Firm Culture

The Lunatic Fringe

Back in the day, there was a law firm in which the partners were – how do I say it sort of nicely – not ‘culturally aligned.’

Sam was the Managing Partner. He was charming and charismatic, and nice to everybody, at least most of the time.  Aligned with him were enough partners to vote with him on everything that mattered, sometimes more out of personal loyalty or ignorance than conviction.

Gordon was the other high billing partner with a huge client base, which qualified him to lead a group of dissidents. He and Sam tended to be competitive about things such as compensation.

Gordon was also charismatic, but he reserved that talent for his clients and not his partners, which helped explain why most of the partners lined up behind Sam.  Also in the dissident group was Karl who billed a million hours a year but was a bit of a curmudgeon, and Larry who was somewhat of a ding-dong, but he was tolerated because he was a ding dong with decent billings.

Sam was trying to run a progressive firm.  He had some crazy ideas around inclusiveness, gender parity, and other such modern nonsense.

On the other hand, Gordon, Karl, and Larry liked doing things the way that they have always been done. Nothing much was going to change on their watch.

On occasion, behind closed doors, some of the members of Sam’s group were known to describe Gordon and his friends as “The Lunatic Fringe.”

I suppose that competitiveness and name calling between the two most productive partners did not help create a positive firm culture.

There is an old expression along the lines of, “be hard on the issues and soft on the people.”  This firm had never heard of that.

Years later I found out that Gordon’s dissident group agreed that there was a Lunatic Fringe at the firm, but they thought that it described Sam’s group.

Some of you may think that I am meandering my way to making a very profound point. I only wish that were true, but it is not. But I do have a small point to make about law firm cultures, and that is that too often they are about egos, internal competition, self-righteousness, politics, and labelling people.

I have seen unsuccessful attempts made to ‘fix’ firm cultures, involving the use of expensive consultants, trainers, facilitators, and even industrial psychologists.

My own view, which is based on having observed Sam and Gordon’s firm as well as others, is that there is only one route to a positive law firm culture. There are three stops along this road: (1) know what sort of culture you want to establish; (2) only hire and promote lawyers who share your vision; and (3) when you discover that you have firm members who do not share your vision, fire them, or expel from partnership, no matter how large their billings and originating credits may be.

Usually firms do not follow this route. Instead they accommodate, tolerate, and appease their way into more significant problems.

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