Law firms with strong office cultures are positioned for long-term success. A strong office culture not only creates a non-toxic work environment and law firm profits but it encourages associates and partners to stay on for many years even until retirement. Over the course of a few weeks, we will explore how law firms can build a strong office culture. Today we will discuss how to cultivate a sense of community at your firm.
The first step to cultivating a sense of community as a part of your office culture is to earn the trust of your associates and other employees. Not only should they trust the leadership of the firm but they should also trust each other. There are three foundational steps you should take to build trust at your firm:
- Be transparent. No one likes unpleasant surprises. If you have a habit of keeping your associates and support staff in the dark about important decisions and law firm happenings this will only cultivate distrust and anger. And that distrust and anger will feed into rumor mills and slowly eat away at your law firm’s reputation with your employees but also in the wider legal industry. Don’t risk becoming known as the law firm who hides their financial troubles or lies about the trajectory of their business. You should take great care to keep all of your employees informed about information that impacts them. So if you know that you’re facing financial issues and you may need to have layoffs, let your employees know so that they’re not blindsided later.
- Be consistent. Life is chaotic enough without an unpredictable work life. If you have a set of rules and policies in place, try to stick to them. If law firm leaders apply the rules in one area (or to one employee) and not another it can feel arbitrary and unfair. Lawyers and legal support staff will distrust any law firm that plays favorites when it comes to who is subject to rules and policies. To avoid eroding trust, have written rules and procedures book and task someone with ensuring that those guidelines are followed consistently and that no one is allowed to bend the rules.
- Be supportive. This is sometimes a hard one for scrappy law firms who are just trying to survive—but you must provide career support to your associates and other employees. If a law firm is only focused on moving the firm forward without considering the needs of its employees, there will never be any sense of community and certainly no trust. A matter of fact, a law firm that fails to provide career support could be cultivating an “every man of himself” mentality and culture that leaves the firm without its best employees as soon as there is a better job offer available elsewhere.
But the work of building a strong office culture doesn’t end here. Once you cultivate a basic foundation of trust, you must then nurture a sense of connection between your employees.
It’s true that in general people most people are big-hearted givers willing to help strangers but in the competitive world of law people may be more willing to “out-do” than “help.” The dark side of that kind of mentality is that law firms will struggle if there is no sense of connection between employees or to the law firm mission. So how do you build community connection in a law firm?
- Carve out space. It’s important for law firms to make space for their attorneys and support staff to get to know each other. We’re not just talking about the weekly Happy Hour, we’re talking about team-building opportunities, work retreats, and physical spaces where employees can gather daily—the water cooler or break room. The simple act of having lunch with your coworkers can cultivate a sense of closeness that will benefit the law firm in the long-term. .
- Mute the gossip. Nothing will weaken your law firm culture faster than gossip. When employees spread nasty or salacious rumors about each other, this destroys trust and breaks bonds of camaraderie. To prevent gossip from destroying your law firm, you should take a zero-tolerance policy against it. If any attorney is found disclosing sensitive information about someone in the office, they should be disciplined immediately or even terminated depending on the situation.
- Offer opportunities to help. If you want to build connection in your office culture, you should offer plenty of opportunities for associates to work together and help each other. This doesn’t always need to take place within the context of a client case. You can set up workshops or even encourage mentor relationships between associates so that they have opportunities to learn from each and even help each other advance their career.
If you really want to build a strong office culture, you need to have a space where collaboration is encouraged and rewarded. Here are a two ways to discourage unhealthy competitiveness and incentivize profitable collaboration.
- Welcome feedback and opinions. Always include your employees in decisions that will impact them directly and even indirectly. Even if you know a change must be made, your employees should be given the opportunity to decide how changes are implemented and how the discomfort and disruption of those changes will be mitigated. When you consistently welcome the feedback and opinions of your team, they will feel like they are part of a team and they may be more willing to participate in other important discussions and projects even if those issues fall outside of their scope of responsibility.
- Discourage competitiveness. In most cases, the default position of law firms is competition. Associates compete to build the best book of business or get the best clients and bill the most hours. But what if taking a more collective approach to “winning” could increase law firm profits and nurture a healthier office culture? When law firms incentivize group effort and group achievement, even their “weakest” employees are willing to pull more of their weight for fear of letting down the team. If you’re willing to reward the entire office when lawyers collectively reach some goal, everyone will have a strong incentive for doing their best.
Law firms that operate more like communities are positioned better to solve their clients’ complex legal problems in a way that leverages all of the skills of their associates.