Are the Cultures of Law Firms Dying?

While at the NVCA meeting, I had a good discussion with a general counsel of a venture capital firm (name unreleased) who posited that cultures at law firms are dead / dying.

His theory was that 10 years ago, one could hire a law firm not only based on skill, but also culture.  Some firms where aggressive, some more laid back, some more nerdy technicians, etc.  In short, you could find good lawyers with cultures that either were similar to yours, or were needed for a particular matter.

Today, however, his feeling was that law firms have become homogenous.  The last ten years have seen legal fees and legal salaries grow exponentially.  With this, we’ve seen more transition and firm switching with lawyers than we’ve ever seen.  Because of this, firm DNA has been diluted.  Consider it the free agency era in law firms.

Furthermore, the layoffs that are occurring are only speeding up this process.

It’s an interesting theory and one that sounds correct.  I’ve certainly noticed over the years that the unique firm cultures that existed a while ago are disappearing.  Yes, there are still cultures at firms and some of the "old guard" still reflect the attitudes 10 years ago. That being said, I think he has a point.  What do you think?

  • Dave

    The firms built by lateral hiring appear to have no common culture or style, but I do not think law firm culture is dead. Is it possible that lack of common culture can actually be a firms’ culture? Many firms that I have dealt with are very scattered, but as I think about it all have a heavy lateral hiring culture.

    I tend to think lawyers are products of wherever they spent their first five years as a lawyer so if a firm is predominantly made up of and managed by people who “grew up” in their system, the firm will have a fairly common culture. The culture will permeate the place and the way it makes decisions. For example, is the place star or team driven, is the comp system lockstep or origination driven/eat what you kill, etc. The top NY firms I deal with do still seem to have a common culture—some of which is good, some bad–which makes sense since few of them do much lateral hiring. My dealings with some of the Boston firms, like Ropes & Gray and Wilmer Hale, have fairly common patterns as well. I still think many of the Silicon Valley firms have reasonably common cultures. My dealings with Gundo, Cooley and Fenwick all follow roughly similar patterns by firm. Wilson Sonsini has always varied by which “team” you were dealing with, and that has been true for as long as I can remember. Then there is the list of firms too long to name where there is no discernable unifying element at all and apparently no common culture at all.

  • Law firms were also identified as WASP, Jewish, etc. As management and hiring becomes more driven by economic opportunity and less by the idiosyncrasies of a few controlling partners, firms in the same industry will become more homogeneous.

  • interesting. not being as embedded in law as you guys obviously are, I certainly still see specialization as being a huge part of a firm. talk to firmX for startup stuff, firmY for tax stuff, firmZ for ABC, etc. so… specialization is obviously still relevant, but _cultural_ erosion is an interesting notion.

  • I practice law from a completely web-based virtual law office and I work with my company to set up other attorneys who operate online law practices. The public is demanding more convenient and affordable legal services from the legal profession and in my humble opinion this is pushing the demand for changes in the "old guard" cuture. As more attorneys turn to technology to deliver legal services to meet that public demand and to provide better customer service to their client base, we may see a further disintegration of the traditional law firm culture through technology. Check out Richard Susskind's recent book "End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services" which discusses the impact of disruptive technologies on traditional law firm structures.

  • Dave

    Culture for virtual firms will be as difficult to manage as culture is for the massive mega-firms. A mega-firm like DLA has no discernable culture because it has been a hodge podge of acquisitions and firm mergers both here and in the U.S. As such, both style and quality are remarkably inconsistent across offices and around the world.

    Virtual firms will need to figure out a way to manage culture and quality, otherwise they will be viewed by clients as collections of solo practitioners. To build a relationship with a client that goes beyond one or two lawyers, virtual firms (like all firms) will need to be able to sell a relationship. For a client, part of that relationship is consistency and quality across lawyers. Some firms, like Virtual Law Partners, are trying but it will be an interesting challenge. VLP only hires experienced lawyers, who are presumably fairly "fully fromed" style-wise. I do not know how that will knit together any better than some of the mega-firms for a consistent client experience.

