It's not enough to be nice: culture needs a commercial edge

By Felicity Nelson|16 September 2015

Crafting a positive corporate culture is the ‘holy grail’ of business, but many lawyers lack an understanding of what culture really is, says one management consultant.

“Culture is quite hard to get your head around,” said Joel Barolsky (pictured), a managing director at Barolsky Advisors. 

“There is a complexity and fluidity about it that makes it challenging.”
Culture has both “visible and invisible elements” that manifest in innumerable ways. “The visible elements are how people behave and relate to each other and clients day to day,” said Mr Barolsky.

These are “simple things”, such as how work gets done, how long people take to return emails, whether staff turn up to meetings on time, or how lawyers treat administrative staff, he explained.  

These behaviours are largely produced by the invisible elements of culture – the belief systems and values that operate within a firm.

“If quality and excellence are truly valued, then you perhaps find that there is more attention to detail,” said Mr Barolsky. “If there is a value of service and respect, then you do find lawyers getting back to clients promptly.”

In a standardised workplace, such as McDonald's, many of these behaviours will be codified through manuals and scripts, he continued.
“In a professional environment, you can't really do that. You can't codify everything, so it is much more reliant on a sense of values.”
Culture as a strategy
The legal market is “flat in many respects” and law firms face increasing pressures from clients and competitors, according to Mr Barolsky.


In this context, just having a strong collegiate culture is not going to cut it.  

“[Culture] needs to take on a slightly harder commercial edge and service edge […] if it is going to be a source of competitive advantage,” he said.

Cultural change starts with leadership from the top, but it also hinges on reform of remuneration and reward structures.

Creating productive politics that reduces infighting, resource hoarding and client ‘ownership’ is a positive step, according to Mr Barolsky.

Firms should also focus on promoting collaboration, consistent high standards, diversity, continuity, alignment of values, self-sufficiency, busyness, agility and the ability to execute strategy.
Firms that are perceived to genuinely care about their staff do better, Mr Barolsky explained. Toxic cultures lower productivity and make staff less willing to go that “extra mile”.
Re-engineering culture is a difficult task because so much about a firm’s culture is embedded in narratives, myths, symbols and rituals.

“Cultures are shaped by the stories that get told in and around the firm,” said Mr Barolsky. “Who are the heroes and heroines of the firm? Even things like who gets corner offices and who gets certain privileges, who gets car parks [matter].

“You can almost think of it like a dot diagram. Each one of the dots in its own is not important but, when you look at it as a whole, it forms a picture.”
Sincerity and success
Many lawyers take a sceptical approach to value statements, viewing it as “management jargon” and pure “puff puffery”, according to Mr Barolsky.
“In some firms, people’s scepticism is justified – it is just decoration.”


On the other hand, a lot of lawyers are “quite proud” of their culture and view it as a core part of their business.  

“When you see [culture] operate in some firms – you just walk into a firm and you can smell it, you can see it, you can feel it. There is a different style, an engagement ethic, energy.”

Expressing values and promoting culture can only unleash commercial potential when it is authentic.

“It has to reflect the truth, or else people will be quite dismissive of it. Lawyers, by nature or by training, are sceptics.”

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It's not enough to be nice: culture needs a commercial edge
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