Law firm culture: its impact on revenue, recruitment and retention

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Deborah Farone
Farone Advisors, New York City

On September 29, the IBA’s Law Firm Management Committee presented an exciting panel on law firm culture and its relation to revenue, recruitment and retention. The session featured Gbenga Oyebode, Co-Founder of Aluko & Oyebod, Lagos; David Robert, the former Chief Executive Officer of Great Place to Work, Massachusetts; David Wittmann, a partner of Slaughter and May, London and Sally King, Executive Director of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, New York City. The moderator was Deborah Farone of Farone Advisors, New York City.

The panellists agreed that culture is an amalgam of many things. While it may be assisted by the creation of a mission statement or code of ethics, culture is ultimately created by the nuance of how workers are treated by leadership and one another within an organisation. Law firms that focus on strong positive culture are generally intentional on how they work with people when they arrive at the firm. Perhaps as important, they also focus on how people are treated when they depart, regardless of the circumstances.

Having a mission statement that is clearly articulated and communicated can be a good building block, but producing a culture with intention goes beyond putting ideals into words. As David Robert remarked, the goal he has for his clients is to ‘establish a long-term sustainable environment, where you have continued positive financial outcomes, coupled with a high-level of resilience.’ David pointed out that resilient firms can confront challenges in a far more efficient manner.

Culture is a determinant of many things that impact the firm. The panel discussed the role that internal culture has on a law firm’s brand. The impact is multipronged, as brand affects not only recruitment decisions by lateral, law school and clerk candidates, but on the hiring of the firm by clients and on referral business. 

Culture is not just about what the firm represents it to be, but what behaviour leadership rewards and those behaviours it does not tolerate. How a firm treats a ‘bad actor’ is indicative of the firm’s leadership and the behaviour it implicitly or explicitly condones.

The panellists also agreed that clients look for firms with stable and positive cultures. They want to know that the organisation’s lawyers have a shared ethic and work together to deliver the best possible legal product. 

Sally King pointed out that while it is vital for firms to act responsibly, it is more than just putting things into words. ‘One thing to remember is to keep communicating and walk the talk. Make sure that you are showing, not just telling’, said Sally. She reminded the audience that pre-pandemic, law firm leaders were involved in discussing engagement within the workforce. As Sally said, an engaged workforce leads to high profitability. ‘I think having a strong culture is the underpinning of having a strong workforce and partnership. The silver lining of this is that we are able to see the personal engagement’.

As we’ve seen with the pandemic, culture is continually evolving. How a firm’s leadership handles a crisis such as the pandemic will certainly influence a cultural change. While crises tend to bring people together, and this is certainly the case with the pandemic, how the firm responds to challenge often sets a blueprint for the future.

David Wittmann of Slaughter and May said it was important to keep on reinforcing cultural values, but that they should allow organisations to change and in that context, in applying them one should consider what changes might be required to reflect some of the stresses we are going through. David reminded the audience to ask themselves, 'How do you balance economics with health and well-being, and hopefully in a way that still reflects your core values?'

Gbenga Oyebode of Aluko & Oyebode pointed out that changes in culture evolve very quickly. 'In Lagos, the office commute can take four or five hours a day. Therefore apart from being the new reality, working from home is an effective way of doing business. Together with our associates and Generation Z working from home has become the culture of the firm.'

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