How positive leadership can transform law firm culture

How positive leadership can transform law firm culture

Current global crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, have brought about profound changes in the way many of us view our values and priorities, both personally and professionally. This has created a window of opportunity for all sectors to rethink the way we approach work.  

Unfortunately, the legal profession has not yet witnessed a true a transformation of law firm culture. Many firms today are still driven by targets based on billable hours and approaches that reward lawyers for putting the job first – ahead of health, personal growth, family and friends. This is one key finding of our recent Obelisk Support report, Legal Reset: Why Law Firm Culture Must Change Now.

“There is a need to reset our values as a legal profession….to lead the way for other disciplines and sectors and in so doing, build a profession we are proud to leave as a legacy for the next generation” Dana Denis-Smith, CEO and Founder, Obelisk Support.

While a cultural revolution may seem like a daunting process, many hands can make it lighter work. And there are a great many lawyers who are already effecting change by resetting their priorities. An astonishing 90% of lawyers surveyed for the Financial Times Innovative Lawyers 2021 Report said that there are firms they would never work for, no matter the salary, because the working culture would impact their wellbeing.

As a leader or manager of a law firm or corporate legal team, you may be wondering what role you have to play in this transformation. How can you implement management strategies that improve law firm culture and help lawyers thrive? Here are some tips.

#1 Embrace hybrid and flexible working models   

During the pandemic, more legal professionals than ever before experienced the benefits of work-from-home. It’s understandable that some don’t want to sacrifice these advantages entirely. In fact, a survey by Realm Recruitment found that flexible work has overtaken pay as the top priority for lawyers looking for a change of job.

Clearly, the demand for hybrid working models is a reality that legal leaders need to welcome with open arms. Having a sound hybrid or flexible working strategy in place is an excellent way for managers to access a wider talent pool and retain top talent – but it is absolutely critical to ensure the right approach.

#2 Be wary of proximity bias

When managing a hybrid team, be mindful not to create a dual-track culture where those who are present in the office are given better salary and career opportunities than those who work remotely.

One hybrid policy that sparked debate in the media recently, is that of Stephenson Harwood. The London-headquartered law firm recently announced a 20% pay cut for all staff who opted to work from home full-time.

Should those who choose to work remotely be expected to compromise on pay and career progression? It really doesn’t have to be this way. To guard against off-site staff being disadvantaged by the hybrid working model, be cognisant how work is allocated, and responsibilities are granted; and proactively ensure a level playing field for all.  Rather than rewarding presenteeism – value and reward lawyers for their skills, expertise and contributions. This will help to build a more fair, equitable and inclusive working culture.  

#3 Rethink working hours and lead by example  

If you are willing to think beyond the traditional law firm culture of working overtime all the time, let the buck stop with you. If you keep role modelling long hours, it can create the impression that you expect your colleagues to work late too. This will not only increase the risk of burnout in your team, but also potentially make it more difficult for your organisation to attract the next generation of lawyers.

#4 Approach job design flexibly

In our experience at Obelisk Support, flexibility works best when people are involved in the process of designing their role. Giving lawyers more autonomy to manage their own time allows them to find a work-life blend that better supports their wellbeing, which puts them in a stronger position to be more productive and effective in their roles. Part of this involves setting clear expectations, achievable performance targets and goals, and providing people with continuous feedback to ensure they reach their full potential.

#5 Actively listen and show your support

No matter where they are based and how their roles are structured, make it standard practice to check in with everyone on your team on a regular basis and ask how they are doing – as professionals and human beings. Having regular catch-ups and opportunities for the team to connect, problem-solve, and build peer relationships helps to guard against professional loneliness. This is a scenario where lawyers feel disconnected and alienated from colleagues, which can be particularly difficult for junior lawyers who are just starting out in their careers and finding their footing.

#6 Define your purpose

Make time to sit down with your team to agree on and clearly define the values that differentiate your legal department or law firm. Knowing what values your organisation stands for helps to give everyone a sense of purpose, so you are all working toward the same goals.

#7 Equip yourself to be a mentor

Include holistic management training as part of your management strategy. You could, for example, consider training as a coach so you can act as an effective mentor to your team, and follow best practices in giving people the support and guidance they need.

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, has spoken out about the importance of giving managers the tools and time to provide lawyers with more guidance and support:

“Work towards providing management training to all supervisors and managers, and free up some of their time so they can regularly catch up with their team members to check in on how they are doing.”  

In closing: Re-evaluate how you measure success

Finally, consider whether it is time for your organisation to rethink how you measure success – not only in terms of the performance of your legal team, but also the effectiveness of your management style.

Rather than just focusing on billable hours and profits, ask how you can measure the contribution that is being made to creating a more flexible, #HumanFirst law firm culture that promotes both professional and personal growth, enhances wellbeing, retains talent, attracts the future leaders of the legal profession, and builds stronger relationships with clients and business partners.

While it may take some more traditionally-minded managers and organisations longer to put all these changes in motion, it’s important for today’s leaders to understand that a growing number of lawyers, young and old, are already proactively driving this transformation – and firms that want to remain relevant would do well to lead rather than follow the charge.

Related Articles:
Latest Articles:
About the author:

Louisa leads marketing at Obelisk Support - a legal services provider offering flexible legal support, delivered by highly experienced, typically City-firm trained freelance lawyers and paralegals.

Louisa has a passion for driving and facilitating initiatives which are customer-focused at their heart. Her vision is to support in-house counsel to succeed in their fast-evolving role based on deep insight, data analysis and best practice gathered across the in-house community.