VIEWS: 14 PAGES: 6 CATEGORY: Employment POSTED ON: 6/12/2012
Every legal professionals happiness and success in a legal organization has more to do with a particular law firm culture, i.e. personality of a firm,than with any other factor.
CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1.800. 973. 1177 Firm Culture Matters Most [Law Firm Staff] We believe that any legal professional’s hap- puts in a solid effort over the course of six or B. Legal Professionals Sometimes Fail to Give piness and success in a legal organization seven years should be made partner. Strong Consideration to Firm Culture When have more to do with a particular law firm There are firms that have been “collapsing” Choosing a Firm culture (which is sometimes also referred for years but portray themselves to members to as the “personality of a firm”) than with as “strong and powerful.” The problem with the way some legal profes- any other factor. This article discusses (a) sionals manage their careers is that they are the importance of firm culture, (b) why some Some of the examples above are set forth motivated primarily by prestige and money legal professionals do not give strong con- from the perspective of an associate because factors more than the cultures of various sideration to firm culture when joining a firm, the experience of all staff members in a firms in making their decisions between pos- (c) the reason a failure to seriously consider firm culture in many ways often reflects the sible places to practice. firm culture prematurely ends many careers, experiences of the associates in the firm. We and (d) why making a lateral move provides could go on and on. Suffice it to say, however, When a legal professional evaluates offers the best opportunity to evaluate firm culture that your success and happiness as a legal based upon where they believe they fit in and the course of your career. professional may have more to do with your the best, that legal professional is far more thoughtful and intelligent decision to join a likely to find happiness and success in the A. The Importance of Firm Culture firm that best fits you culturally than with practice of law. The problem, however, is your legal skills. People simply want to be that most legal professionals simply do not Just as the work, salary, and prestige level around people they like, and when people like think this way. The reason we believe this is can vary from firm to firm, the cultures of each other there is a lot of beneﬁt that comes to so is because legal professionals are simply firms can be very different. Consider the both sides of the relationship. competitive by nature. following examples about the cultures of various firms: OBSERVATION 1: In almost all respects, the largest, most prestigious and highest paying firms are There are firms where style is definitely the hardest to get the best positions in. The We all have certainly heard of how Albert valued over substance. pressure to join these firms typically com- Einstein flunked out of grade school. Perhaps There are firms where substance is definitely mences when a legal professional first joins Einstein was too concerned with the theoreti- valued over style. a firm. Law students and practicing attorneys cal rather than the practical. Whatever the There are firms where people wander around often evaluate each other based upon their reason, Einstein simply did not experience in Birkenstocks and call each other “dude.” ability to get positions with these types of success in the environment he was in at the There are firms where staff members must firms, and staff members do the same. For time because the school, and the people in it, address partners as “Mr.” and “Ms.” most legal professionals, the pressure to get could not understand where he was coming There are firms where associates need to these types of jobs is enormous. from. Do the people in your firm understand make appointments with partners before where you are coming from? In the law firm speaking with them. In many respects this is perfectly pre- environment, when a given legal professional There are firms where partners chew to- dictable. In order to get into top law firm and the firm see eye-to-eye, success is far bacco in the office and during firm meetings. environments, many legal professionals have more likely than in situations where they do There are firms that value your family con- long been motivated to attain high levels of not. nections more than your work ability. achievement in order to succeed. Those who There are firms that believe everyone who succeed in college, paralegal academy, or PAGE 1 continued on back CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1.800. 973. 1177 law school at exceptionally high levels more and whether that culture is where you will be careers there because they became so disil- often than not are those who make the deci- happy and remain so over the course of your lusioned. Most of them say things like “I would sion to sacrifice free time and comfort in the career. never work in another law firm - I would short term to enjoy better lives in the future. only work in industry or in an in-house legal One of the largest mistakes legal profession- environment.” The resumes of these legal The problem with this type of thinking is als make when evaluating competing offers professionals are sometimes littered with one that it can often lead legal professionals between firms is believing that money is the firm job after another where the next and then to make horrible decisions in how they run most important factor they should be consid- the next firm were virtually identical in terms their professional careers. If a legal profes- ering. While money is certainly an important of culture to the firm they joined first. sional is thinking in terms of what they can component of any analysis, it is not the most do to look best to others, they may often be important factor in determining a given legal Of course these legal professionals are not more focused on this thinking than on what is professional’s happiness over the course of happy practicing in a law firm: They have only best for