The Culture Code for Law Firms

As law firms continue to grapple with issues around the future of work, the back and forth regarding return to office and the quiet consideration of long-term hybrid or remote work models, “We must maintain our firm culture!” is the battle cry being sounded in partially occupied offices and on Zoom calls everywhere.

From creative, PR-friendly endeavors like Greenberg Traurig’s leaders’ #vanlife trip for firm office visits last spring to virtual happy hours to well-intentioned, morale-boosting ice cream socials, many firms have made a valiant attempt to maintain firm culture in the brave new world in which we find ourselves. While much has been studied and written about corporate culture, and about law firm culture in particular, Daniel Coyle’s pre-pandemic (2018) book, The Culture Code, provides valuable guidance for law firm leaders that is particularly meaningful in today’s environment.

In The Culture Code, Coyle highlights successful organizations ranging from a large global retailer to a winning professional sports franchise and other organizations large and small and posits that culture is not something that is pre-destined or accidental. Rather, it is something that exists and evolves in organizations where particular skill sets are present and cultivated. Based on his research and consulting work, Coyle concludes that leaders can build a successful culture when they:

  1. Build safety;
  2. Share vulnerability; and
  3. Establish purpose.

None of these are inherently easy in law firms.

Build Safety

To build safety, successful groups create a sense of belonging and often refer to feeling like a “family.” Coyle refers to research from MIT’s Human Dynamics Labs that shows there are certain behavioral cues in group interactions that create this feeling of safety. These are:

  1. Energy: they invest in the exchange that is occurring.
  2. Individualization: they treat the person as unique and valued.
  3. Future orientation: they signal that the relationship will continue.

Law firms do not often feel like the safest of environments. It can be daunting to share new ideas or suggest innovation in organizations filled with very bright, highly skeptical individuals. Stare decisis tends to rule the day, and new strategies are frequently met with demands for social proof (“What are other firms doing about this?”). Conforming tends to be a quicker path to success than individualization, and inclusion is a well-documented challenge, particularly for diverse professionals. Firms attempt to instill a sense of belonging with bold statements affirming that all are welcome, while many professionals suffer silently, feeling isolated and unseen – quite the opposite of safe.

Coyle suggests that the basis for building safety lies not in the grand efforts, but rather a consistent series of small occurrences over an extended period of time. “Our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost invisible cues: We are close, we are safe, we share a future.”

The author does not suggest that successful cultures are necessarily all “happy and lighthearted” either. To the contrary, he contends that while most successful cultures are “energized and engaged,” they are also organizations where difficult conversations regularly happen, because a safe environment for those conversations has been established, and the members of those organizations are committed to solving difficult problems as a team.

Share Vulnerability

Sharing vulnerability is frightening for most people, and it can feel downright dangerous in a profession like the law where one is paid to be “right” all the time. Nonetheless, Coyle’s research showed that the most cohesive groups were adept at the skill of sharing vulnerability, even in the most tension-filled environments and situations – a Navy SEAL mission or a flight crew facing an imminent crash, for example. The vulnerability sharing was also not a one-time event, but rather a “vulnerability loop,” or a “shared exchange of openness,” that builds trust over time.

The author cites multiple groups/organizations where similar themes emerged under the thread of shared vulnerability, including: a team orientation, where everything (project/mission/show, etc.) was approached from a team perspective; a focus on cooperation; a removal of hierarchical structures or designations; and lots of candid feedback. All of these can be challenging in a law firm environment.

It should also be noted that for leadership, sharing vulnerability should not be confused with “oversharing.” As Brene Brown, queen of vulnerability research, says, “Oversharing is not vulnerability.In fact, it often results in disconnection, distrust, and disengagement.” Sharing vulnerability can be as simple as asking a question of others – thus, demonstrating that you don’t have the answer for everything and asking for feedback on your performance as a leader.

Establish Purpose

Thankfully, law firms stopped spending significant time and resources on lofty vision and mission statements a long time ago. Coyle reminds us, however, that having a shared purpose as an organization is critical to building a strong firm culture. His research suggests that the organizations that do this well create a “high-purpose environment.”

“High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal.” He says that the best way to create that link is to repeatedly tell the story. Storytelling in law firms is more commonly the “war stories” that are shared over and over about that big litigation or that major deal or how things were “in the old days.” Instead, Coyle is talking about the fundamentals of your firm’s “Why,” told in the form of story, and he discusses the neuroscience about why it works. He also shares some compelling examples, including Johnson & Johnson’s famous Credo and why it was essential to their surviving the Tylenol crisis of the early 1980s.

Coyle points to other research that shows that seemingly innocuous things like lists of priorities or catch phrases, when used strategically, create “a simple set of rules that stimulate complex and intricate behaviors benefiting customers.” Said another way, these simple catchphrases create the basis for decision-making in hiring, collaboration and client service that can provide the differentiation law firms so desperately seek. And he’s got a wide range of examples from rugby teams to charter schools to Pixar that show that “many leaders of high-proficiency groups focus on creating priorities, naming keystone behaviors and flooding the environment with heuristics that link the two.”

Think of your work with clients, and how, after working with them for a while, you notice that they have their own vernacular, corporate-speak or even catch phrases. Your law firm has them also, although they may not be planned, consistent with desired behaviors or aligned with your purpose. With the proper attention, this can be changed, and your firm-speak can be purpose and performance-driven and lead to a more cohesive firm culture.

The Culture Code In Your Firm

As you consider your strategies to maintain and build your firm’s culture in the burgeoning hybrid work environment, I hope you will look beyond the simple tactics of old to “foster collegiality,” and utilize some of the research-backed strategies in “The Culture Code.”

  • When planning your 2022 firm retreat, include programming geared toward firm culture, particularly building purpose into firm strategy and having meaningful conversations centered around your firm’s core values.
  • Plan an executive management committee retreat where cultivating firm culture using Culture Code principles is a focus.
  • Empower department/practice group chairs to incorporate principals from the Culture Code into their year-end business planning, performance evaluations and group retreats.
  • Regularly assess employee engagement and firm culture using online tools and meetings and build a safe environment for employees to provide candid feedback.
  • Practice sharing vulnerability in firm leadership by being brave enough to ask questions. Use 360 degree and other feedback tools to assess leadership performance in the new paradigm.
  • Give thought to the “catch phrases” used regularly in your firm vernacular and work with your marketing professionals to ensure that your internal communications programs highlight the positive firm values you would like to build.

As Coyle says, “Culture is not something you are – it’s something you do,” and for law firms, there is much work to be done.

Marci Taylor is a principal in Withum’s Law Firm Advisory team. She provides strategy, management and marketing consulting services to law firms throughout the country and works with firms to develop strategic business goals that are aligned with firm culture.

Contact our Withum’s Law Firm Advisory Team to help address your questions.

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