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The key to the success of many law firms can often be found in their organisational culture. But building great culture inside firms is a tricky business, especially during a pandemic.

For Robyn Whittaker, the Chief People Officer at Norton Rose Fulbright Australia, the foundation of great law firm culture is simple: values.

“You have some values that underpin the organisation, that people know about and that then guides the behaviour of the organisation,” Whittaker tells LSJ.

“We’ve got three key values at Norton Rose Fulbright that underpin the firm: quality, unity and integrity. Every organisation would like to have those attributes front and centre. For us, they underpin everything that this organisation is about.

“You’re either consistent or inconsistent with those. If you’re inconsistent with them you’ve got to call it out and manage it, and if you’re consistent with it, great, then keep going”.

Similarly, Nick Crennan, Managing Partner at Colin Biggers & Paisley (CBP), sees values as the building blocks shaping the workplace culture at the Sydney-headquartered firm.

“We have four shared values: respect, loyalty, integrity and balance,” Crennan tells LSJ.

“Those values were generated through consultation. We’ve had them for about 12 years and they underpin everything we do.”

They’re not the only ones keen to point to values as the bedrock of corporate culture at law firms, with most firms espousing lofty principles that staff should aspire to at work.

However, as Crennan explains, it takes more than high-minded values statements to forge culture that actually means something to workers inside firms. Values need to be lived.

Here, he points to leaders at CBP displaying the firm’s values on a daily basis. 

“Your leaders need to be role models for those behaviours. One non-negotiable feature of our culture is that our high performers actually put the shared goals above their own personal interest [and] that is absolutely critical,” he says.

Whittaker, too, stresses the need for those at the top of the firm to set a good example.

“The most important driver of culture is the CEO or the managing partner of an organisation. For some reason, they seem to have this magic power and they influence culture more than any other individual,” she says.

“So, that’s about the way they lead and how true they are to those values, and then it’s how the rest of the leaders lead and how the Managing Partner or CEO holds them accountable.”

The grad experience

As Whittaker and Crennan suggest, strong values and sound leadership are key drivers of positive culture at firms, but other factors, often overlooked, also appear increasingly critical. 

For instance, Griffith University Dean of Law and Head of School Therese Wilson says culture often comes from the ground up via the experiences of those in junior roles.

On this point, she worries about the culture at some firms that sees graduates work long hours in an environment where high-minded ideals can clash with the reality of commerce.

“No one enjoys the idea that you have to work in the office until late every night and account for every six minutes of your time,” the Brisbane-based academic tells LSJ. “That’s not a satisfying way to work for anybody.”

Wilson’s comments follow law firm culture taking the spotlight for all the wrong reasons when claims of exploitation of young lawyers arose from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

Earlier this year, concern over questionable conditions at some law firms culminated in new federal rules mandating that firms conduct regular pay reconciliation for graduate lawyers, clerks and paralegals and advise them in writing as to how their salary is calculated, including what overtime hours are expected, and when penalty rates will apply.

There was a suspicion that if people weren’t physically in the office they were not working, but COVID-19 has taught us that people can be relied upon to get their work done whether they’re at the office or somewhere else.

Navigating COVID-19 

For Wilson, one of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that it has forced firms to adopt flexible work practices. 

She sees the move to working from home as a big positive on this front, although she notes that it took the pandemic to prove to many firms that this pivot wouldn’t dent their bottom line.

“There was a suspicion that if people weren’t physically in the office they were not working, but COVID-19 has taught us that people can be relied upon to get their work done whether they’re at the office or somewhere else, including home,” she says.

“So now, [law firms], having been forced to consider different ways of doing things, have discovered that some of those different ways are better and may even be more satisfying for clients as well, so they can keep their clients happier by being more flexible.”

In Wilson’s opinion, it’s likely that the shift to more flexible work options is here to stay as the business case for it becomes increasingly clear in the wake of COVID-19. 

She points to firms saving money on office space, clients being unaffected by the change, and increased productivity from staff who are now “more satisfied and happier”.

