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Imagine two law firms. Both are small general practice firms, each with 10 attorneys and staff.
At the first firm, attorneys and staff work hard to impress the equity partners. The managing partner is approachable, but resists change. Attorneys and staff rarely use all their vacation days, and often come to work when they’re sick for fear of being perceived as underachievers. When good things happen, the people truly responsible for them are never recognized. No one feels like the firm exists for any reason other than to make the equity partners wealthy.
At the second firm, attorneys and staff work hard for the benefit of clients—not to curry favor with the partners. The managing partner solicits feedback on what can be improved throughout the organization. Employees are encouraged to use their paid time off to recharge after stressful periods and to recover from illness. Individuals are recognized for their accomplishments. Everyone at the firm knows that the firm’s vision and purpose is to make its clients’ lives as easy as possible while they are going through difficult situations.
Which firm would you prefer to work at?
Which firm do you think clients would prefer to hire?
Which firm do you think is growing at a faster rate?
The difference between these two organizations is the power of a positive corporate culture.
Merriam-Webster® defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”
When an organization intentionally adopts a positive culture and communicates it to its employees, incredible things can happen. Organizations with positive cultures are more productive than their peers, are more likely to retain their employees and are more profitable.
In short, positive corporate cultures separate good organizations from great ones.
To build a positive corporate culture at your law firm, you’ll need to determine your firm’s purpose and values, you’ll have to communicate them and you’ll have to walk the walk.
Step One: Purpose
What is your firm’s reason for existing? What value are you providing?
Your purpose statement should be short, specific and memorable. If you can’t fit it into a tweet, refine it until you can.
For example, an estate planning firm’s purpose statement could be “We help families keep their hard-earned wealth and assets in their families for generations to come.” A personal injury law firm’s purpose statement could be “We help people rebuild their lives after suffering life-changing injuries.”
Once you think you have found your firm’s purpose statement, test it.
Does it speak to your firm’s two most important audiences: your colleagues and your clients? Can you execute on its purpose?
If so, it’s time to turn to your firm’s values.
Step Two: Values
Your firm’s values serve as its internal compass, guiding every decision you and your colleagues make about how your firm operates.
To ensure that your firm’s values will be effective guides, keep them to a manageable number—somewhere between four and eight. Make them leap off the page by using powerful but specific language. Order them in importance so when you or your colleagues face choices between courses of action, it is clear which values should take priority.
Once you’ve established a set of values, take time to regularly reflect on which ones you recently acted in accordance with and which you did not. Ask your colleagues to do the same.
If your and your colleagues’ behavior is consistently out of sync with a value, reconsider its importance and determine whether the problem lies with the value or how your firm operates.
Examples of values may include “If our clients don’t love us, we’re doing something wrong,” “No one attorney is an island” and “Our lives outside the office make us better attorneys inside of it.”
Step Three: Communication
Once you’ve developed your firm’s purpose and values, you should integrate them into your communications.
When communicating to your colleagues about any change that is coming to your firm, connect the reason for the change with your firm’s purpose and values in order to gain buy-in.
When hiring new team members, incorporate your firm’s purpose and values into job postings to attract people whose talents and desires fit your firm’s culture. Be sure to refer to your firm’s purpose and values during interviews with prospective employees as well.
And weave your firm’s purpose and values into your marketing materials to connect with prospective clients and referral sources. If you do, they’ll understand “the why” of your firm, and you’ll stand out from most law firms that market themselves based on where their lawyers went to school and how hard they’ll fight for their clients.
Step Four: Walk the Walk
Developing your firm’s purpose and values and communicating them will only get you part of the way to establishing a culture. You will also need to map out the behaviors you and your colleagues can engage in to exemplify that purpose and those values.
Determine the things you and your colleagues can do—both ordinary and extraordinary—to bring your firm’s purpose and values to life. Encourage and measure these behaviors. Recognize and reward your colleagues who engage in them or create new ones. And, address any behaviors that undermine your firm’s culture and are inconsistent with its values.
It is hard work creating a positive corporate culture within a law firm, but if you want that culture to last, you’ll also need to work hard at maintaining it.
This includes continuously assessing your firm’s culture to ensure that, as it grows and evolves, it is doing so in ways that are consistent with its purpose and values. At some point, you may need to tweak that purpose and those values based on your firm’s growth. And eventually you may find that your firm has outgrown its purpose and values. You’ll have to create and adopt new ones if you want your culture to endure.
A great way to see if your firm is operating consistently with its purpose and values is to simply ask. Survey your colleagues about your firm’s culture and how your firm operates. Newer colleagues may have different views on the topic than longer serving ones. Survey your clients too about their experiences with your firm. Their feedback will give you unique and valuable insights.
It’s tempting to assume that culture is the exclusive domain of large corporations. But solos and small law firm attorneys can similarly benefit from building and maintaining positive cultures.
These cultures can transform their law firms into productive and profitable places employees are excited to work at—and clients are thrilled to work with.
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