Firm Culture

When The Time Comes, Get The Hell Out

The worst partners meeting that I ever attended ended with me storming out, telling one of my partners to fuddle-duddle off (not in those exact words), and threatening to leave the firm. I was the managing partner and highest earning partner at the time. You would think that I should have been happy.

Some of my friends followed me out of the boardroom and convinced me to calm down. I listened to them and stayed at the firm for another decade or so. That was one of my many mistakes.

I do not remember what the argument was about, but I do remember the personalities of the people who I let get under my skin. And to this very day I wonder why I subjected myself to their behaviour for so many years.

Practicing law is stressful. Doing it in a supportive environment can make it bearable, and sometimes even fun.  Working with competitive people who are clawing their way to the top and identify you as someone who they have to climb over to get there is just plain awful.

Much has been written about the importance of firm culture (including some absolutely brilliant and insightful pieces written by me.)  However, not enough has been written about the absolute imperative of leaving a firm where the culture is toxic to you, and even less has been said about how just one or two people can ruin your experience at an otherwise wonderful place.

When I think back to why I stayed at my firm when I was no longer happy there, I confess to being befuddled.  I suspect that it had something to do with the law of inertia, which states that a body in motion will remain in motion, and a body at rest will remain at rest. What I really cannot come to grips with, however, is why I allowed my body to remain at rest.

Now I understand why some lawyers are stuck.  They may have financial obligations which they must fulfill and no portable client base that will allow them to easily find another job or set up on their own. Neither of those was my case. I had no debt, some savings, and a good client base. I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, voted with my feet.

As for the rest of you in private practice, I suggest that you owe yourself and your family the following moral imperative:  develop a client base and have the ability to leave if your firm culture turns against you.  And when the time comes to go, do it.

And if the prospect of uprooting your life to go to a happier place terrifies you, remember the words of the author, John Green, who wrote “It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”

My experience leaves me in awe of three experienced, successful, lawyers who I know, each of whom has left a law firm at which they were unhappy and started their own firms with the avowed purpose of creating a positive and collaborative culture.  All women. It would be nice to see some men follow suit.

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