1. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 1 continued on backWe believe that any legal professional’s hap-piness and success in a legal organizationhave more to do with a particular law firmculture (which is sometimes also referredto as the “personality of a firm”) than withany other factor. This article discusses (a)the importance of firm culture, (b) why somelegal professionals do not give strong con-sideration to firm culture when joining a firm,(c) the reason a failure to seriously considerfirm culture prematurely ends many careers,and (d) why making a lateral move providesthe best opportunity to evaluate firm cultureand the course of your career.A. The Importance of Firm CultureJust as the work, salary, and prestige levelcan vary from firm to firm, the cultures offirms can be very different. Consider thefollowing examples about the cultures ofvarious firms:There are firms where style is definitelyvalued over substance.There are firms where substance is definitelyvalued over style.There are firms where people wander aroundin Birkenstocks and call each other “dude.”There are firms where staff members mustaddress partners as “Mr.” and “Ms.”There are firms where associates need tomake appointments with partners beforespeaking with them.There are firms where partners chew to-bacco in the office and during firm meetings.There are firms that value your family con-nections more than your work ability.There are firms that believe everyone whoputs in a solid effort over the course of six orseven years should be made partner.There are firms that have been “collapsing”for years but portray themselves to membersas “strong and powerful.”Some of the examples above are set forthfrom the perspective of an associate becausethe experience of all staff members in afirm culture in many ways often reflects theexperiences of the associates in the firm. Wecould go on and on. Suffice it to say, however,that your success and happiness as a legalprofessional may have more to do with yourthoughtful and intelligent decision to join afirm that best fits you culturally than withyour legal skills. People simply want to bearound people they like, and when people likeeach other there is a lot of beneﬁt that comes toboth sides of the relationship.OBSERVATION 1:We all have certainly heard of how AlbertEinstein flunked out of grade school. PerhapsEinstein was too concerned with the theoreti-cal rather than the practical. Whatever thereason, Einstein simply did not experiencesuccess in the environment he was in at thetime because the school, and the people in it,could not understand where he was comingfrom. Do the people in your firm understandwhere you are coming from? In the law firmenvironment, when a given legal professionaland the firm see eye-to-eye, success is farmore likely than in situations where they donot.B. Legal Professionals Sometimes Fail to GiveStrong Consideration to Firm Culture WhenChoosing a FirmThe problem with the way some legal profes-sionals manage their careers is that they aremotivated primarily by prestige and moneyfactors more than the cultures of variousfirms in making their decisions between pos-sible places to practice.When a legal professional evaluates offersbased upon where they believe they fit inthe best, that legal professional is far morelikely to find happiness and success in thepractice of law. The problem, however, isthat most legal professionals simply do notthink this way. The reason we believe this isso is because legal professionals are simplycompetitive by nature.In almost all respects, the largest, mostprestigious and highest paying firms arethe hardest to get the best positions in. Thepressure to join these firms typically com-mences when a legal professional first joinsa firm. Law students and practicing attorneysoften evaluate each other based upon theirability to get positions with these types offirms, and staff members do the same. Formost legal professionals, the pressure to getthese types of jobs is enormous.In many respects this is perfectly pre-dictable. In order to get into top law firmenvironments, many legal professionals havelong been motivated to attain high levels ofachievement in order to succeed. Those whosucceed in college, paralegal academy, orFirm Culture Matters Most[Law Firm Staff]
2. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 2 continuedlaw school at exceptionally high levels moreoften than not are those who make the deci-sion to sacrifice free time and comfort in theshort term to enjoy better lives in the future.The problem with this type of thinking isthat it can often lead legal professionalsto make horrible decisions in how they runtheir professional careers. If a legal profes-sional is thinking in terms of what they cando to look best to others, they may often bemore focused on this thinking than on what isbest for them individually. None of this is tosay that there are not numerous advantagesfrom being part of a truly significant law firm.The point is that this should not be the onlyconsideration a legal professional bases theircareer choices on.OBSERVATION 2:The stereotype much of the general public hasabout attorneys is not a good one: In a lot ofrespects, the general public sees attorneys asultra competitive, money and power hungryindividuals. Many attorneys in fact personifythese traits and have subordinated much oftheir happiness in life to the pursuit of money,respect, power, and admiration from theirpeers. This perception leads many attorneysto base their presumed happiness on thingslike having the largest house, the most expen-sive car and other traditional accoutrementsof the “American Dream.”C. The Failure to Consider Firm Culture Prema-turely Ends of Limits Many Careers That CouldHave Otherwise Been Highly SuccessfulIt is easy to find out a law firm’s compensationstructure, or their billable hour requirements(which will provide an indication of the workload that can be expected by all staff mem-bers), but those are the simple and superficialdistinctions to make among firms. It is not aseasy to gauge a firm’s prestige level - how-ever, that can usually be done with help. Itis more difficult to evaluate a firm’s culture,and whether that culture is where you will behappy and remain so over the course of yourcareer.One of the largest mistakes legal profession-als make when evaluating competing offersbetween firms is believing that money is themost important factor they should be consid-ering. While money is certainly an importantcomponent of any analysis, it is not the mostimportant factor in determining a given legalprofessional’s happiness over the course oftheir career. If you think money is an impor-tant consideration in joining a firm, you maybe making a horrible mistake. If you go to theright firm, you may be practicing law in fouryears and have a stable career and life. If yougo to a firm just because of monetary consid-erations, you may wind up so disgruntled withworking in a law firm that you are not workingat all.The above observation is compounded by theirony that many legal professionals wind upin the largest and most prestigious firmsprecisely because they show so much promiseand have excelled to such a degree in theirlegal careers. We have seen resumes of legalprofessionals who worked in first rate NewYork law firms but ended up spending theircareers aimless, on career paths that do notsound compelling to many highly educated le-gal professionals. This is not to say that thereis anything wrong with this type of careerpath. The problem is that many of these samelegal professionals may believe they are find-ing happiness in jobs apart from the law whenthere is a possibility they could have foundhappiness in a law practice if they had chosena firm that matched their interest culturally.OBSERVATION 3:On a day-to-day basis, in each of our of-fices, we speak with legal professionals whobegan their careers with ultra prestigioushigh-paying law firms. Many of these personsleft those firms two to seven years into theircareers there because they became so disil-lusioned. Most of them say things like “I wouldnever work in another law firm - I wouldonly work in industry or in an in-house legalenvironment.” The resumes of these legalprofessionals are sometimes littered with onefirm job after another where the next and thenthe next firm were virtually identical in termsof culture to the firm they joined first.Of course these legal professionals are nothappy practicing in a law firm: They have onlyworked for one type of law firm during theirentire careers. The problem is that these per-sons may have worked in a firm culture whichwas such a bad fit for them that they nevergot the opportunity to really find out what itwas like practicing law with a group of peoplethey like, respect and profit emotionally fromworking with. Not all legal professionals arethe same. Fitting in with the community oflegal professionals that make up a particularlaw firm is the key to long-term success andsatisfaction in law firm life. Not fitting in is thekey to failure or the decision to take anothercareer path.Consider the choice of where to live, andcompare the process of making that decisionwith the decision to join any particular firm.Some of us prefer the lifestyle in New Yorkto Los Angeles, or prefer San Francisco toSeattle. Preference for one city or neighbor-hood is entirely personal and individual. Theconsiderations are whether we feel acceptedand appreciated in a community and whetherwe see people around us that share the samegoals and aspirations. Whether that city sup-ports and enhances our lifestyle becomes adriving force in a person’s decision.You should constantly ask yourself, “Is thisfirm a place where I will feel accepted? Will Ibe surrounded by people with the same valuesand goals? Will this firm compliment my life-style? What is the culture of the firm?”We are not saying that geography is thesame as culture. However, the same factors
3. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 3 continued on backthat drive us to feel happy and accepted ina particular town or city are relevant whenchoosing a firm. All in all, the key is to spendsome time studying different firms and cometo some conclusions about what type of firmyou believe you are best suited to join.D. Making a Move is Sometimes Your BestChance to Find Your Perfect Firm CultureMany of our candidates, when preparing foran interview, want help identifying thosequestions that will help them unearth the trueculture and environment at a firm. In shortform, the question that needs to be answeredfor each legal professional is simply “will Ilike it at this firm?” Unfortunately, try as wemay, we cannot always answer these ques-tions as well as we would like. The culture of afirm may vary from practice group to practicegroup, and it is impossible to pin down withany meaningful certainty whether or not agood firm is always a good fit. Often, the onlyway to learn this is to actually go to the inter-views and speak with the persons you may beworking with.It’s important to remember that the interviewprocess as a legal professional, especially forattorneys and specialty law firm staff mem-bers such as IT professionals, is much differ-ent than when as a student you interviewedfor a summer clerkship. A law firm is typicallynot really concerned with ‘competing’ for anyone particular candidate. In this heightenedcompetitiveness, it can sometimes be difficultfor the legal professional interviewing for thejob to get the sense of whether this particularlaw firm is made up of a group of lawyers withwhom they want to spend the rest of their ca-reer. Keep your best interests at heart and doeverything you possibly can to ensure that youfind this firm. Obviously, your task is to get thejob; however, you also need to understand thefirm’s culture. Law Firm Staff, Inc. has identi-fied several ways in which you can evaluatewhether a particular firm is right for you.1. Preparation is the First Key to Evaluating FirmCultureYou’ve gotten an interview. Before theinterview, research as much as possible todetermine the ‘objective’ factors: How big isthe office? What is the salary? What are theminimum billable hour requirements? In ouropinion, this objective fact gathering is help-ful in determining how well the firm is doingfinancially and how it has grown over time. Onthe cultural level, though, these factors areless important. It is the less obvious criteriaand subjective information that make the dif-ference in figuring out a firm’s culture.Partner/Associate Ratio:This objective indicator can be important indetermining the more subjective issue ofoverall satisfaction with a firm. Do you thrivein a collaborative yet competitive atmosphere?Do you prefer to work with partners or as-sociates? If you are the type of person whoperforms well in a competitive environmentand enjoys having opportunities to distinguishyourself with your work product, you mayvery well feel comfortable in an environmentwhere there are more associates for eachpartner. Likewise, some attorneys may bemore interested in a place where there arefewer associates for each partner, and part-nership is more a function of staying aroundthan distinguishing yourself. Think about whattype of environment is going to help you thriveas an attorney. Will you do better in a situa-tion where you are primarily assigned to onepartner, or where you are free to work with avariety of individuals in a practice group?Diversity:It may also be important for you to look at thefirm’s commitment to diversity. We don’t knowof any firm that doesn’t have an anti-dis-crimination policy. However, some firms aremore proactive in this area than others. Is itimportant to you that there are a good numberof legal professionals of color at the firm?Home v. Satellite Ofﬁce:Where is the firm’s main office located? Isit one of the laid-back west-coast firms? Insome cases, the personality of the main officecarries over to each of the firm’s satelliteoffices, regardless of where those offices maybe. Frequently, satellite offices of large firmsscore big points in associate satisfaction sur-veys. Although we don’t believe that it’s fairto generalize, we do believe that some of thebest opportunities for personal growth exist insatellite offices.Keep in mind that some firms may be as dif-ferent from office to office as two separatefirms in the same city. Can you rely on yourfriend in Dallas to tell you about life in theirLos Angeles office? Maybe not. Find out aboutthe firm as a whole, and then how the officesrelate to and identify with each other. More-over, you may prefer the lifestyle in the headoffice of the firm if becoming involved in firmmanagement is important to you over time.Conversely, however, many legal profession-als working in satellite offices feel less secureabout their careers because managementdecisions may be made far away, and thisrelative lack of security naturally carries overto other legal professionals within the firm.Additionally, because management decisionsare made far away, the firms are often lesssecure in promising promotions to their legalprofessionals in a satellite office. Becausethese decisions may be made only through themain office, satellite administrators may havelittle idea about a particular legal profession-al’s prospects for advancement. Senior legaladministrators in a satellite office may alsobe uncertain about the course of their owncareers!On rare occasions, a large firm will open asatellite office to suit one particular clientor practice group, only to close that office
4. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 4 continuedrelatively quickly based upon managementdecisions in the home office. These decisionsmay take the senior administrator in thesatellite office by surprise. None of this is tosay that all satellite offices are bad - in fact,good satellite offices are the rule rather thanthe exception - it is just to say that you need tobe careful in evaluating the culture of a satel-lite office. Ask yourself and your interviewerswhatever questions you feel might be helpful.Does the office appear stable? Who are its cli-ents? Does the office generate its own clientsor serve those of the main office only? Doesthe satellite office have a history of promotingassociates to partner?Location, location, location:Where is the office located? Of all the fac-tors, we find that this tends to be the leastimportant factor in evaluating a firm’s culture.A California firm known for having attorneyswearing Birkenstock sandals at work (not allof them are…) may have a New York office withthat same type of atmosphere. The Wash-ington D.C. branch office of a New York firmmay get the benefit of highly sophisticatedcorporate deal work. However, even in Hawaiior Miami, for example, there are going to beradical distinctions among the firms. Thisdistinction is paramount and important. Thecity makes little difference in a lot of respects.There are laid back firms in Chicago, down theblock from offices where you wouldn’t think ofentering without your most formal businessattire. The key is understanding the variouscultures of the firms themselves.Clientele:Who is the firm representing? Is the firm rep-resenting young Internet start-ups or large to-bacco companies? Many firms represent a mixof clients, but investigating the industries thata particular firm targets can say a lot aboutthe firm. How risk averse is the firm? Will theyundertake representation of a young companywho may not be around in 5 years? Or will afirm forgo business in an effort to preservea few solid relationships with long-standingclients? How much of the firm’s revenue isbased on any one particular client? If a lawfirm never allows any one particular client torepresent more than a small percentage of itsoverall business, you know that this firm is notwilling to allow its long-term economic healthto rely on that of the companies it represents.Firms that represent entrepreneurial clientscan also be fast paced and exciting places towork. Smaller clients may also tend to be lessconservative and crave insight.As firms become more institutionalizedand reliant on revenue streams from largerclients, they become more conservative andmore risk averse for fear of losing that client.That’s when associates and partners becomereally conservative, and a culture developswhere people worry about saying the wrongthing and a “cover your rear” mentality candevelop. We have all heard the story - in someform - of the secretary who made some smallerror and cost the big firm its biggest client.This type of culture can be good for somepeople in that it carries a lot of predictabilityand is comforting to many legal professionals.As you can see, the types of clients a firm hascan help shape the culture. None of theseobservations apply to all firms, but there aresome consistencies which merit observation.This can even carry over to the dress codefirms have. Many law firms instituted businesscasual dress to attract the younger technol-ogy clients. To attract today’s dressed downindustries, some law firms encourage theirlawyers to wear casual clothes to the officeto ‘mirror’ the environment of their clients.In other cases, only white shirts and ties formen are acceptable while meeting and work-ing with a client. Many firms try to strike abalance by staying casual during the uncom-fortably hot summer months and returning tobusiness attire for the rest of the year.Firm Governance:How a law firm conducts its day-to-daybusiness is important. Lawyers have to runthe business of their law firm, and how theychoose to structure the firm can say a lotabout its culture. The business model a lawfirm chooses often reveals the core values ofthe organization. Generally, firms are gov-erned in one of several ways.The democratic firm allows each lawyerand staff member to become