them individually. None of this is to their career. If you think money is an impor- worked for one type of law firm during their say that there are not numerous advantages tant consideration in joining a firm, you may entire careers. The problem is that these per- from being part of a truly significant law firm. be making a horrible mistake. If you go to the sons may have worked in a firm culture which The point is that this should not be the only right firm, you may be practicing law in four was such a bad fit for them that they never consideration a legal professional bases their years and have a stable career and life. If you got the opportunity to really find out what it career choices on. go to a firm just because of monetary consid- was like practicing law with a group of people erations, you may wind up so disgruntled with they like, respect and profit emotionally from OBSERVATION 2: working in a law firm that you are not working working with. Not all legal professionals are at all. the same. Fitting in with the community of The stereotype much of the general public has legal professionals that make up a particular about attorneys is not a good one: In a lot of The above observation is compounded by the law firm is the key to long-term success and respects, the general public sees attorneys as irony that many legal professionals wind up satisfaction in law firm life. Not fitting in is the ultra competitive, money and power hungry in the largest and most prestigious firms key to failure or the decision to take another individuals. Many attorneys in fact personify precisely because they show so much promise career path. these traits and have subordinated much of and have excelled to such a degree in their their happiness in life to the pursuit of money, legal careers. We have seen resumes of legal Consider the choice of where to live, and respect, power, and admiration from their professionals who worked in first rate New compare the process of making that decision peers. This perception leads many attorneys York law firms but ended up spending their with the decision to join any particular firm. to base their presumed happiness on things careers aimless, on career paths that do not Some of us prefer the lifestyle in New York like having the largest house, the most expen- sound compelling to many highly educated le- to Los Angeles, or prefer San Francisco to sive car and other traditional accoutrements gal professionals. This is not to say that there Seattle. Preference for one city or neighbor- of the “American Dream.” is anything wrong with this type of career hood is entirely personal and individual. The path. The problem is that many of these same considerations are whether we feel accepted C. The Failure to Consider Firm Culture Prema- legal professionals may believe they are find- and appreciated in a community and whether ing happiness in jobs apart from the law when we see people around us that share the same turely Ends of Limits Many Careers That Could there is a possibility they could have found goals and aspirations. Whether that city sup- Have Otherwise Been Highly Successful happiness in a law practice if they had chosen ports and enhances our lifestyle becomes a a firm that matched their interest culturally. driving force in a person’s decision. It is easy to find out a law firm’s compensation structure, or their billable hour requirements OBSERVATION 3: You should constantly ask yourself, “Is this (which will provide an indication of the work firm a place where I will feel accepted? Will I load that can be expected by all staff mem- On a day-to-day basis, in each of our of- be surrounded by people with the same values bers), but those are the simple and superficial fices, we speak with legal professionals who and goals? Will this firm compliment my life- distinctions to make among firms. It is not as began their careers with ultra prestigious style? What is the culture of the firm?” easy to gauge a firm’s prestige level - how- high-paying law firms. Many of these persons ever, that can usually be done with help. It left those firms two to seven years into their We are not saying that geography is the is more difficult to evaluate a firm’s culture, same as culture. However, the same factors PAGE 2 continued CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1.800. 973. 1177 that drive us to feel happy and accepted in 1. Preparation is the First Key to Evaluating Firm of legal professionals of color at the firm? a particular town or city are relevant when Culture choosing a firm. All in all, the key is to spend Home v. Satellite Ofﬁce: some time studying different firms and come You’ve gotten an interview. Before the to some conclusions about what type of firm interview, research as much as possible to Where is the firm’s main office located? Is you believe you are best suited to join. determine the ‘objective’ factors: How big is it one of the laid-back west-coast firms? In the office? What is the salary? What are the some cases, the personality of the main office D. Making a Move is Sometimes Your Best minimum billable hour requirements? In our carries over to each of the firm’s satellite Chance to Find Your Perfect Firm Culture opinion, this objective fact gathering is help- offices, regardless of where those offices may ful in determining how well the firm is doing be. Frequently, satellite offices of large firms Many of our candidates, when preparing for financially and how it has grown over time. On score big points in associate satisfaction sur- an interview, want help identifying those the cultural level, though, these factors are veys. Although we don’t believe that it’s fair questions that will help them unearth the true less important. It is the less obvious criteria to generalize, we do believe that some of the culture and environment at a firm. In short and subjective information that make the dif- best opportunities for personal growth exist in form, the question that needs to be answered ference in figuring out a firm’s culture. satellite offices. for each legal professional is simply “will I like it at this firm?” Unfortunately, try as we