Firm Culture

Skiing While Submerged

When I was a teenager, my buddy Bill took me waterskiing. For those of you who do not water ski, you learn to ski on two skis which is easy, then to ‘drop a ski’ which is harder, and finally to start on one ski. That was what I was trying to do.  

Bill said that I was the only person who he ever saw who was still holding onto the rope ten feet under water. An exaggeration perhaps, but sometimes I really do not know when to give up.    

I practiced law with one firm for most of my career. We had excellent lawyers who were cooperative and collegial. We had great professional management. We always put the clients first. We were generally quite ethical. It was a good firm that I was proud to be a part of.

Over time we developed some cultural issues. Two factions developed with opposing views on issues such as work/life balance, what constituted an acceptable level of profitability, and how open the firm should be to people who were not able to work “full time plus.” I waged the battle over many years. I kept on fighting even after it became clear that I had lost. I had learned nothing from my waterskiing days.

I stayed with that firm until I retired. My later years were not as happy as my earlier years. If the truth be told, if not for the culture wars I might have practiced for a few more years.

Although focusing on “should” in life is generally unproductive and unhealthy, I now realize that what I should have done is taken my very profitable practice and set up my own firm. And I should have extended an offer to one or more of my associates, my law clerk, and my assistant to come with me.

What held me back?  A few things, none of which seem to hold water now that I look back at things. These included the following:

  1. I liked having the expertise around me. It was great to be able to walk into other lawyer’s offices and easily get answers to my questions.
  2. For a business lawyer, I was surprisingly risk adverse. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur.
  3. I was getting credit for bringing in work which was done by lawyers in other areas of practice and I did not want to lose the income from that work.
  4. I thought that potential clients would be uncomfortable bringing their work to a small firm that did not have the support of lawyers practicing in various areas.
  5. Perhaps most naively, I believed that I could convince people to see things my way.

When I look at this short list, I realize that I had settled into a situation that was comfortable as far as my professional practice was concerned, while the culture war was ravaging my mental health.

I have written about culture being everything in a law firm. I never really understood that until it was too late.

If I could go back and speak to my younger (and better looking) self, I would give him the following advice, “When you don’t fit in and cannot change things, get the hell out.”  It is hard to breathe under water or in a culture in which you do not fit.

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