involved in thedecision making, from new hires of legalprofessionals, to compensation to long termplanning. Most firms, because they are orga-nizations of legal professionals and becausethey ultimately exist to provide legal services,grant a greater measure of control to the peo-ple working in the firm. For many large firms,the democracy may only include partners, soit is not necessarily realistic that a secretarywill be making any type of management deci-sions - or even weighing in with an opinion.However, many democratically run firms dohave some level of staff involvement in thefirm’s governance, such as on pro bono com-mittees or with respect to firm events. Thistype of culture is entirely inclusive, althoughsometimes with the result of having too muchadministration bogging down each individuallegal professional’s already heavy workload.The values reflected here are participationand integration, which may come at the cost ofexpediency of consistency.Many law firms govern using a small, central-ized committee of decision makers, whichresults in greater consistency in terms of firmvision and management. However, this cultureis more exclusive in terms of firm governance,which may turn off the legal professional thatwants to be a part of the decision-making and
5. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 5 continued on backplanning efforts of a firm. In this system offirm governance, it’s important to find out howthese leaders are chosen and the values theyhold dear.At the end of the day, however, what is moreimportant than the method of governanceis the reason behind why a particular firmchooses the business model it does. Asking alaw firm’s associates or partners why thingsare the way they are helps one understanda firm’s culture and vision for the future. Ifyou hear that the goals of the business matchyours, you have likely found a culture in whichyou will be happy and succeed.Word on the Street:You probably know the reputation of the firmwhere you’re interviewing. Is it known aroundtown as a sweatshop or a ‘quality of life’ firm?BE CAREFUL! While we believe that trackingdown fellow legal professionals or colleaguesat a particular firm to ask about their particu-lar experience has value, broad generaliza-tions about a firm’s culture are often just that:generalizations. Even if a reputation is mostlyon target, you may be looking to join a practicearea or work with a partner that is decidedlyunlike the overall firm culture.But what does ‘reputation’ mean in terms ofevaluating a firm? Although it’s not neces-sarily wise to make assumptions about a firmbased on reputation, what people say about afirm may help you define whether you fit intothe culture. What does it mean to be a ‘whiteshoe’ firm? Historically, the phrase ‘whiteshoe firms’ is associated with large New Yorkfirms with strong corporate practices. Thereare, however, ‘white shoe’ firms in every ma-jor legal market, including Chicago, Los Ange-les, San Francisco and Washington D.C. Often,the clients of these firms will be Fortune500 companies and other large institutionalclients with long-standing relationships withtheir particular firm. One advantage of thistype of firm is security. Because these firmshave such strong ties to their clients (some-times ties that date back over 100 years!), thechances of those clients, or the relationshipswith those clients deteriorating may be lesslikely. This environment, in general, will bemore formal than others, and is less likely toembrace trends in business casual apparel.“Lifestyle” or “quality of life” is another waythe legal community may refer to a certainfirm. These terms have become somewhathackneyed of late, but still have value interms of defining a particular firm. A qualityof life firm is fairly self-explanatory, which isto say that the firm has placed a premium onallowing associates to have a life outside ofthe firm. What does that mean? Sometimes, itmeans a slightly lower billable hour require-ment than at other firms. Other times, it maymean that the firm’s management is moreamenable to other situations other than typi-cal full-time associate and staff positions, in-cluding part-time, telecommuting, flextime, ornon-partnership track. The popularity of thisterm has caused it to be somewhat diluted.We find that there are very few firms willingto define themselves as anything but firmsthat value legal professionals’ quality of life.Don’t take these types of labels at face value,and investigate what that term means within aparticular firm.You may also want to look at the politics of aparticular firm. Some firms actively recruitattorneys of various national origins, races, orsexual orientations. Some firms have a com-mitment to pro bono that rewards legal pro-fessionals for their dedication to non-billablepursuits. Many firms are politically active,and are sometimes made up of law partnerswho have held prestigious posts in a varietyof elected offices. Some firms are famous