Partner/Associate Ratio: Keep in mind that some firms may be as dif- may, we cannot always answer these ques- ferent from office to office as two separate tions as well as we would like. The culture of a This objective indicator can be important in firms in the same city. Can you rely on your firm may vary from practice group to practice determining the more subjective issue of friend in Dallas to tell you about life in their group, and it is impossible to pin down with overall satisfaction with a firm. Do you thrive Los Angeles office? Maybe not. Find out about any meaningful certainty whether or not a in a collaborative yet competitive atmosphere? the firm as a whole, and then how the offices good firm is always a good fit. Often, the only Do you prefer to work with partners or as- relate to and identify with each other. More- way to learn this is to actually go to the inter- sociates? If you are the type of person who over, you may prefer the lifestyle in the head views and speak with the persons you may be performs well in a competitive environment office of the firm if becoming involved in firm working with. and enjoys having opportunities to distinguish management is important to you over time. yourself with your work product, you may It’s important to remember that the interview very well feel comfortable in an environment Conversely, however, many legal profession- process as a legal professional, especially for where there are more associates for each als working in satellite offices feel less secure attorneys and specialty law firm staff mem- partner. Likewise, some attorneys may be about their careers because management bers such as IT professionals, is much differ- more interested in a place where there are decisions may be made far away, and this ent than when as a student you interviewed fewer associates for each partner, and part- relative lack of security naturally carries over for a summer clerkship. A law firm is typically nership is more a function of staying around to other legal professionals within the firm. not really concerned with ‘competing’ for any than distinguishing yourself. Think about what Additionally, because management decisions one particular candidate. In this heightened type of environment is going to help you thrive are made far away, the firms are often less competitiveness, it can sometimes be difficult as an attorney. Will you do better in a situa- secure in promising promotions to their legal for the legal professional interviewing for the tion where you are primarily assigned to one professionals in a satellite office. Because job to get the sense of whether this particular partner, or where you are free to work with a these decisions may be made only through the law firm is made up of a group of lawyers with variety of individuals in a practice group? main office, satellite administrators may have whom they want to spend the rest of their ca- little idea about a particular legal profession- reer. Keep your best interests at heart and do Diversity: al’s prospects for advancement. Senior legal everything you possibly can to ensure that you administrators in a satellite office may also find this firm. Obviously, your task is to get the It may also be important for you to look at the be uncertain about the course of their own job; however, you also need to understand the firm’s commitment to diversity. We don’t know careers! firm’s culture. Law Firm Staff, Inc. has identi- of any firm that doesn’t have an anti-dis- fied several ways in which you can evaluate crimination policy. However, some firms are On rare occasions, a large firm will open a whether a particular firm is right for you. more proactive in this area than others. Is it satellite office to suit one particular client important to you that there are a good number or practice group, only to close that office PAGE 3 continued on back CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1.800. 973. 1177 relatively quickly based upon management undertake representation of a young company fortably hot summer months and returning to decisions in the home office. These decisions who may not be around in 5 years? Or will a business attire for the rest of the year. may take the senior administrator in the firm forgo business in an effort to preserve satellite office by surprise. None of this is to a few solid relationships with long-standing Firm Governance: say that all satellite offices are bad - in fact, clients? How much of the firm’s revenue is good satellite offices are the rule rather than based on any one particular client? If a law How a law firm conducts its day-to-day the exception - it is just to say that you need to firm never allows any one particular client to business is important. Lawyers have to run be careful in evaluating the culture of a satel- represent more than a small percentage of its the business of their law firm, and how they lite office. Ask yourself and your interviewers overall business, you know that this firm is not choose to structure the firm can say a lot whatever questions you feel might be helpful. willing to allow its long-term economic health about its culture. The business model a law Does the office appear stable? Who are its cli- to rely on that of the companies it represents. firm chooses often reveals the core values of ents? Does the office generate its own clients Firms that represent entrepreneurial clients the organization. Generally, firms are gov- or serve those of the main office only? Does can also be fast paced and exciting places to erned in one of several ways. the satellite office have a history of promoting work. Smaller clients may also tend to be less associates to partner? conservative and crave insight. The democratic firm allows each lawyer and staff member to become involved in the Location, location, location: As firms become more institutionalized decision making, from new hires of legal and reliant on revenue streams from larger professionals, to compensation to long term Where is the office located? Of all the fac- clients, they become more conservative and planning. Most firms, because they are orga- tors, we find that this tends to