  • Wylie Nelson

    Are you suggesting that the "boutique" law firm of the future you've forecasted in the 2.0 series will have these distinct cultures? Would it give them a competitive advantage do you believe "culture" is gone for good?

    • I think smaller firms will have an easier time maintaining their cultures (as well as developing them, yes.)

  • LazyLarry

    Whether by interpreting law for their own account (class action cornucopia) or on behalf of their paying clients, the legal profession goes where the ca$h is. A "dying legal culture" is more about an increased level of competition for fewer and fewer resources than the fictional notion of company culture in the first place. Any culture is more about the head counsel than anything imbued throughout a firm.

    Law firm merging is about growing/consolidating a customer base to cross-sell services because new accounts are harder to come by. There's only so much blood one can squeeze from a turnip so the quest for the next crop has pushed 'culture' out the window. Culture is as culture does concurrent with the the firm's fortunes. Culture images, however they may be characterized, are just marketing. At the end of the day you pay lots and lots of money for theater where your outcome is determined by one of the actors.

  • Based on the following webster def, one would think corporate culture is alive and well in big law relative to the bottom line, but I would guess with the transformations occuring within big law (associate layoffs, deterioration of the lock-step mentality, etc) if I were hunting for "culture" in big law, it would probably present itself as a "sub culture" of sorts attempting to coexist within the upper echelons of the partnership ranks….

    Main Entry: 1cul·ture:
    The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization <a corporate culture focused on the bottom line>

  • Having worked at 2 major firms and then having a variety of firms represent my company as in-house counsel, I never found a single firm that felt like they vindicated a common culture. I actually don't think of a law firm as 1 company, but a loose confederation of companies, each one being an equity partner with a book of business and the staff and senior, mid-level and junior attorneys who support that business. Given that the bar association ethical rules leave the rainmaker, for the most part, free to leave and take the clients with him or her, the firm is quite limited in being able to require the rainmakers to behave in any common manner, and, in fact, is incentivized to do the opposite and tolerate differences, even if they hurt service quality, to keep the rainmaker from taking business away from the firm. As a result, when I was in-house counsel I would hire the lawyer, not the firm.

    When you need legal services, do you hire by the firm or by the lawyer?

    • Normally lawyer but there are a lot of good lawyers so culture is / was important.

      Jason Mendelson

      Sent from my iPhone
      – please forgive iTypos.

  • The trend towards the break down of law firm culture will continue as the Internet "atomizes" law firm structure, with the largest law firms retaining their "brand" the longest. The trend towards selecting the lawyer over the law firm, as Jason Anderman points out, will accelerate as transparency increases. Tasks which can be commoditized will be provided by new players in the legal industry, which will further erode the concept of a "law firm culture." The brands of individual lawyers for complex work or "bet your company" work will replace the concept of a "law firm brand" that is reflective of a particular culture.

  • Luis

    Having recently been wrung through the wringer of the law firm interview process, I can say that (at least in their public-facing appearances) the firms appear pretty homogenous, with the one distinction that there is a stark divide between those firms that want to be Like New York Firms (i.e., we're-serious-and-would-never-have-casual-fridays) and those that don't. I'm sure that office-by-office there are other quirks (for example, the office I ended up working for was considered very laid back, even by the standards of a famously 'relaxed' firm) but overall there was very little visible variation- I think the demands of the 2000-hour year, as much as or more so than the highly flexible lateral market, put paid to that.

  • The current trend seems different but it will ultimately result in a situation where firms will have a certain types of culture. Associates who have felt the downturn are going to be looking for a place called home or they will start their own practices that will reflect their personality.

  • Perhaps this is a phenomenon unique to the UK.

    I found that firm culture was predominated by employee culture. Where the employee culture differed from what top management wanted to implement, there were clashes, high attrition, general discontent….what have you.

    Where the law firm culture was similar to the employee culture, things hung together.

    Employee culture depended on legal training, and the fact that it discourages lawyers from innovation and accountability. Instead breeding slavish devotion to precedent and pressure oriented integrity.

    As such, its a welcome move if law firm culture is indeed dead. We could do with a little less culture, a little more accountability.

  • Law students have become more book oriented rather than research based knowledge. The Law Institutes should seriously look into this matter.