law firm culture

Ask a general manager of a sports franchise about building a culture and his or her eyes may light up before declaring that culture is the key to winning. Ask the principal in a small to mid-sized law firm the same question, and you may receive a blank stare.

However, culture at a law firm—or at any business for that matter—is just as important as it is on a sports team. Whatever your culture becomes, it will be a critical component of productivity, employee satisfaction, and success (or lack thereof.)

So how do you build a successful culture in your law firm? Here are some suggestions for doing just that:

Explain Why They Should Care.
Why should your associates or any employee really care about the law firm’s success? Until you can answer this question, you can’t start building your law firm’s successful culture.

In other words, you need to discover your firm’s driving force. Find it and you will then have the foundation for why your employees should care about the work they do at the law firm. It is bigger than you. It is bigger than them. It is bigger than clichés or the bottom line. It is genuine belief in the good you do for others.

How do you determine this driving force? Think about your clients and what they mean to society as a whole. For instance, I am the sole principal and managing attorney at a law firm in Orange County, California. Family law is all we do. Our purpose is to provide intelligent representation to help husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers through some of the most difficult times in their lives. We are in this business for our clients, and our law firm’s culture is built around the sustainable premise that if you do great work for good people, the financial rewards will take care of themselves.

More specifically, one aspect of our practice is child custody cases. Of course, there’s nothing more important in life than our children and ensuring that they are raised in loving, safe, non-violent environments. This fact is the driving force in our child custody work.

Lead by Example.
If you expect your employees to buy into particular culture modeled after the principles you espouse, you’ve got to be a good role model.  Leading by example is a constant work-in-progress. You will fail at it more than once but as long as you learn from those failures and become a better leader as a result, your employees will see that you care. When they see you care, they will care in return.

Show Your Employees Why They are Important.
Every employee at your firm should know how important they are to the greater good.  The best way to do this is to share the law firm’s goals so they can work toward fulfilling them. For example, at my firm the receptionist who answers phones always speaks to potential clients with kindness and respect because she understands that that is an important part of our firm’s culture. The managing associate who prevails in court treats his opponent with respect because she knows her behavior will impact how that person will think of and speak of the firm. Though the receptionist and managing associate have vastly different duties, both have been bought into the law firm’s culture.

However, don’t just tell employees how things must be done. Instead, collaborate with them about why things should be done that way and obtain their input. That way they will feel like a greater part of the team.

Reward Those Who Excel.
Rewarding employees who exemplify your firm’s culture is a component of the lead-by-example mantra. When you reward these employees, their colleagues who wish to receive the same rewards will have role models to follow besides you. It doesn’t matter if the employees think exactly the same way as you do. Differences have value, and it helps to have various examples of how to promote the firm’s culture.

Never Lose Focus.
It’s easy to start building a culture but not finish because of distractions or poor decisions. One way to keep that focus is to recognize potential barriers ahead of time and then set policies in place to keep those barriers from getting in the way of culture building.

In our law firm, there are three principles that keep us focused and undistracted.

  1. We are selective about our clients and only represent good people with the right intentions. Few things kill culture faster than a law firm that is willing to take on any case or any cause, regardless of merit, to boost the bottom line.
  2. We don’t let ourselves become emotionally invested. By doing this, we help our clients make better decisions.
  3. We kill other lawyers with kindness. Though we do not always succeed in this regard, we work hard to maintain a positive relationship with opposing counsels and opposing parties.

Of course, once you establish a culture of success, it’s critical to constantly improve upon it and nurture it. How often have you seen a business or championship sports teams fall apart after achieving success? Greed, distrust, poor planning, or a weak foundation can lead to such failure. However, when a business or team continues to win and maintains their success, they usually do so because they sustained their culture throughout time. In other words, always make your company’s culture the cornerstone of everything you do.

Robert Farzad is the president of Farzad Family Law, APC  based in Orange County, California. He has been licensed attorney in California since  1996 and helped grow his multi-attorney and multi-office firm from the ground up. This article is not intended to be nor should it be construed as legal advice.