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Doing Business: Defining culture in a free-agent economy

|Written By Jim Middlemiss

At a recent cocktail party, the lawyers at WeirFoulds LLP got into a discussion about law firm culture.

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They were celebrating the fact that two lawyers from the firm were elected as benchers to the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Managing partner Lisa Borsook notes that it is “somewhat unusual” for a firm of WeirFoulds’ size to manage to have two of its lawyers elected to the profession’s governing body.

“Our culture here certainly involves this commitment to the profession and to public service.”

Knowing your culture is all the rage these days, since the sudden and unexpected demise of Goodman and Carr LLP, a mid-sized Toronto law firm that voted to disband the firm after 40-plus years.

The story of Goodman and Carr’s demise graces the cover of the June issue of our sister publication Canadian Lawyer. While there doesn’t appear to be a single factor to blame for the firm’s swift and sudden end, that elusive concept of culture certainly appears to have played a prominent role in the firm’s downfall.

And it’s a signal to other law firms - particularly those in the mid-range size - to pay attention to culture, or you too could find yourself shopping around for a new firm.

Ian Epstein, managing partner at Blaney McMurtry LLP, says the “first thing to do is define what firm culture is. It’s very important that a firm defines exactly who they are and who they are not, so you can build your culture around that.

“To implement this nebulous concept we really do try to make an effort to make sure people stay connected with each other.”

So maintaining culture then becomes a communication effort.

Eldon Bennett, managing partner at Aird & Berlis LLP, acknowledges that building a law firm culture is “something you really have to work at.” For him, there are two critical elements.

The first is “transparency in the way the law firm is run.” Bennett says his firm has a higher percentage of partners than most firms, which is a conscious business decision. As such, the culture there requires a high degree of openness.

“If you have transparency in the partnership, you have this kind of shared basis with the majority of people in the firm.”

The second key element to building culture is recruitment, which Bennett says is critical to maintaining culture. Recruitment was a factor that stood out in the Goodman and Carr story, as laterals complained that the firm lacked a good integration strategy and they were often left to fend for themselves.

Bennett says when hiring a new lawyer, the first step his firm takes is determining whether the candidate is “going to be a positive contributor to our culture.” He says there have been many instances where a candidate would have been a good financial contributor to the firm, but didn’t stack up when it came to cultural fit.

“We’re happy to sacrifice a buck or two at the end of the day.”

But it’s not just partnership recruitment that one needs to watch. Lateral recruitment also impacts culture. Borsook says, “We usually do not hire laterals as partners.” Rather, the firm plays the dating game.

“We date each other and get a feel of what they are all about. It’s important for laterals to get an idea of what we are all about.”

Building culture among associates is also critical, notes Borsook, and there it’s more monkey see, monkey do. For example, in her firm’s case there is a big commitment to professional service. If associates see the partner they work for engaging in such endeavors, then “it kind of sinks in and they buy into the package.”

Mentoring is also an element that should be used to help a firm develop its culture with associates. The firm has one-on-one mentoring to help associates “so they don’t hit too many rocks.” She jokes that associates are like “Play-Doh; you can mold them a little bit in your own image.”

Bennett adds that to foster a better culture, associates need to feel involved and part of the firm.

“We include associates in a lot of the events that one would often think of as partner events. It vertically integrates people.”

In an era when lawyers shuffle seats more often than transit passengers, it’s important to “include new people right away,” Bennett adds.

Money is also a sticking point, which has poisoned many law firm workplaces. Aird & Berlis tries to nip that in the bud by engaging in a lot of discussion around splitting the partnership pie. The firm has both pre- and post-compensation interviews.

Before the final numbers are established, Bennett meets with each lawyer to discuss their practice and aspirations and what the firm can do to assist the lawyer in building his or her book of business.

“It’s really good; you learn a lot about what’s going on with your partners.”

Then within two to three weeks after the compensation decision is made, Bennett and a member of the executive committee again meet with the lawyer “to discuss the compensation decision and any questions they might have.”

Doug Richardson, a consultant at Altman Weil in Newton Square, Penn., says that building a law firm culture is never easy, thanks to what he calls WIIFM. No, it’s not a radio station, it’s the what’s-in-it-for-me syndrome that is particularly acute in a profession of successful and high-earning professionals. He says simply, “Culture is the sum total of all the individual decisions that are being made at any given time about whether what is going on is in my self interest.”

“You don’t create a positive culture by saying a certain set of traits are nice. You have to build individual relationships with every single major opinion leader [in the firm].” That way you know what their WIIFM factor is. Then you can build a culture that takes that into consideration and aligns it with the firm’s interest. When people see that the two are on the same path, there is harmony. “When you do that, they buy in and other people buy in.”

Richardson warns that it will be even harder for firms to maintain culture going forward as we enter the free-agent economy. “There are going to be changes made, simply by virtue of how the legal profession is changing and becoming more competitive and businesslike.”

One of the big culture issues moving forward will be succession and how law firms pass the torch from the baby boomers who now run them, down to the next generation. It will be a challenge for firms to pass on their existing culture.

Richardson says young people look at the old guard and ask a simple question: “Is this firm a good place for me to do my thing? If not, I’ll look for a better deal.” He says if the old guard is lingering on like a dinosaur and pushing its weight around with the result that the successor generation isn’t going to get a shot at power anytime soon, then despite the culture, people will leave and that can damage the economic clout of a firm and trigger a crisis, he says.

So when building your firm’s culture, make sure you are tuned into WIIFM. It’s the music that can make or break

a law firm.


This is Jim Middlemiss’ last column for Law Times, as he “will be heading in a slightly different direction and checking out a new culture, if you will.”

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