forhaving ties with certain parties or administra-tions; others have ‘raised’ prestigious judgesor professors. Do the research to determinewhether the firm in question seems to becomprised of the same kind of attorneys asyou are, or as you aspire to be.2. The absolute best way to evaluate whethera ﬁrm is right for you is to meet with the legalprofessionals at the ﬁrm, and to focus on theinterview process.When you are in an office for an interview,what is the single most important way tofind out what the firm culture is like? Ask.Certainly, at the interview stage, you may feellike you are simply getting the ‘party line.’However, you are familiar with acting like alawyer, whether you are licensed as an attor-ney or not, and you are capable of evaluatingthe sincerity and enthusiasm in the response.Ask each and every person to describe theculture and community in the firm, and askthem to tell you what that means to them.Ask your interviewers to compare their firmto other firms in the same market so that youcan begin to make some distinctions. Remem-ber that all of the legal professionals madethe same decision you’ll be faced with afterinterviewing: “Why this firm?” Find out howeach lawyer got in front of you, and ask themhow they feel about their decision to practiceat that firm. Learning the individual stories ofthe attorneys you meet will go a long way to-ward helping you make your decision. Askingthis type of question will also ingratiate theinterviewer to you.Look around the office as you are directed toyour interview(s). See how the partners andassociates treat the legal professionals in thesupport staff. Notice how the support stafftreat each other. Don’t overlook a slip-up inthis area. The staff members know you areconsidering the culture of their firm, and theyshould be careful or well managed enough tosee that you are given the right impression.You may be the type of person who enjoysbeing able to come into the office and crankout her work for the day, or you may enjoyspending time ‘shooting the breeze’ with otherlawyers. See whether individual office doorsare closed or open. Pay attention to people’swork styles, and compare them to yours. Youmay enjoy a more ‘old-school’ law firm envi-
6. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 6ronment, or you may thrive in a more modern‘team’ approach. Notice whether people calleach other by their first names, or whetherthey are more formal. Although you shouldalways be aware of the fact that you are beingevaluated, and act accordingly, keep your eyesand ears open to more than just the answersto your questions.Again, be careful. Sometimes legal profes-sionals interviewing for a position swing toofar in terms of evaluating: spending all of yourtime in this process wondering “what can thelaw firm do for me?” will prevent you fromshowing a potential employer that you are agood match for them. This is a two way street,so showing a law firm what you are made ofis just as important during an interview asevaluating the firm.3. What does An Offer Say About Firm Culture?Here’s where it gets easy. Receiving an offerfrom the firm with whom you interviewed isthe single best indicator that they are a goodfit for you. Although it may be difficult toimagine after going back to a law firm timeand time again to interview, receiving an offerof employment means, at a minimum, that aparticular firm ‘gelled’ with you more thanwith any other candidate applying for thatparticular position. Remember, a law firm willnot extend an offer to someone they don’t like,don’t respect, and with whom they don’t wantto spend their time.Still don’t know? Ask to go back. Sometimesa callback schedule wasn’t as well roundedas it could have been, in terms of includinga variety of associates, partners, or differ-ent practice groups. Law firms are generallyvery accommodating in terms of schedulingpost-offer lunches or meetings. Everyone inthis process understands that accepting a newoffer is a big decision, and generally everyonewill be amenable to providing you with any ad-ditional information you may need. Sometimesit’s easier to evaluate your fit in a particularfirm when you don’t feel the pressure of hav-ing to ‘perform’ in an interview.E. ConclusionsThe key to true job satisfaction is determin-ing which firm’s culture suits you and yourcareer. Finding the right culture will allow youto find a job that won’t feel like work. Whatis going to make the difference over time isnot a $5,000 per year salary differential; it’swhether you feel comfortable and appreciatedin a particular environment. No matter whatthe reputation of the firm, going through theprocess of discovering who the people are andwhat they think of you and your skills will bethe best indicators of long-term satisfactionand success.Luckily, finding your place is not only up toyou. Law Firm Staff, Inc. is knowledgeableabout the various firm cultures, and we canhelp you determine the firm community that isright for you.