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  • Law firms as chemistry experiments: Why positive culture is critical

    Getting the right mixture of personal and team chemistry in law firms is critical for retaining productive partners and associates, and to achieving the ideological consistency needed to maintain the positive culture that leads to law firm success.

    Michael Moore 

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    Michael Moore

    “A culture is made, or destroyed, by its articulate voices.” – Ayn Rand

    Oct. 19, 2011 – Given that lawyers are among the most articulate professionals, Ayn Rand’s observation becomes especially relevant when examining law firm cultures. Creating a positive culture requires adoption of shared values and beliefs. Lawyers usually have a strong desire for personal autonomy. This inherent conflict often prevents law firms from achieving the ideological consistency necessary to maintain a positive culture. However, because a law firm’s most valuable assets are also its most mobile assets, getting the right mixture of personal and team chemistry is critical for retaining productive partners and associates.

    What is culture?

    Law firm culture is created by shared values that define a set of expectations for those who chose to embrace the culture. These shared values are demonstrated through behaviors that are deemed appropriate and acceptable for creating success at the law firm. The values then become internalized, part of daily routines. Leaders of law firms who want to actively manage their cultures must be role models of the cultural values to other lawyers and staff. The challenge is that cultural leadership often requires much more active leadership than many law firm leaders are willing or able to provide.

    Defining core values

    Law firms as chemistry experiments: Why positive culture is critical

    At a minimum, a law firm should define the core values that illustrate its culture. As a starting point, ask “What does it mean to be a member of our firm?” “What behaviors demonstrate the conscience or soul of our firm?” Pride is often a more effective motivator of professionals than money and therefore cultural values must be inspirational but also intolerant. As David Maister noted in his book Strategy and the Fat Smoker, “You’ll never be good enough as a firm if participation in excellence is optional. Everyone in the firm has to decide they want to sacrifice some of the present to achieve a better tomorrow.”

    Examples of core values

    Core values require definition of the expected behaviors that demonstrate each value. This allows the law firm to measure individual compliance with each value against a clear set of expectations. For example, in my work with law firms, the following core values have emerged.

    • Integrity: Defined as the expectation of a high degree of certainty between what is said and what is done.
    • Motivation: Defined as having the drive to succeed but within the cultural values of the firm.
    • Understanding: Defined as being able to prioritize tasks while being accountable for how individual actions may affect others at the firm.
    • Knowledge: Defined as recognizing the value of acquiring information and applying this information to develop new decision-making paradigms.
    • Experience: Defined as demonstrating performance excellence with the specific educational and technical background necessary to create success.

    Incorporating style

    The individual styles that make lawyers successful can often be obstacles to adopting shared values. Lawyers are trained to be skeptical and dispassionate when dealing with others. As a result, many law firms become low-trust environments. Law firm leaders need to recognize that not every lawyer can be managed or inspired the same way. Fortunately lawyers’ behavior is not quite as random as it may appear. The following classifications help to understand individual styles.

    • Analytical: These lawyers primarily value facts and details. They often are not responsive to change and not assertive. They prefer to get things exactly right.
    • Amiable: These lawyers primarily value relationships and demonstrate great patience. They are also often not assertive but can be responsive to change. They want everyone “to just get along.”
    • Expressive: These lawyers primarily value recognition and activity. They can be highly assertive and want change for change sake. They expect everyone to follow their lead but often are impulsive and disorganized.
    • Drivers: These lawyers primarily value control and achievement. They can be highly assertive but not responsive to the suggestions of others. They want everyone to just do what they say.

    The adoption of core values must incorporate these various individual styles to be effective. Each lawyer will be motivated in a different way based on individual style. Each lawyer will embrace each of the core values differently based on individual style. The law firm leader’s challenge is to keep the team oriented around core cultural values while energizing each lawyer according to their individual styles.

    Hiring to culture values

    Building a positive culture is as much about who is kept out as who is let in. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identified critical steps to sustained success. The first step was “to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.” Effective hiring for culture fit is absolutely critical. Traditional hiring processes do not test candidates for culture fit. Law firms must adopt new measures of hiring and recruiting, especially when adding lateral partners. Adopting core culture values is a necessary first step but applying culture fit-hiring methods is required to avoid dilution.

    Positive culture as a competitive advantage

    Law firms, more than most other organizations, rely on individual talent to succeed. People are not only valuable assets; they are the source of the value and provide the competitive advantage. The alignment of these “stars” around a positive culture of core values creates a competitive advantage for both recruitment and retention of talent and clients. Perhaps we can learn from a child’s riddle, now featured in a book by Mark Feldman and Michael Spratt on managing transition in mergers and acquisitions. Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left? Five. Why? Because deciding and doing are not the same things. Many law firms want a positive culture, but only the most successful will do anything about it.

    About the author

    Michael Moore, Lewis and Clark 1983, is a professional coach for lawyers and the founder of Moore’s Law, Milwaukee. He focuses in marketing, client development, and leadership coaching for attorneys at all levels of experience. He also advises law firms on strategic planning and resource optimization. He has more than 25 years’ experience in private practice, as a general counsel, in law firm management, and in legal recruiting. For more information, visit

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