A firm’s culture(s) may be its greatest strength for determining and achieving its immediate and longer term objectives. However, if that culture is bound to (1) outdated traditions [“because we’ve always done it this way”], (2) management styles that are dysfunctional and inconsistent with the desires and expectations of a majority of the partners, and the needs and priorities of the firm, or (3) outdated philosophies of senior or departed partners that are inconsistent with the marketing and compensation programs required to compete aggressively with other financially successful, pro-active law firms, that culture may be its greatest weakness.

Absent the willingness of lawyer management to be sensitive to the changing needs of a firm, and the desires and expectations of its partners about the core values which guide the firm, including its methods for determining and implementing policies, compensating its lawyers and engaging in strategic and marketing planning, to compete effectively with other law firms in its geographic area, that firm will have problems functioning in its practice environment, and may have difficulty surviving.

Warning Signs:

  1. Partner complaints or suggestions, that they are not being kept informed of firm matters that involve staffing, termination of attorneys, issues that may affect particular partners or their areas of practice, etc.
  2. Feelings that they are being “manipulated” by lawyer management or a group of dominating partners.
  3. Being assigned responsibility for performing certain administrative or substantive tasks without being granted adequate authority to accomplish them.
  4. Unwillingness of the more influential partners to share in the decision making process for the firm.
  5. The sense that decisions are being made by a select few, and that the partner meetings are essentially eyewash, as major decisions are made prior to the meeting, and partners are being “played with.”
  6. Lack of open communications between the more influential partners and the rest of the attorneys. “Other” partners seem to learn about decisions through the “grapevine,” rather than from the decision makers.
  7. Senior (or more influential) partners consider the firm as their private domain, and take others for granted.
  8. Lack of concern about the status or feelings of other partners by some of the more influential partners.
  9. Insensitivity to the personal and professional needs and priorities of partners, i.e., handing them client matters at the last minute and demanding work be performed immediately, or within an unrealistic time frame, even though the matter may have rested on the originating partner’s desk for some time.
  10. Unfair compensation system whereby the more influential partners are greedy and manipulate compensation plans to suit their own purposes.
  11. Lack of adequate planning for transfer of client responsibility from the more senior partners to other mid-level and junior partners; a fall off in business due to client departure that the firm did not anticipate, or plan for, or the end of a significant matter that kept several attorneys and staff fully occupied, and no plan for replacement of that work.
  12. The more senior partners reducing their active involvement in business origination, producing work or firm management, yet still expecting to receive a significant portion of profits.
  13. A minority of the partners making decisions or engaging in activities that ignore/disregard the concerns, interests, wishes or expectations of a majority of the partners.

What to do if These Warning Signs Appear:

  1. Communicate, Communicate and Communicate!
  2. Lawyer management should take particular care to assess the needs, requirements and expectations of all of the other lawyers.
  3. Lawyers should be given the opportunity to participate in those governance issues and to be kept informed about those activities that will influence the firm’s future.
  4. Have regularly scheduled meetings, announce the dates and times of these meetings far enough in advance to clear schedules, and hold them regardless of whether the more influential partners are present.
  5. Prepare an agenda for these meetings; request partners to contribute to the agenda; circulate the agenda prior to the meeting; provide background information when and where possible in advance of the meeting; prepare minutes or summaries of the meeting so there will be a written record of the decisions reached, etc., circulate these minutes to the partners for information purposes.
  6. Encourage partners to speak out on various issues of a policy, financial ad operational nature that will affect the firm and its practice components, presently and in the future, without fear of retribution by the dominant/more influential partners.
  7. Reach a consensus of a significant majority of the partners about the kind of culture they want for the firm. Then develop a plan(s) on how to achieve these goals, with partner responsibility and designated dates for status reporting/implementation.
  8. Insure that the firm has a compensation system that is well conceived and implemented, and that rewards the positive efforts of partners and associates and incents them to perform those activities that will progress the firm in the desired manner.
  9. Provide all lawyers with the opportunity to grow, professionally and personally, by attending CLE, in-house training programs about substantive matters, and, on a selective basis, participating in administrative assignments to enable them learn about managing aspects of the firm, consistent with the culture desired.
  10. Provide opportunities for the mid-level and junior partners (and associates) to participate in the orderly succession of firm management and client development and retention. Be sensitive to the needs and concerns of the older lawyers, and insure that the present compensation system does not work at cross purposes with the firm’s ability to achieve these immediate and longer term objectives.
  11. Follow-up on the progress of the firm and its components to insure that the desired culture is being maintained, and reinforced by all lawyers, as required.
  12. Be sensitive to the need to “tweak” elements of the firm’s culture, in accordance with the priorities and needs of the partners, as required, so as to avoid problems down the road.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates