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Why it’s essential to shift culture in law firms

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In recent weeks, we’ve been publishing insights from an interview we were granted with Richard Macklin, a leading consultant and former Global Vice Chair of Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, who is uniquely positioned to address the challenges facing leadership in the legal sector.

Richard has laid out the reasons why lawyers underestimate leadership and has spoken to us about the future of leadership of law firms – and why the trend needs to change. Today, he unpacks how leadership can usher in a new future in the legal sector, drawing a link between culture, happiness and productivity.

“If you’ve got a decent culture, people are happier,” Richard says. “The suggestion which follows this, which is hard for lawyers to believe in, is that if you have happier people, you will raise productivity. But I really believe that is the way forward.”

The goal of shifting culture

When billable hours and revenue generation dominate the everyday goals of law firms, it can be hard to inspire people to value the grander vision that they are a part of. But this, Richard explains, is key to getting lawyers out of silo thinking and into a state of flow. 

“To be engaged with where you’re going, proud of the journey you’re on, is a much more powerful driver than making money,” says Richard. “If money is your driver, then you’ll simply shoot off to another law firm the moment there’s financial incentive.”

Even without the retention issues it creates, a culture that prioritises revenue generation above all else will inevitably lead to lawyers working in isolation, as they try to maximise their personal earnings. This in turn impacts productivity, too. You may still have lawyers working day and night, but if wellbeing, teamwork and long-term thinking takes a hit, you’ll likely see less profit over time.

“Working collaboratively with a team sounds a bit fluffy to lawyers,” says Richard “But if you make it a priority, there’s no doubt that everybody wins. I’m absolutely certain about that.”

The challenge of shifting culture

When it comes to culture shifts, many law firms struggle to bring people with them. You need to enact change with people, never to them. But this can be harder than it sounds.

“Shifting culture in a law firm is a very difficult thing to do,” says Richard. “You’re trying to persuade hundreds of business owners to move the ship one degree to the left. By the end of it, your political capital can be spent.”

Co-creating a new culture with your organisation isn’t necessarily about democracy. There’s still a place for holding your ground, even when you’re listening to and valuing what people are saying. But even if what you are attempting to do goes against the grain, your vision and values need to be simple and contagious enough that the whole organisation can catch it. 

Richard saw such a culture shift when he visited Northern Rock shortly after it had been acquired by Virgin. As he walked around the corridors, or attended meetings as a fly on the wall, he saw how Virgin’s new strapline – Everyone Better Off (EBO) – was shaping conversation in the business.

“Everyone was buzzing,” says Richard. “People were going into meetings asking ‘Is that EBO? I’m not sure it is, is it?’ And they would discuss whether each decision was making everyone better off. It was extraordinary to see people living out the organisation’s purpose.”

The rewards of shifting culture

Culture doesn’t only affect official decisions and business direction, it affects how people feel in your organisation. If they feel disconnected from others, they are likely to behave in a more self-protective way. But when they feel a sense of belonging, those same people look out for each other and don’t worry so much about appearances. 

Richard remembers an interview with a leader of the Red Arrows Squadron in which they spoke about their post-flight routine. 

“While the engines were still cooling, they’d take off their helmets and sit in a circle,” says Richard. “Then going first, the Squadron leader would say, ‘Good flight everyone. However, I called that one a bit too fast tonight. I tipped my wing a little too close to you and I need to learn more.’”

After the Squadron leader had spoken, everyone else felt able to call themselves out or call others out if they needed. It was a safe place for them to learn together and address the issues that their lives depended on. 

This is a picture of what’s possible in any organisation in the legal sector. It’s the kind of culture that can’t be forced, nor can it occur by default. But it’s worth working towards, even if we only move the dial a little to start with. 

If we do, we’ll see the impact in lawyers’ productivity, conversations and wellbeing. Ultimately we’ll feel a part of something greater than ourselves and make decisions accordingly. Lawyers will be happier and chances are, law firms will make more profit too. 

Looking to make an impact in your department or firm? Get in touch to find out how TPC can help. 

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