By Jean M. H. Fergus
May 15, 1989

Cartoon images in the New Yorker and other mainstream media would lead almost anyone to believe that all law firms are exactly alike.

But anyone who spends 15 minutes with a lawyer who has worked at more than one firm will see another picture emerge. Law firms, it turns out -even large ones and ones that do similar work - are as different from one another as Picasso was from Rembrandt.

Law firm culture is an important concept for lawyers. Its attributes are closely aligned with attorney job satisfaction: Culture clash causes enormous unhappiness. For these reasons, firm culture deserves top priority when considering a job move or new professional association.

Unfortunately, however, the distinctions between law firm cultures can't be captured by firm descriptions, profit-and-loss statements, or even crisp brochures. They are woven into attributes that are far less tangible: attitudes, management style, work ethos, expectations, history, communication, social activities, philosophy and values. It is the unspoken: atmosphere, tone, accepted modes of operation, even dress or hairstyle. It is all these things combined that creates a firm's culture

Unifying Characteristic

Culture is not a new term in the world of business. A strong corporate culture is the unifying characteristic of every successful organization.

Of course, there is no right or wrong culture. Culture is a subjective measure: What fits one lawyer may hang like a hand-me-down on another.

Interestingly enough, though, attorneys often talk about their jobs using cultural terms:

In a typical case, one young lawyer told the author's recruiting firm that she could stay at the firm two more years, but would not stay any longer. The lawyer did not agree with the way things were run.

Another large New York firm is described by its lawyers as being like a family - they take care of each other's problems. But the firm can also wreak havoc on outside interests and personal lives with excessive time demands.

One midtown firm of about 40 lawyers generates complaints from some of its lawyers because no one there seems to know what anyone else is doing. Communication is lax and so is the firm members' sense of community.

Building a firm's culture has been the responsibility of the firm's leaders and managers. However, the people who built these first-generation law firms shared similar interests and goals - not simply to set themselves apart from other lawyers, but because it gave meaning to them and their work. Translating these cultural values within an institutional framework takes constant effort and attention.

Wide Spectrum

Law firm culture stretches across a wide spectrum. At one end are firms that are "service primary" and at the other end, are firms that are "profit primary." And in-between are the majority of law firms that combine elements of both to varying degrees,

The profit primary firm is one that sees itself simply as a business and generally reflects a narrowly defined value system: Since hours are directly related to profits, lawyers are expected to bill specified amounts of time -e.g., minimum billing requirements -with the result that hours are directly correlated to profit. In management's mind, a low biller, even if he or she is a high-quality attorney, is less valuable than a high biller. Premium billing is preferred.

Associate skills at this kind of firm are still valued, less for their inherent value in servicing a client and more because they have a market value.  However, associates may be added or released to reflect the amount of business the firm has at any given time. Attorneys come to be viewed as interchangeable commodities.

In a more basic way, partners are rewarded in direct relationship to the amount of business they generate. Emphasis is placed on rainmaking, not only in terms of partnership distribution but in terms of firm power. Non-rainmakers may not even be part of firm management. Partners without client billings will be evaluated based on the hours billed.

Service primary firms, on the other hand, define themselves first as professional associations and share a broadly defined value system: Hours are a reflection of concern for the quality of work done for the client, and the firm is sensitive to amount of time billed for that work. The firm views itself as offering a quality legal product on a low-cost basis.

Associates are viewed as future partners and a great emphasis is placed on academic excellence and individual qualities. It is understood that lawyers need time to grow, and learning is encouraged in the belief that eventually these people will produce superior work for their clients. Training and development programs, therefore, are an important part of this type of firm's management.

Partner contributions are evaluated with weight toward client satisfaction and development, firm administration, associate training, and bar association activities. The partnership may be tiered, with partners compensated in ranges usually related to their years of practice.

Firms' cultures do change - sometimes in a planned way and in other instances by the infusion of new generational values.

One recent generational change has been the increasing number of women entering the associate ranks. As women have entered the law firm ranks as associates, and increasingly as partners, they have put pressure on firms to adapt to their child-caring needs. For example, two firms in D.C., Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and Arnold & Porter, have instituted emergency child care facilities. Perhaps as women become more involved in management, the second floor gym at one major New York firm may be converted, at least in part, to a full-time day care center.

In a large firm, subcultures may develop in departments and may even be at odds with firm values. When this happens, individuals and even whole departments may leave one firm for another with values more in line with their own.

Clients can also affect the culture of a firm. A firm that represents Japanese clients, for example, may have a different set of values than one that represents American investment banks.

Understanding a firm's culture is a meaningless exercise to an attorney who does not also take the time to understand his or her own needs and goals. The best of all worlds is to find a fit of the two - firm and individual values.


An attorney considering a job move should do a little soul-searching first. This personal inventory should include:

• Short term goals (i.e., training, good work, variety, money, extended projects, case responsibility).
• Long-term goals (i.e., partnership, client development, practice development, competence, management opportunity, compensation).
• Personal needs (i.e., family, relationships, geographic location, creative interests, non-law activities, recreation time).
• Workplace needs (i.e.. camaraderie, independence, appreciation, work-related social activities, hours, pro bono work, bar affiliations, management participation, client contact, travel, flexibility, leave time, continued education).

Getting a more specific sense of how the life at a law firm will affect personal values takes some solid analysis. Before joining a new firm, an attorney should feel free to ask the important questions, formally in the interviews and informally of associates and acquaintances - and, of course, of themselves.

Some questions to ask on an interview can uncover these cultural intangibles:

• What are the firm's current goals and plans for the future?
• What is the firm's philosophy of management?
• Who are the firm leaders?
• How does the firm view itself?
• What does it take to be successful at this firm?

With these bits and pieces of information, a lawyer can build a picture of the firm - not just the work it does but how and why it does the work, what its essential values are, and how comfortable he or she will feel working at the firm.

However, an equally important exercise is for the attorney to ask some questions of himself or herself:

• What are my goals?
• How can I achieve these goals within the framework of this firm?
• What are my values? How do these fit in with the values of the firm?
• How will my practice skills be developed at this firm? It is always better to ask these and other similar tough questions before joining a firm and avoid the "What am I doing here?" syndrome.

Placing a firm along the spectrum of culture is not simply an existential activity. A firm's culture affects everyday work life, career interests and the ability to reach individual goals. Looking for the firm with values that match one's own is a way to ensure future success and satisfaction.

© 2003 Fergus Partnership Consulting Inc.
New York office: 212-767-1775 | London office: 44 207 247 9660