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Law firm culture: understand before joining, embrace to succeed.


Every law firm has a unique identifying culture. In order to be successful, individual legal marketing professionals need to understand the culture of the law firm (or in-house legal department) they are considering--or where they have already landed.

A clearly defined culture lets employees know what is expected of them. It also lets employees know what to expect from the organization. A clearly defined culture provides valuable clues about how to navigate the culture and achieve success.

"I like to use the image of a bicycle when describing a law firm's culture," said Susan Lintonsmith, marketing consultant to Einstein Noah Restaurant Group. "The front wheel is the organization's vision or mission. The handlebars are the strategies used to steer the front wheel. The back wheel provides power and forward momentum--the back wheel is the law firm's culture."

Lintonsmith discussed corporate culture and its application to law firms and legal departments at the monthly educational program of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association earlier this year. Throughout the past 22 years, she has gained valuable insight into corporate culture from positions with Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Horizon Organic Dairy for WhiteWave Foods, Western Union, Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut.

"Culture needs constant tending or it will slip," Lintonsmith said." A few years ago, Starbucks came to this stark realization. Howard Schultz put it this way: 'We somehow evolved from a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation to a culture of...mediocrity and bureaucracy. We have somehow lost our edge.' Because of this realization, Starbucks was able to stop its slide and regain momentum."

Understand the Culture Before You Take the Job

Lintonsmith said that traditionally, the culture of any organization is set by its leaders. Problems can arise when a leader comes from a different generation than others within the organization. Baby Boomers--those born between 1946 and 1964--now occupy many leadership positions.

"Boomers are workaholics who live to work and feel rewarded by money and titles," she said. "Members of Gen X and Gen Y work to live and find their rewards in freedom, flexibility and meaningful work. There are differences in use of technology, communication style and even work attire."

Boomers, for example, grew up in a time before computers and adapted to a work world that revolves around technology, she said. But Gen X and Gen Y grew up with laptops, smartphones and other portable technology. As a result, they are perfectly comfortable working "in the cloud" from any location--not just the office.

Lintonsmith said: "Given these differences, it takes real insight for leadership to forge and maintain a meaningful culture that motivates all of a law firm's generations."

Another piece of advice is do your research before accepting any new position. "Ask yourself hard questions about your personal work ethic, work view and work rewards," Lintonsmith said. "Then, ask the right people (often insiders at or alumni of the potential employer) the right questions about the ethic, view and rewards at this organization."

These questions can include: Is the culture gossipy and backstabbing, or helpful and supportive? Does it value individual or team efforts? What are the real hours? How much time is spent in meetings? She said, "Always remember--no matter how tempting the job offer, you have many choices. The workplace culture must be as attractive as the job itself."

Ensure a Good Fit

The best cultural fit occurs when an individual understands his or her own motivations. What are your interests? You also need to understand your own values--whether individual, cultural or generational. A person who is structured and process-oriented will succeed best in a structured and process-oriented culture. A creative person thrives to his or her full potential in a creative culture.

"A strong performance culture will value what you accomplish rather than how you accomplish it," said Lintonsmith.

A strong style culture values how you do things. A style culture tends to have lots of rituals--like customer-care campaigns and employee recognition events--that clearly communicate these values. Some organizations stress results, others style.

"Once you understand your own interests, values and motivation, you need to find a professional home where interests, values and firm culture all intersect," she said.

Accept, Adapt--Or Move On

Working in an environment that is a bad cultural fit can leave you with two options: you can accept the culture and do your best to adapt to it--or you can move on.

"If you try to fight an established workplace culture, you will never win," Lintonsmith said. "Listen and learn, so that you can use the culture to your advantage. Network, build relationships and ask questions about how things are done. Find a mentor. Ask for help. Never gossip or complain about the existing culture."

An established culture, often found in mature organizations, is harder to change than a weak culture, often found in younger organizations.

"The existing culture is created by and important to leadership," said Lintonsmith. "It is more enduring than you are. Intentional, strategic cultural changes can take up to 15 years to execute. Before the culture will change, you will be seen as a 'bad fit' and replaced. So if you want to stay and succeed, adapt your attitude. You cannot control the wind, but you can adjust your sails to work with the prevailing wind."

One difficult cultural challenge takes place when one law firm acquires or is acquired by another--an increasingly common situation in the past year. "The dominant culture is usually the culture of the acquirer," Lintonsmith said. "Do not fight it. Things may be chaotic for a while but by listening and learning, you can adapt."

Every law firm or legal department is different--with its own rules, individuals and challenges. Success and satisfaction with your work rests on your ability to understand--and then navigate--the unique workplace culture.

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer, ghostwriter and blogger ( who works closely with professional services providers to help them achieve name recognition and new business through publication of keyword-rich content for the web and social media sites, as well as articles and books. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or
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Author:Raasch, Janet Ellen
Publication:Strategies: The Journal of Legal Marketing
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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