be the least more risk averse for fear of losing that client. nizations of legal professionals and because important factor in evaluating a firm’s culture. That’s when associates and partners become they ultimately exist to provide legal services, A California firm known for having attorneys really conservative, and a culture develops grant a greater measure of control to the peo- wearing Birkenstock sandals at work (not all where people worry about saying the wrong ple working in the firm. For many large firms, of them are…) may have a New York office with thing and a “cover your rear” mentality can the democracy may only include partners, so that same type of atmosphere. The Wash- develop. We have all heard the story - in some it is not necessarily realistic that a secretary ington D.C. branch office of a New York firm form - of the secretary who made some small will be making any type of management deci- may get the benefit of highly sophisticated error and cost the big firm its biggest client. sions - or even weighing in with an opinion. corporate deal work. However, even in Hawaii This type of culture can be good for some However, many democratically run firms do or Miami, for example, there are going to be people in that it carries a lot of predictability have some level of staff involvement in the radical distinctions among the firms. This and is comforting to many legal professionals. firm’s governance, such as on pro bono com- distinction is paramount and important. The mittees or with respect to firm events. This city makes little difference in a lot of respects. As you can see, the types of clients a firm has type of culture is entirely inclusive, although There are laid back firms in Chicago, down the can help shape the culture. None of these sometimes with the result of having too much block from offices where you wouldn’t think of observations apply to all firms, but there are administration bogging down each individual entering without your most formal business some consistencies which merit observation. legal professional’s already heavy workload. attire. The key is understanding the various This can even carry over to the dress code The values reflected here are participation cultures of the firms themselves. firms have. Many law firms instituted business and integration, which may come at the cost of casual dress to attract the younger technol- expediency of consistency. Clientele: ogy clients. To attract today’s dressed down industries, some law firms encourage their Many law firms govern using a small, central- lawyers to wear casual clothes to the office ized committee of decision makers, which Who is the firm representing? Is the firm rep- to ‘mirror’ the environment of their clients. results in greater consistency in terms of firm resenting young Internet start-ups or large to- In other cases, only white shirts and ties for vision and management. However, this culture bacco companies? Many firms represent a mix men are acceptable while meeting and work- is more exclusive in terms of firm governance, of clients, but investigating the industries that ing with a client. Many firms try to strike a which may turn off the legal professional that a particular firm targets can say a lot about balance by staying casual during the uncom- wants to be a part of the decision-making and the firm. How risk averse is the firm? Will they PAGE 4 continued CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1.800. 973. 1177 planning efforts of a firm. In this system of have such strong ties to their clients (some- 2. The absolute best way to evaluate whether firm governance, it’s important to find out how times ties that date back over 100 years!), the a ﬁrm is right for you is to meet with the legal these leaders are chosen and the values they chances of those clients, or the relationships professionals at the ﬁrm, and to focus on the hold dear. with those clients deteriorating may be less interview process. likely. This environment, in general, will be At the end of the day, however, what is more more formal than others, and is less likely to When you are in an office for an interview, important than the method of governance embrace trends in business casual apparel. what is the single most important way to is the reason behind why a particular firm find out what the firm culture is like? Ask. chooses the business model it does. Asking a “Lifestyle” or “quality of life” is another way Certainly, at the interview stage, you may feel law firm’s associates or partners why things the legal community may refer to a certain like you are simply getting the ‘party line.’ are the way they are helps one understand firm. These terms have become somewhat However, you are familiar with acting like a a firm’s culture and vision for the future. If hackneyed of late, but still have value in lawyer, whether you are licensed as an attor- you hear that the goals of the business match terms of defining a particular firm. A quality ney or not, and you are capable of evaluating yours, you have likely found a culture in which of life firm is fairly self-explanatory, which is the sincerity and enthusiasm in the response. you will be happy and succeed. to say that the firm has placed a premium on Ask each and every person to describe the allowing associates to have a life outside of culture and community in the firm, and ask Word on the Street: the firm. What does that mean? Sometimes, it them to tell you what that means to them. means a slightly lower billable hour require- Ask your interviewers to compare their firm You probably know the reputation of the firm ment than at other firms. Other times, it may to other firms in the same market so that you where you’re interviewing. Is it known around mean that the firm’s management is more can begin to make some distinctions. Remem- town as a sweatshop or a ‘quality of life’ firm? amenable to other situations other than typi- ber that all of the legal professionals made BE CAREFUL! While we believe that tracking cal full-time associate and staff positions, in- the same decision you’ll be faced with after down fellow legal professionals or colleagues cluding