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Firm culture can be silly, but it’s serious business

|Written By Charles Gillis
Firm culture can be silly, but it’s serious business

Years ago the founding partners of a well established Texas law firm were featured on the front page of a prominent legal publication. The five named partners struck a very dignified pose in a large photo above the fold. Although many firms might have celebrated this event as a public relations score, this particular firm felt unsatisfied. The partners looked great in their buttoned-up business suits, however, the photo conveyed a stuffiness that clearly did not exist in this progressive, family-friendly firm.

They decided to recreate the photograph in a medium that was more reflective of the firm’s culture and self-identify. The exact poses captured in the original photograph were carefully recreated on a large, black, velvet canvas. To make it even more interesting, accessories were added in a bit of artistic license. In the new black velvet version, the partners wore sombreros and bandoleers. Instead of portraying themselves as law firm archetypes, the new photo likened the founders to a team that might have ridden with Pancho Villa.

This picture was part of a series of velvet artwork the firm had commissioned. Other smaller works completed earlier captured three of the founding partners with sombreros and pistols. As silly as it seems, the velvet became an identifiable symbol of the firm’s culture.

This particular group of lawyers took the law very seriously but they never took themselves too seriously. They developed a philosophy and laid the cornerstones of a culture that would flourish. In a stressful industry plagued with hierarchical politics, this firm endorsed a friendly, team concept and played down the organizational chart. While everyone had a job to do, no one was considered better than anyone else. The velvet paintings were symbolic of a shared sense of humour and community. Everyone was in on the joke.

Firms often take great pains to establish their culture when they are formed and should take equal care to nurture the development of that culture as they grow. To do so, the leadership should make occasional public displays to show its continued support for firm values. At times management can go even further, and intervene to enhance or protect the symbols of its firm’s culture.

We should not deny the importance of these efforts in the development of a successful law practice. Every law firm has a distinctive culture, whether the leadership of the firm knows it well or not. In the absence of a distinctive culture defined by its leadership, an organic one will form spontaneously. The importance is clear because when it comes down to attracting and retaining the best people, a firm’s culture is near the top of the list when people describe the qualities of a valued workplace. Compensation and opportunity may be significant motivators, but over the long term, a strong connection to a shared system of values drives retention.

New associates in the velvet-clad firm were often bemused to discover their new office had velvet artwork preinstalled. Possession of one of the velvet paintings became a rite of passage for newly minted associates. An informal set of rules was adopted to manage the location of the paintings. The passing of the velvet became a humorous and choreographed ceremony in which an established associate would unload the burden of black velvet on the latest newcomer. Many would gather to witness the passing of the paintings, and on more than one occasion snacks were served to mark the occasion.

Ritual is important. You can’t buy traditions like this. Events that allow lawyers to gather together in a friendly environment without the pressure of the billable hour or client development requirements are much more productive than they appear. These events allow personal connections to develop and grow. They create synergistic opportunities for lawyers to reach out beyond the silos of their own practice.

We are conditioned as managers to meet only when there is good cause to do so. We should create these opportunities. Promoting an environment that creates lasting bonds with your colleagues can be accelerated through deliberate, co-ordinated leadership efforts. Sometimes a cue from the leaders is enough. Other times an investment of personal time is required. Either way, the ROI is clear. Camaraderie pays for itself in the development of high functioning teams, trust, and shared commitments.

A healthy firm culture needs to be cared for. Left unmanaged, changes in firm culture can be as threatening as a wildfire. Without positive reinforcement, certain aspects of firm culture weaken and become vulnerable. If employees feel the firm has strayed from its foundational values, former advocates can become agitators and downright aggressive if they feel the culture is being attacked or changed for poor reason.

Sometimes aspects of the culture need to be more closely managed, or even pruned. Celebrations and recognition of symbolic icons are important, but so is a thoughtful intervention when a good idea has run its course. As hiring slowed down at the velvet firm, the paintings lingered in offices. After several months of no hiring, what once seemed like a portable emblem of the firm’s strength began to appear as a warning sign of the possible stagnation. As the firm began to decline in headcount, the passing of the velvet became awkward and lost its charm. It was one thing to transfer the painting to an ambitious new hire, quite another to pull it from the office of someone who recently resigned or was possibly terminated. This is when leaders need to engage and manage cultural change.

We must acknowledge that change is a constant. Rather than let these symbols wither and die, we should thoughtfully retire them at the end of their usefulness and set out to find the new rally points for the future. Ignoring cultural change is not a solution. Firms that remain true to their foundational values and culture should find receptive employees willing to adapt. It is at this very moment of great change when leaders are most needed to restore faith and chart the course for the coming era and help create the next set of ideas to guide the firm.

Charles Gillis is the executive director of the law firm Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr PC in Dallas, Texas. He can be reached at

  • RE: Firm culture can be silly, but it’s serious business

    Jesse Parraine
    Charles, this article was fantastic. I really loved it!
  • RE: Firm culture can be silly, but it’s serious business

    Jennifer Colby
    charles: Great artcile!