:

A survey of 60 questions is provided to participants, who respond anonymously online. The entire firm can be surveyed or it can be done by practice group, office location, gender, or year of call to the bar, says McKenna.

Denison’s team then “slice and dice” the responses and provide a report to the firm that identifies issues worthy of attention.

“It goes back to the old adage that your own people know the answers, they know what is not functioning properly,” explains McKenna. “The trick is, how do you act on it?”

He mentions that unlike some surveys, Denison’s method does not elicit participants’ opinions; rather it pointedly asks what the firm is doing and what it isn’t.

“The questions deal with the issue of mission, the degree to which members of the firm understand direction, intent,” he says. “Within mission are vision and leadership, strategies to translate vision into action, goals and objectives to which members of the firm would understand their role.”

For law firms, “That’s one area in which we see some scoring low. They have a strategic plan and will probably pull it off the shelf and show it to you. But the problem is they’re not communicating it” throughout the firm, he says.

Denison’s method for law firms also provides focus on adaptability, which McKenna says, from a cultural perspective, quantifies how the firm responds to the changing community environment, clients, and innovation.

“One area that law firms generally score very low on is the change aspect. We understand it and see it going on, but we’re not great at accepting change and moving things along,” he says.

Another theme predominant in the survey is organizational learning, he says.

If that sounds airy-fairy, McKenna has a compelling example of results from another exercise he conducts at retreats Edge runs for law firms.

“We used to joke that if you thought about an accounting statement for a typical organization, what organization does not have an entry for research and development? Law firms.”

At the retreats, he equips lawyers with hand-held voting machines that enable them to anonymously respond to his questions.

“We say, ‘Tell me, do any of you have an idea how we could grow a new practice, find a new source of revenue, or something that would add to our firm?’ Press 1 for yes, press 2 for no. You get in the neighborhood of 62 to 78 per cent ‘yes’ every time,” McKenna says.

“These are creative people. Here’s another question: ‘Have you ever taken it upon yourself to share ideas with executive management committee?’ The majority, as high as 89 per cent, say ‘no’.

“Where does all of this come from? It comes from the culture survey. People are saying, ‘We’re pretty crappy at initiating change.’ ”

Douglas Stanley of Foulston Siefkin LLP in Wichita, Kan., says he called in McKenna to implement the cultural inventory as he got underway to plan his first retreat as managing partner. “Patrick had started talking about this and I got intrigued. We’ve always had lots of discussions about what is different about our culture, but it’s always been difficult to measure.” Participants for the inventory were to be firm-wide with measures across all types of groupings.

Stanley says he was surprised with the results. “What we found is there was a lot more consistency across those groupings than I anticipated.”

Ultimately the firm deployed a stronger focus on strategic planning that consistently seemed to fall short.

“We had a lot of discussions with groups about the results,” Stanley says. “I think it was very positive.” To other firms, he adds, “I’d strongly recommend it.”

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