A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Law firms have a big problem, and the answer is inside their offices

In Articles, Commentary on 15 March 2022 at 12:14 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 10 March 2022. The article was the #1 most viewed piece in the Companies Section of afr.com on the day of publication.

Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, famously stated that “an organisation is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value”.

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game,” he said. “It is the game.”

So, it is with law firms.

Despite many thriving during the pandemic, there is a deep concern that connections people have with the firm and with each other are getting weaker, not stronger.

As one managing partner put it to me recently, “I worry that the logo on our lawyers’ screens becomes the only real difference between working for us and for another firm.”

There are three main reasons underpinning these perceived threats to firm culture:

  • Remote working: The move to a hybrid operating model may result in people experiencing a working life that has fewer meaningful interactions with fewer people. With weaker emotional bonds, the ties that bind loosen. Most lovers know that long-distance relationships seldom work out.
  • Fatigue: Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor data suggests the past 18 months have been particularly busy. Many senior practitioners are exhausted from heavy workloads as well the stress of living through a major public health crisis. The energy required to rebuild culture and restore relationships is simply not there. Most people at the brink of burnout will seek to lean out rather than lean in.
  • New faces: The war for top legal talent in Australia is hot and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Some firms are now experiencing staff turnover rates of more than 25 per cent. With every departure there is a loss of institutional memory as well as personal loss and disconnection. With every replacement, there is a new set of standards and expectations to shape and fresh relationships to form. The cumulative impact of one in four new faces each year is potentially massive

No quick fix

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy fix. 

Most firms are looking to enhance the work experience of each employee, with the strategies that include:

  • Ensuring every associate has at least one strong mentoring relationships with a senior practitioner;
  • Enhancing partners’ and supervising associates’ skills in giving and receiving feedback;
  • Having an effective workload monitoring system to ensure sustainable work patterns across the team; and
  • Organising one-on-one “stay interviews” that focus on career opportunities and reasons to stay.

All these efforts are commendable, but they can inadvertently exacerbate the cultural atrophy problem.

Sub-cultures

In building stronger vertical relationships within practice teams, there is an increased risk of distance and disconnection with other teams. This could lead to less of a one-firm mindset and the emergence of stronger sub-cultures.

Firms need to work both vertically and horizontally to preserve their culture. The latter means amplifying the role, status and skills of “lateral leaders” who work across the firm connecting people from different practices to address a specific opportunity.

These roles typically include client relationship partners, sector leaders, major matter leads, business service heads and strategic pursuit leads.

Lateral leaders

Effective lateral leadership is largely about facilitating deep cross-practice collaboration. From a culture perspective it enhances understanding, widens networks and creates a stronger identity with the firm and its strategy.

If firms are serious about reducing attrition and preserving culture, they need to create the capacity for partners to be more effective in their leadership roles. It takes time to be a mentor, to supervise and to influence without authority.

Otherwise, the only option is to increase the logo size on the screen and hope for the best.

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