What Is Good Law Firm Culture—and How Is It Changing?

Company Culture

When lawyers are asked what makes their law firm unique, many will answer with some variant of “culture.” But the right “fit” isn’t only about clients and an outward-facing reputation. It’s also about internal culture, and it’s increasingly important to a younger generation of lawyers. 

The changes may be gradual, but up-and-coming talent is making waves by valuing culture when choosing when to move on from a firm—and when to stay.

Work-life balance 

Many of today’s millennials—typically defined as those born between 1981 and 1996—graduated from college or law school shortly before, after, or during the Great Recession. 

They were raised on the idea that working hard and earning a degree would land them a stable, salaried job. But suddenly, that promise evaporated. Those who did find the kind of job they’d hoped for weren’t the norm. They were lucky.

The Great Recession shook the foundations for many. For Millenials, it raised fundamental questions about the wisdom of building an entire life around a job—because that job could always go away. The result is a generation of workers who value work-life balance.

Many firms have begun to codify that balance in policy. Still, for older partners who didn’t get to experience those benefits for themselves—perhaps they worked through the births of all their children—there can be a lag between what’s acknowledged on paper and what their own lives have taught them is “normal.”

That lag can cost firms talent. Like most forms of change, implementing a better work-life balance can be put off for a while, but those who adjust now will be ahead of the competition.

Remote options

The pandemic has shown us all just how feasible it is to work from home. While there are also significant benefits to face-to-face collaboration,  most firms don’t need everyone in the office every day with the right tech. Polls are consistently showing that most staff want a hybrid office-and-home mix

Millennials, who have never known a professional world without constant tech innovations, tend to be comfortable learning to use new programs and solutions. And by factoring the option of remote flexibility into where they choose to work, they’re pushing law firms to embrace a more hybrid model, too.

Showing respect

In the past, law firms operated on a solid sense of hierarchy. That hierarchy is, of course, still factored into how people are paid, but there’s increasing pushback at firms where it’s factored into how people are treated.

Particularly for millennials seeking a work-life balance, being stressed out, cold-shouldered, or simply ignored is no longer going to cut it. They don’t want to bring unnecessary work stress home with them at the end of the day. And there’s an increasing body of research that shows that being short with others negatively impacts productivity.

Conversely, building personal connections with team members goes a long way toward helping staff appreciate where they work. Many law firms are already doing this with partners who listen, check-in face-to-face, and honestly answer relationship-building questions, like, “How are you?”

If relationships matter when it comes to clients, then they matter among team members too. Consider planning events and activities that help build rapport among all levels of staff.

Future of the firm 

Ultimately, millennials are the future of today’s law firms, and once hired, it’s in partners’ best interest to keep them. Continuously training new staff isn’t anyone’s idea of efficiency. And as the oldest millennials hit their forties, more will become partners and reshape firm culture according to their values.

Firms know this, which is why they’re beginning to change. Still, it can help to be proactive. Does your firm have policies that help establish a work-life balance, and do staff feel empowered to use them? How do you encourage personal connection among partners, associates, assistants, and the office team at large? And how can you leverage tech to accommodate some remote flexibility?

Answering these questions can help create concrete steps forward.

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