Promoting a good working culture in law firms
- Part 1: What is a manager's role?

16 April 2020

Julie Norris and Jessica Clay spoke at the end of January at the ARK risk and compliance conference on the topic of promoting a good working culture in law firms.  This blog is the first in a series of three and focuses on the role of managers in embedding this culture in the workplace.

The role of managers in promoting a good working culture within law firms


For many years, law firms in England and Wales have adopted the language and approach of "risk and compliance" in dealing with both individual and law firm management and it would be fair to say that the idea of promoting legal ethics, let alone aligning the firm’s culture – its values and objectives - around legal ethics, has generally been viewed without much enthusiasm.

Moving forward

This needs to change. Following the launch of the new Standards and Regulations in November 2019, the  Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) now expects firms to take more responsibility for the actions or inactions of its employees and to promote a culture where allegations of misconduct are taken seriously and investigated at a local level and where prompt and early engagement with the SRA becomes a more routine and standard practice. The expectation of ethical and professional behaviour now attaches to the firm as much as it does the individual; long gone are the days where a firm might have turned a blind eye to the suspected (mis)conduct of its employees or managers on the basis that responsibility lays solely at the door of the regulator to take action.

What can firms do to improve their workplace culture?

There are no quick fixes and improving your firm’s culture will take time. This is made even more challenging, as each firm offers something slightly different and the values each seeks to promote will differ. To add to this complicated picture, culture is not static; it’s ever changing – and this means policies and initiatives cannot stand still or be set in stone. Despite all of the above, here are some universal pointers that you might find helpful:

1. Setting the tone from the top

If you want to get the culture of a law firm right, then everyone has to ‘walk the walk’. Managers and those in positions of responsibility must lead by example and will need to make sure that everyone knows what really matters and what drives the firm in terms of its culture. Indeed, they have a responsibility under the SRA Code of Conduct to do so.

Being a manager brings with it responsibility and accountability and law firms need to be thinking about this competency when they select and help lawyers move towards leadership positions. Each manager will need to understand the firm as a whole, as much as they do their own practice area, and this includes understanding how the firm is positioned. That means breaking down silos, understanding your markets and clients and the firm’s finances. All of this requires a firm to have a culture that encourages transparency, challenge and collaboration amongst managers and accordingly, which sets the right example for employees.


2. Try to assess your firm’s culture – what you need to look out for

Assessing your firm’s culture is not an easy thing to do as every firm is different. Here are some of the ways in which a good and a bad culture might manifest itself:

What might a good culture look like in a law firm?

In a law firm with a constructive and positive culture, it is more likely that:

  • individuals will support and care about one another;
  • individuals will feel excited to come to work;
  • weaknesses will be systematically addressed and improved; and
  • achievements will be celebrated and celebrations will be shared and will be meaningful.

Having a positive culture is likely to bring benefits for the firm, as individuals will produce positive results for the firm but at the same time, individuals will experience personal and professional growth on an individual basis and as a team. 

What might a poor culture look like in a law firm?

Poor culture can manifest itself in many ways within a firm but it is possible that any of the following tell-tale signs could be present:

  • arguing about one’s relative worth and respective compensation;
  • regularly forgetting that the firm is first and foremost a business seeking to achieve common objectives;
  • individuals shouting at others who make mistakes (a ‘blame culture’) and frequently losing their temper;
  • allowing meetings to take place where  individuals  communicate disrespectfully one another (i.e. being tolerant of behaviour which doesn’t demonstrate the firm’s values);
  • certain practice groups or individuals avoiding each other for years after falling out over an issue that was never properly addressed at the time; and
  • allowing powerful and high-billing individuals (the ‘rainmakers’) to display behaviour that would not otherwise be tolerated. 

Self-evidently, poor culture is self-destructive, in that these poor behaviours set the baseline of performance that is deemed acceptable and they become the norm within the firm; individuals who are developed in this environment will observe others around them and are more likely to model their behaviours on them. After working in this way for years, members of a firm with a dysfunctional culture may start to believe that these are acceptable behavioural norms. It is often only when lateral hires do not stick around for very long and performance metrics do not improve with time, that it becomes apparent that the firm’s substandard culture may be to blame. 


3. Consider innovative Initiatives 

This enables everyone an opportunity to continue to learn and develop in their roles, whatever level they are at.For example, think about implementing a “reverse mentoring” scheme. Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) in Australia started a reverse mentoring pilot over 18 months ago.  The scheme is about "pairing up people of different generations with different outlooks, with different skills leads to a much better outcome for everybody." An individual, who was only six months into their graduate programme, volunteered to pair up with the firm’s executive partner, as they wanted to know more about the business. The executive partner learnt to do computer coding and built HSF’s homepage in hypertext markup language (HTML) and CSS (cascading style sheets). They also visited a start-up and undertook a session on blockchain. The pilot has been so successful that the programme has been rolled out across the firm.


4. Consider flexible ways of working

Culture is not static but ever-changing and your policies and initiatives need to reflect this; they cannot be set in stone.  Think about ways in which you can improve your firm’s culture and promote the wellbeing of your staff.  Work/life balance is more important to many than you might be led to believe. Staff who are valued and listened to; who have opportunities to work more flexibly; and who have more work/life balance are more likely to be content in their roles and likely to be more collaborative, energised, positive and productive and as a result, are more likely to be inclined to stay at the firm longer.  This is not something to be underestimated and retention of talent is recognising that you need to build for the future. 


5. Making difficult decisions

As a manager, you will have difficult decisions to make.  You might need to fundamentally re-assess the firm’s direction of travel and stand back and think about what values need to be prioritised.  Yes, your firm is a business seeking to make profit, but you need to think about what are the best ways – for your firm – to achieve this.  Each firm is likely to have a slightly different set of values with a different endgame. This could mean making difficult decisions about individuals who do not display the firm’s values (they might not support wellbeing over profitability or they might turn a blind eye to bullying or inappropriate behaviour in favour of reputation or output) and you may have to contemplate upsetting some rainmakers if you are really committed to promoting a positive culture at your firm. 


Why is this so important?

It is important to understand that this is not just about law firms.  It is about workplace culture, and the recent flurry of media coverage arising out of the #metoo movement reveals a significant (and welcome) shift in focus across most professional sectors and industries to the ethical behaviour of managers and staff.  In the legal sector specifically, we anticipate that a greater emphasis in terms of regulation will continue to be placed on the ethical obligations of all those the SRA regulates and through this new regulatory framework, the SRA is sending a very clear message that it expects all those it regulates to understand what is expected of them. In this new world, there will be very little room for excuses as to a lack of understanding about the applicable ethical and professional obligations; those on the back foot will get left behind and those that think creatively are more likely to prosper and be rewarded with an improved culture within their workplace. 

About the authors

Julie Norris is a Partner in the Regulatory department and specialises in advising law firms and legal professionals on legal ethics, investigations, and public law matters.

Jessica Clay is a Senior Associate in the Regulatory department and specialises in legal services regulation, with a focus on regulatory compliance, legal ethics, investigations and public law matters. 

This blog first appeared on Legal Compliance Insight on 15 April 2020. It is the first part of a three part series. You can read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

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