Law Firm Culture: Understand before Joining, Embrace to Succeed

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Every law firm has a unique identifying culture. In order to be successful, individual legal marketing professionals need to understand the culture of the law firm (or in-house legal department) they are considering--or where they have already landed.

A clearly defined culture lets employees know what is expected of them. It also lets employees know what to expect from the organization. A clearly defined culture provides valuable clues about how to navigate the culture and achieve success.

"I like to use the image of a bicycle when describing a law firm's culture," said Susan Lintonsmith, marketing consultant to Einstein Noah Restaurant Group. "The front wheel is the organization's vision or mission. The handlebars are the strategies used to steer the front wheel. The back wheel provides power and forward momentum--the back wheel is the law firm's culture."

Lintonsmith discussed corporate culture and its application to law firms and legal departments at the monthly educational program of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association earlier this year. Throughout the past 22 years, she has gained valuable insight into corporate culture from positions with Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Horizon Organic Dairy for WhiteWave Foods, Western Union, Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut.

"Culture needs constant tending or it will slip," Lintonsmith said." A few years ago, Starbucks came to this stark realization. Howard Schultz put it this way: 'We somehow evolved from a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation to a culture of...mediocrity and bureaucracy. We have somehow lost our edge.' Because of this realization, Starbucks was able to stop its slide and regain momentum."

Understand the Culture Before You Take the Job

Lintonsmith said that traditionally, the culture of any organization is set by its leaders. Problems can arise when a leader comes from a different generation than others within the organization. Baby Boomers--those born between 1946 and 1964--now occupy many leadership positions.

"Boomers are workaholics who live to work and feel rewarded by money and titles," she said. "Members of Gen X and Gen Y work to live and find their rewards in freedom, flexibility and meaningful work. There are differences in use of technology, communication style and even work attire."

Boomers, for example, grew up in a time before computers and adapted to a work world that revolves around technology, she said. But Gen X and Gen Y grew up with laptops, smartphones and other portable technology. As a result, they are perfectly comfortable working "in the cloud" from any location--not just the office.

Lintonsmith said: "Given these differences, it takes real insight for leadership to forge and maintain a meaningful culture that motivates all of a law firm's generations."

Another piece of advice is do your research before accepting any new position. "Ask yourself hard questions about your personal work ethic, work view and work rewards," Lintonsmith said. "Then, ask the right people (often insiders at or alumni of the potential employer) the right questions about the ethic, view and rewards at this organization."

These questions can include: Is the culture gossipy and backstabbing, or helpful and supportive? …