“I think overall it’s forced some of the bigger firms into an area where some of the smaller firms were already headed, and I think it will lead to better and more satisfying and rewarding workplaces for lawyers,” she says.

Transforming workplaces

Some experts take it a step further, arguing that today’s disrupted environment represents the perfect time to examine law firm culture and, if needed, to overhaul it. 

However, as the move to remote working has shown, law firms may need to let go of preconceived ideas about how they make their money if they really want to get onboard.

Amy Gilmore, Director at cultural transformation agency MindNavigator, is one such advocate for reshaping law firm cultures to make them truly “human centred”.

As Gilmore explains to LSJ: “That means a workplace that fosters positive human experiences and values the contribution of each individual. Instead of asking ‘does this individual fit the culture?’, a healthy, growing culture asks ‘how can this individual contribute to the culture?’ This is the basic foundation for diversity and inclusion.”

There are several characteristics, she says, that typify the culture of a human-centred organisation, including creating clear channels for voicing concerns within the organisation, and having respect both for differences in religion and sexual orientation as well as approaches to work issues, among other things.

Other key elements, according to Gilmore, are firms working to foster a culture that values empathy, a sense of purpose, and clear investment by the firm in “the development of individuals both within their roles, as humans, and in terms of career trajectory”.

“These human-centred hallmarks of a good culture are so important because culture guides discretionary behaviour and a culture that fosters care, connection and a mature mindset will find that these qualities prevail beyond the ‘rule book’ in the office,” she says.

“The next step is to implement processes that value human-centred metrics as much as productivity and financial outcome metrics.”

In the end we’re a people business, so if you want people to bring their very best to the organisation you need to demonstrate your care for them.

Measuring culture

When it comes to these processes for capturing culture, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Whittaker says polling staff, as a starting point, is a no-brainer.

On how that’s done, she points to the global law firm’s regular survey of staff that gauges how its leaders are going and the experience of the “people working under them”.

“If you’re going to be committed to building a great culture, you’ve got to be committed to testing it,” she says.

“You’re asking people to tell you what are the three things we could do better, what’s the stuff that’s driving you crazy, and generally how can we improve? You’re just honest and open in the way you engage with people and then you feed it back.”

COVID-19 has ramped up the importance of measuring how the firm’s tracking on the culture front given the unique pressures the pandemic has placed on staff, she says.

The firm has carried out a number of “wellbeing checks” since April and has paid special attention to staff based in Melbourne where the impact of the virus has been most severe.

However, gathering the data is not enough. “You’ve got to commit to getting the feedback,” she says. 

“In the end, we’re a people business, so if you want people to bring their very best to the organisation you need to demonstrate your care for them.”

Act now

McKinsey and Company, the US-based management consulting firm, echoes this point, urging law firms to view COVID-19 as a chance to demonstrate their commitment to culture.

In a recent research paper, it advises leaders at firms to use technology and communication to support employee flexibility, collaboration, and connectivity to “acknowledge and deal with the humanitarian and personal elements of the COVID-19 crisis with empathy”.

“Look for opportunities to reallocate any excess capacity rapidly toward building new firm capabilities or pro bono activities,” it says. 

“Every firm member should see clearly how their work is meaningful through this period.”

Julia Strangio-McRae, co-founder of corporate training and coaching consultancy Mirrored Horizons, agrees that firms keen to start improving their culture must take action that’s measurable, but adds that it must also be consistent. 

It’s what she describes as “choosing a conscious culture”.

“We certainly see stark differences in businesses that see culture as important, invest in it, make it a priority, consciously nurture and grow it, and businesses that leave their culture up to chance,” the Melbourne-based consultant tells LSJ. 

“The reality is that every time you hire a new member of a team or business, their presence dilutes what you have worked to create in your culture. As such, it is important to understand that you must re-invest in curating it.

“(Culture) is not just something you can do once and tick off your to-do list. People, businesses and teams are like living organisms that are constantly changing and evolving as a consequence of their environment, and so too is the work required.”