‘I used to believe that culture was “soft” and had little bearing on our bottom line. What I believe today is that our culture has everything to do with our bottom line, now and into the future.’ These words from author and businessman Vern Dosch may well chime with law firm leaders. Just a handful of years ago, law firm culture was not really a concept or considered important. Potential recruits might enquire if it was a ‘nice place to work’ when considering joining a new firm, but that is often where it ended.
However, these days the landscape is very different and it is now recognised that a workplace culture can be make or break for a business. As many law firms enter a new era of hybrid working, this is truly a pinch point for law firm workplace culture. Working from home helped to hold up a magnifying glass to many firms’ cultures; the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life was stripped away. Without the office, Friday drinks and coffee break chats, what was left of a firm’s culture? Seeing their lawyers and members of staff adrift at home was a wake-up call for many leaders and served to underline the importance of a strong culture to help foster a sense of belonging and often bring some joy or levity to the working day. Workplace culture again needs to be put under the microscope and examined. Failure to do so could result in a fractured, hodgepodge firm where the staff feel like they could be working anywhere, for anyone.
It sounds obvious, but the first thing to think about is what actually makes up a workplace culture – and this is not easy to define. It can encompass a wide variety of aspects, from the big to the small. It includes how a firm is led from the top and how senior lawyers talk to their juniors. It is whether there is a sense of psychological safety and if people feel comfortable to speak openly and honestly. It is how feedback is delivered and how challenges are dealt with. It is whether the atmosphere is collegiate and inclusive and how seriously diversity, mental and physical health are considered. It is also about the work-life balance and how much someone’s downtime away from work is respected. These are some of the ‘big’ things. But the small things matter too when it comes to a workplace culture – it is about the Christmas dos and drinks parties and how relaxed the atmosphere is.
Arguably the importance of workplace culture, soft skills and a human touch to leadership have only fairly recently become priorities or even considerations. And it is not unreasonable to assume that many law firms have not crafted their workplace culture, but it has simply emerged.
It is not enough anymore for law firms to cross their fingers and hope that with a few nice initiatives, a healthy workplace culture will spring up. Particularly post-pandemic, which, as mentioned, could be a real crunch point for a firm’s culture. Other crucial moments when law firm culture can be tested include post-merger and when a new office is opened. A law firm with multiple offices will face a challenge of finding synergies and ensuring each one reflects the firm’s core values while having its own distinct culture.
At Cripps Pemberton Greenish we have scored a hat-trick of transformation in recent years, having undergone a merger in 2018, moved to new London premises earlier this year and then experienced the pandemic-induced home-working revolution. We undertook some self-reflection and realised the scale of change motivated us to put even more emphasis on looking beyond mere revenue. Where and how we work is of course a focus as it in all industries, but our corporate social responsibility proposition has become more important to staff.
Something that was very important to us was about finding firm-wide synergies while ensuring each office and practice area retains its unique character.
We have seen hybrid working as a huge opportunity to drive forward culture in this new landscape and we have just delivered a guide designed to help employees achieve the right blend of home and office working. It was important to us that this was a guide rather than a policy. Hybrid working is a team game after all; to short-change the firm or any individual would ultimately impact the client.
The hybrid working rollout is the start of a journey to help amalgamate the three main practice areas and both offices. Consistency when establishing a new or updated firm-wide culture is key, as is setting the tone from the top.
Data can also really help when it comes to embedding culture. It can be very difficult to know what to change without honest, thorough staff feedback. Having secured external consultants and bespoke software tools, we are now obtaining quantitative and qualitative data about our people, tracking their sense of wellbeing, belonging, purpose and motivation.
It is clear that a law firm ignores its workplace culture at its peril. A study from Columbia University showed that the likelihood of job turnover at a business with a poor culture was 48.4% compared to just 13.9% in a company with a rich culture. Now, as we enter a new era of hybrid working, culture should be considered like never before and law firms should not be afraid to prioritise this issue as we go into 2022. A healthy workplace culture can be created and nurtured.
Craig McMurrough is chief people officer at Cripps Pemberton Greenish