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Everyone Talks About Their Law Firm’s ‘Culture,’ But Is It Possible to Measure It?

By Justin Henry for

Legal consultant Marcie Borgal Shunk became certified to use a proprietary tool to measure business culture a decade ago. But it wasn’t until last year that a law firm hired her to measure its culture using the Chicago-based cultural inventory tool developer Human Synergistics.

Cultural inventories have been more of a staple in Fortune 500 companies than the legal industry. In law firms, similar survey-based analyses had the limited purpose of assessing merger prospects or associate retention. But in 2022, Borgal Shunk had three clients—a global law firm, a midsize regional firm and a plaintiffs firm—ask her to assess what it was like for employees to work there.

Consultants say the effort to empirically monitor culture is a holdover from the talent wars that peaked in 2021. Compensation hikes were the more visible manifestation, but today’s emphasis on culture can be seen in how much law firms are investing in talent development and retention strategies.

“There is an increased level of interest in finding a way to better understand and manage culture,” Borgal Shunk said. “In many respects, it’s driven by the fact that firms understand it’s integral to talent strategy and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.”

Borgal Shunk had previously put her certification through Human Synergistics to use on assessments aimed at merger prospects and associate retention. But the use of this internal culture research is still in its early stages in the legal world, with plenty of capacity to grow.

“If you look at Fortune 500 organizations, they have people who have these certifications in-house,” Borgal Shunk said. “I believe over time, if this area matures in the legal industry, the objective would be to have someone internally who is accountable for measuring, assessing, analyzing and ensuring the right elements are in place to advance the culture onward, whatever the ideal is for that particular firm.”

Researchers at Human Synergistics say culture analyses are becoming more relevant to the legal industry as law firms integrate business functions that resemble their corporate clients in other sectors, with full teams of marketing, pricing and talent management professionals and other departments that don’t directly represent clients.

Borgal Shunk has noticed differences in goals based on the practice area focus of the firm asking for an inventory. The plaintiffs litigation firm she consulted for wanted more of an “oppositional” culture in which employees question authority as part of their representation of clients in court.

“That’s integral to being a good litigator, but it’s not always one set of norms that works for everybody,” Borgal Shunk said.

Although some firms may want a more “aggressive” culture to foster zealous client representation, Dr. Robert Cooke, founder of Human Synergistics, said research suggests aggressive work cultures can spill over from the leadership style of a firm’s top brass and become a leading cause of employee turnover.

“Organizations with aggressive cultures have trouble adapting and firms are starting to see that the aggressive style is causing problems,” Cooke said. “That aggressive style takes over into the rest of the firm and we know that it’s not going to work well. There may be some people who believe it will work well, but that’s not what the research shows.”

Law firms aren’t all that different from other industries when it comes to the qualities that correlate with effectiveness, according to research by Human Synergistics. However, researchers observed that they are among the industries least interested in the adoption of constructive, rather than defensive, cultures, along with news media.

For both law firms and the business community at large, “constructive” cultural styles correspond with higher employee satisfaction and quality of service, whereas “defensive” organizations have higher incidences of role conflict, when work requires employees to think and behave differently than they would in their external lives.

“Most industries think they are different but from our research we found that constructive cultures almost always lead to more desirable outcomes,” said Dr. Cheryl Boglarsky, director of research at Human Synergistics.

Research outcomes from Human Synergistics are based on survey responses from 20 North American law firms, which includes surveys of employees on the behavioral norms and expectations set before them in the workplace. Human Synergistics asks employees to answer questions about their current and ideal workplace scenarios.

However, many law firm leaders, such as Steptoe & Johnson’s chair Gwen Renigar, prefer a more informal approach to monitoring culture. Renigar said the firm does collect business performance data on its employees, but she said she’s a bigger believer in conversations rather than questionnaires.

“I would like to hear directly one-on-one from different colleagues, particularly colleagues outside of the management team,” Renigar said. “I think by having these conversations and being seen as approachable and making time to listen, I get better and thoughtful feedback than I could in a typical survey. Conversations have the added value of strengthening relationships and having us be able to work together and be interactive.”

For leaders at Steptoe & Johnson, culture has taken on a renewed level of importance since teams began meeting again in person.

The firm’s approach includes an all-employee retreat at the end of this month, bringing together all lawyers, as well as administrative and support staff, in one location in Washington, D.C.

It will be the firm’s first all-employee retreat. Previously, retreats were held for employees separately, based on their employment category, but Renigar said the idea to gather all 600 lawyers and staff in one place came from the interest to synthesize skills from across the firm.

“When we see each other as collaborators with the common mission of advancing our clients interests, we are altogether zealous advocates for our clients,” Renigar said. “We have different roles, but we are aligned. The more we talk about…this common mission and common purpose, the more we know each other and the easier it is for us to collaborate with new colleagues and to see each other as teammates.”

Renigar, who started at the firm as an associate in 1997, said this approach corresponds with the firm’s effort to “raise the stature” of business services at the firm and recent growth in the number of professional staff.

Lawyers, Renigar said, need not perform all the marketing, billing and collections work, some of which can be handled by professional staff. However, that requires knowledge sharing on a firmwide basis, she said.

“We believe sharing information with everyone so everyone can know how they are contributing to the mission and purpose enhances the quality of the work and energy and enthusiasm people have about doing it,” she said. “It’s bringing people together to encourage people to generate ideas across the firm.”