Law Firm Culture for Laterals

Guest post by David Parnell.

In the lateral market, culture is a real hot-button issue. Ask any legal recruiter, consultant, or career professional, and they will tell you the same thing: no one moves without plumbing the depths of an employer’s “culture.” This makes sense; who would want to risk a move without knowing what they’re getting into?

But most lateral candidates who talk about “culture” are actually asking about singular criteria, like environment, work load, personalities, or compensation. And while these things can combine and conspire to create a culture, they are not, in and of themselves, a law firm’s culture. And while this topic garners a lot of attention, and it carries a lot of weight with lateral candidates and recruiters, there is a surprising amount of obscurity that surrounds it.

If, when evaluating a potential firm, a lateral gets it wrong, they will quickly be back on the market. If they get it right, they will never want to leave. The key is to focus on the vital aspects of law firm cultures and subcultures, and their components: artifacts, espoused values, and assumptions.

Before we move on, do this: write out all criteria of interest to you in a potential firm, whatever they may be. Ask yourself what you would need to know in order to say yes to an offer, and write it down, in as much detail as you can. You’ll know you’re done when your criteria start to get repetitive. To ensure that your list is comprehensive, ask yourself what would prevent you from taking an offer, and add just as much detail. Then, read on.

Look for subcultures within firms

Most stereotypes about a firm’s culture are superficial. Terms like “white shoe” or “sweatshop” or “collegial” are just the tip of the cultural iceberg. At best, they relate to its high-level “organizational culture,” which derives mainly from interactions between smaller pockets, or groups that support their own sub-cultures.

You see, culture as an institution originates out of necessity. Pressures and challenges that a group faces force it to develop ideas, methods, and beliefs that are meant to overcome those pressures. The effective members of the group stay, the ineffective ones go, and after years of repetition a culture is born. The types and qualities of a group’s pressures are unique to their environment.

Consider a firm’s New York–based litigation group and its San Diego–based tax group. Their subcultures won’t be the same, because they can’t be the same. They tackle different challenges, in different places, with different kinds of lawyers and access to different resources. This reality demands that each subculture represents a unique, but similar version of its parent — the organizational culture. So even if a stereotype were true, it could not be taken at face value by a lateral.

Putting this into practice means, first and foremost, leaving your preconceptions behind. While many law-firm stereotypes have some elements of truth to them, give the firm a chance unless you are positive that it will not suit you. Second, determine the specific parameters that create and define the subculture you will be working in. How large is the group? Where (geographically) is it located? Are there several floors in the office? Is the staff shared with other groups or practices? How interactive is the (regional) office with mother-ship?

While subcultures are usually defined by practice and geography, they can also be further refined by criteria such as client types, compensation models, or even school-specific alumni. You must determine the specific parameters that define the group you would be working with, first, and then seek your criteria of preference.

“Organizational Culture”

Edgar Schein defines organization culture with three elements:

  1. Artifacts, which are any tangible, observable, and identifiable elements at the firm. These might include things like the firm’s address (locale), dress code, parlance, firm-specific folklore, art work, office décor, etc.
  2. Espoused values, which are professed rules of behavior and interactions, and other things of importance. These might include notions like “the client always comes first” or “work first, play later” or “treat the staff like family” or maintaining 1:1 leverage ratios.
  3. Attitudes and assumptions, which are deeply-rooted, subconscious beliefs and information that are automatic and implicit, rather than overt and explicit. These are observable in the firm’s actual behavior, and might include things such as the formal observance of Secretary’s Day, or mandatory retirement, or casual Fridays.


While a firm’s organizational culture is comprised of particulars from each, so too are a firm’s subcultures. Let’s take a deeper look at each to help you devise a game plan.


Evident when you first walk through the firm’s doors, artifacts can be a readily-available, and easily-discerned piece of the puzzle. What does a firm’s lobby look like? How about the general dress of its people? Is there a particular genre of artwork? Is the floor plan open or walled off? Do staff dress like the attorneys? What does the furniture look like? New? Old? Contemporary? How about the staff? Are they younger? Older? Well-kept? Disheveled?

Consider the list you made and, while you are meeting with your potential suitors, be observant and look for any artifacts that may be of interest. If any important ones are not obvious, don’t be afraid to ask. But be discreet and tactful — it may sound shallow to decide that contemporary offices are a “must,” so ask your interviewer if you can take a tour of the office to see for yourself.

However, consider the possibility that aesthetics — which is what many artifacts amount to — don’t necessarily indicate performance or quality of life. There are beautifully furnished and ornamented firms that are a bit of a flop, relatively speaking. There are also some that, while their physical appeal leaves something to be desired, still run roughshod over the league tables. You need to be aware of the power and danger of first impressions; artifacts go a long way toward setting them, but look further to make sure no surprises lurk behind the façade.

Espoused values

These are the formally articulated “things” of importance to the firm, like aggressive vs. conservative positions, lowest relative fee structures, mandatory vacations, the establishment of executive committees, the prohibition of GPAs below 3.3, etc. Anything that is important enough to become a formally-documented policy, procedure or disposition, can be considered an espoused value.

In a psychological sense, espoused values can be very powerful because they act as filters and criteria that govern the firm. That said, if you’ve ever heard the saying “talk is cheap,” this can hold true for espoused values. While they may represent what a firm actually does, sometimes they only represent what a firm aspires to.

This phenomenon is addressed by Stephen Mayson in his book, Law Firm Strategy: Competitive Advantage and Valuation. Because of the various subcultures that constitute the organizational culture, what should happen and what does happen may be two different things; Mayson calls this a firm’s climate. So, when evaluating a firm’s espoused values, it is important to differentiate between its espoused culture and its climate, if there is a difference.

To elicit this from your interviewer, ask broader, open-ended questions about what is important to the firm:

  • “What industries are most important to your strategy?”
  • “What are your top priorities this year?”
  • “If you had to shed a practice, which one would it be?”

Questions like these help you dig deeper into the firm’s psychology, and tend to unearth the things that they truly perceive as being valuable.

Probe the answers to further expand your knowledge and open up the interviewer. As you might imagine, a free-flowing conversation will work best, and questions are a great tool to help develop rapport. Once you have a feel for the firm’s genuine values (or at least a good chunk of them), you can see whether your criteria match up or not. This will be a decent barometer with which to evaluate a potential fit.

Attitudes and assumptions

Within the walls of the firm, attitudes and assumptions are perhaps the most influential elements of the firm’s culture. At the base of any decisions are fundamental yes-or-no rules that are automatic, unquestioned, and for the most part, out of the firm’s conscious awareness. These rules are otherwise known as attitudes, and are indelibly attached to the assumptions (presuppositions) that support them. For instance, a prevailing attitude might prevent a law firm from pursuing insurance work, and supporting assumptions might be that insurance is too competitive, or that the margins are too lean.

Unfortunately, their implicit nature makes attitudes and assumptions the most difficult to uncover. Direct questioning generally fails. To begin with, social filters can taint responses. (If you asked an interviewing partner about diversity initiatives, for example, do you think they would admit to trying for an all-male, Aryan population?) Second, attitudes and assumptions are subconscious. By definition, this makes them hard to consciously access. Lastly, even if you were able to uncover attitudes through direct inquiry, you would have to translate the assumptions that support them.

To get useful information about attitudes and assumptions, you must:

  1. Be clear — from your list of criteria — about the fundamentals most important to you (structured vs. unstructured environment, collectivistic vs. individualistic psychologies, diversity initiatives, attention to personal lives, etc.); and
  2. Determine what tangible, real-world actions or artifacts are evidence of these things. Here, you are cutting right through the fluff and taking a very hard-lined approach at finding them.

For example, if you are a gun-slinging rainmaker and want room to develop clients and build your book, heavy structure and bureaucracy may be a problem for you. In that case, you will want to understand what the firm’s governance model looks like, and the extent of the policies and procedures that support it. This method of observation (rather than inquiry) bypasses any potential for information spoilage, and gives you a clearer view into their world.

The culture puzzle

“Culture” is a complex and potentially-challenging puzzle. More importantly, it will dictate the level of satisfaction and enjoyment you will find at a firm. Fail to take culture seriously, and you will be looking for a job again, and quickly. But if you take it seriously, you will go a long way towards securing a more stable home.

I am an author (ABA Publishing), a Forbes columnist and Co-Founder and Principal of New York-based legal placement and coaching firm Edward, Anthony & Steele, LLC. Prior to EAS, I worked with privately held DreamWorks SKG, and CIBER and Xircom/Intel. Along with my Forbes column, my work can be found in Inc., American Lawyer, Fox News Magazine, NBC News and, among others.


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