part-time, telecommuting, flextime, or interviewing: “Why this firm?” Find out how at a particular firm to ask about their particu- non-partnership track. The popularity of this each lawyer got in front of you, and ask them lar experience has value, broad generaliza- term has caused it to be somewhat diluted. how they feel about their decision to practice tions about a firm’s culture are often just that: We find that there are very few firms willing at that firm. Learning the individual stories of generalizations. Even if a reputation is mostly to define themselves as anything but firms the attorneys you meet will go a long way to- on target, you may be looking to join a practice that value legal professionals’ quality of life. ward helping you make your decision. Asking area or work with a partner that is decidedly Don’t take these types of labels at face value, this type of question will also ingratiate the unlike the overall firm culture. and investigate what that term means within a interviewer to you. particular firm. But what does ‘reputation’ mean in terms of Look around the office as you are directed to evaluating a firm? Although it’s not neces- You may also want to look at the politics of a your interview(s). See how the partners and sarily wise to make assumptions about a firm particular firm. Some firms actively recruit associates treat the legal professionals in the based on reputation, what people say about a attorneys of various national origins, races, or support staff. Notice how the support staff firm may help you define whether you fit into sexual orientations. Some firms have a com- treat each other. Don’t overlook a slip-up in the culture. What does it mean to be a ‘white mitment to pro bono that rewards legal pro- this area. The staff members know you are shoe’ firm? Historically, the phrase ‘white fessionals for their dedication to non-billable considering the culture of their firm, and they shoe firms’ is associated with large New York pursuits. Many firms are politically active, should be careful or well managed enough to firms with strong corporate practices. There and are sometimes made up of law partners see that you are given the right impression. are, however, ‘white shoe’ firms in every ma- who have held prestigious posts in a variety You may be the type of person who enjoys jor legal market, including Chicago, Los Ange- of elected offices. Some firms are famous for being able to come into the office and crank les, San Francisco and Washington D.C. Often, having ties with certain parties or administra- out her work for the day, or you may enjoy the clients of these firms will be Fortune tions; others have ‘raised’ prestigious judges spending time ‘shooting the breeze’ with other 500 companies and other large institutional or professors. Do the research to determine lawyers. See whether individual office doors clients with long-standing relationships with whether the firm in question seems to be are closed or open. Pay attention to people’s their particular firm. One advantage of this comprised of the same kind of attorneys as work styles, and compare them to yours. You type of firm is security. Because these firms you are, or as you aspire to be. may enjoy a more ‘old-school’ law firm envi- PAGE 5 continued on back CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1.800. 973. 1177 ronment, or you may thrive in a more modern firm when you don’t feel the pressure of hav- ‘team’ approach. Notice whether people call ing to ‘perform’ in an interview. each other by their first names, or whether they are more formal. Although you should E. Conclusions always be aware of the fact that you are being evaluated, and act accordingly, keep your eyes The key to true job satisfaction is determin- and ears open to more than just the answers ing which firm’s culture suits you and your to your questions. career. Finding the right culture will allow you to find a job that won’t feel like work. What Again, be careful. Sometimes legal profes- is going to make the difference over time is sionals interviewing for a position swing too not a $5,000 per year salary differential; it’s far in terms of evaluating: spending all of your whether you feel comfortable and appreciated time in this process wondering “what can the in a particular environment. No matter what law firm do for me?” will prevent you from the reputation of the firm, going through the showing a potential employer that you are a process of discovering who the people are and good match for them. This is a two way street, what they think of you and your skills will be so showing a law firm what you are made of the best indicators of long-term satisfaction is just as important during an interview as and success. evaluating the firm. Luckily, finding your place is not only up to 3. What does An Offer Say About Firm Culture? you. Law Firm Staff, Inc. is knowledgeable about the various firm cultures, and we can Here’s where it gets easy. Receiving an offer help you determine the firm community that is from the firm with whom you interviewed is right for you. the single best indicator that they are a good fit for you. Although it may be difficult to imagine after going back to a law firm time and time again to interview, receiving an offer of employment means, at a minimum, that a particular firm ‘gelled’ with you more than with any other candidate applying for that particular position. Remember, a law firm will not extend an offer to someone they don’t like, don’t respect, and with whom they don’t want to spend their time. Still don’t know? Ask to go back. Sometimes a callback schedule wasn’t as well rounded as it could have been, in terms of including a variety of associates, partners, or differ- ent practice groups. Law firms are generally very accommodating in terms of scheduling post-offer lunches or meetings. Everyone in this process understands that accepting a new offer is a big decision, and generally everyone will be amenable to providing you with any ad- ditional information you may need. Sometimes it’s easier to evaluate your fit in a particular PAGE 6
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