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Image is everything: Clients, culture & cachet
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Image is everything: Clients, culture & cachet

Law firms outwardly pride themselves on fostering unique professional working cultures with lawyers to match. But what do clients really think of firms' cultures and the lawyers that represent…

Law firms outwardly pride themselves on fostering unique professional working cultures with lawyers to match. But what do clients really think of firms' cultures and the lawyers that represent them?

IMAGE CONSCIOUS: How much does a lawyer's behaviour determine a firm's reputation?
Culture is one of those intangibles that is hard to measure, but which can have a significant impact on a range of factors within a firm, such as attraction, retention, engagement and productivity as well as client service and retention.

Many firms' websites, promotional materials, marketing collateral and recruitment brochures (though, for most, these have been gathering dust in the HR office over the past 12 months) are adorned with happy, smiley faces of young vibrant professionals and are quick to mention glowing firm values such as honesty, trust and integrity, with adjectives such as supportive, family-friendly, approachable, co-operative, flexible ... and the list goes on.

All too often such espoused values are not lived and breathed by partners, who invariably set the culture of a firm.

While this is obviously noticeable to its internal staff, clients often notice the "cultural imprint" that firms make on their lawyers, according to a number of experienced in-house counsels.

First impressions

Stuart Thomas, general counsel and COO of Macquarie Radio Network, says there is often an inconsistency, particularly within mid-to-top-tier firms, between their stated brand and their culture and approach to dealing with clients and matters.

Branded collateral and communications from a firm can convey its stated culture, but Thomas says that this can be inconsistent when dealing with a firm, depending on which partner you speak with.

"You can see these issues arising particularly with law firms that have had a greater movement of partners, and I think, more recently, we have seen a sort of greater acceleration of movement, if you like, of partners between different law firms," he says.

"And as they move around they often bring the culture, the attitudes of their previous law firm with them, so they don't always act in a way that's consistent with the brand of their new law firm. So I guess you are sort of seeing a greater variety, in some sense, in the approach that they take and the culture they exhibit, than perhaps you used to have in the past when there was less mobility between law firms."

Bruce Brown, special counsel for the Commonwealth Department of Finance and Deregulation, underlines the importance of culture within law firms. "These days, you start from the premise that a law firm of any size is at least competent, and then you need to ask what's special about them. Culture is one of the things that you would take into account," he explains.

Brown, who formerly served with ASIC for nine years as a lawyer and regional commissioner, in addition to the ACCC for five years as a legal manager, says "quite often, internally we talk about the culture of different firms, but the trouble is finding out exactly their true cultures".

It is important to get a firm's lawyers into meetings and talk through particular matters, and Brown says you can "very quickly get a sense of how they operate, particularly in watching the dynamics between the partner, the associate and the solicitor, for example".

“An Allens lawyer or a Mallesons lawyer, for example, is quite distinctive in the way that they speak, the way they draft, the way they correspond”

Will Irving, group general counsel of Telstra, agrees that culture does vary somewhat between firms, but believes it varies a lot more between individual partners and, more so, practice groups within a firm.

"The law is very much a people business," he affirms. "The way in which the interaction occurs between the clients and the lawyer is critically important, and that's driven by the personality and interests of the lawyers and the clients, as much as anything else.

"So if you look across any one of the large law firms you will find quite an array of different personalities in terms of the partners, and they do shape and influence the culture, if you like, of their individual teams and ultimately the firms as a whole," he says.

Picking the cultural imprint

So is it possible to pick which firm a lawyer works for, based on the "cultural imprint" that firm makes on them?

This was more noticeable a number of years ago when mobility between firms was not as high, says Thomas.

"Now I am finding it a bit harder. When you meet a lawyer from a firm, you don't actually know whether they have done their training at that law firm or whether they have come from another law firm, so your experiences can vary," he states.

"But it is still somewhat applicable, particularly with some of the firms that are more controlled in their cultural practices, such as Mallesons and Allens, which have a tighter culture and greater longevity in terms of the lawyers and partners who serve with those firms."

Thomas, who started out at Allen Allen & Hemsley (now Allens Arthur Robinson) before moving onto Gilbert + Tobin for seven-and-a-half years and then the Nine Network for four years as general counsel prior to joining Macquarie Radio Network, says there are internally explicit and implicit guidelines about the way in which lawyers operate in such tight cultures.

"So an Allens lawyer or a Mallesons lawyer, for example, is quite distinctive in the way that they speak, the way they draft, the way they correspond - it's all of those aspects of their interactions which are quite distinctive of the firms that they come from, and sometimes it can even come down to subtle things like the way that they are dressed and how they present themselves physically," he believes.

Tristan Forrester, managing consultant of Beaton Research & Consulting, has heard a few in-house counsels over the years talk about how it is possible to pick which firms lawyers work for based on their cultural imprint, but he also says that this is becoming harder because of greater movement of lawyers between firms.

However, he says some firms do attract particular types of lawyers, and this can potentially impact on client relationships.

"One example that I can think of is Clayton Utz. There is a perception I've heard in the market that they are very, very hard-nosed practitioners who really fight tooth and nail for their clients. In certain practice areas of Clayton Utz that's the impression that they are conveying in the market," he asserts.

Forrester notes that it is generally difficult for a firm to stand out from the pack, especially in the top tier, but notes that Gilbert + Tobin often gets more mentions from clients.

"I have seen very consistent feedback from in-house counsels that the difference about Gilbert + Tobin is the quality of people. For a single-city firm to have so many high quality practitioners that you deal with is just brilliant, so that is something that does stand out about them," he says.

Differences in tiers

There is often a more noticeable difference in lawyers who work for mid-tier firms when compared to their top-tier counterparts, and both Brown and Irving have made a number of observations about this over the years.

"The second-tier firms tend to have less polish, in that when they see a number of issues they will put them to you in fairly blunt, straight terms, whereas partners from the large nationals will be more likely to coat it in a veneer of sophistication, so you have got to work at what they are actually saying sometimes," Brown remarks.

"I tend to find conversations with the partners from second-tier firms tend to be much shorter than conversations with partners from large national firms."

This is often reflected in the written advice provided by firms, with larger national firms tending towards longer advice and mid-tier and boutique firms providing shorter advice. "In our business, speed is a critical competitive advantage," Irving says.

"If a firm has given me six pages of advice, I will value this more highly than the one that has given me 30. Now, I expect the firm to have done the work in the background to make sure they are diligent from a professional point of view, but, to be frank, I want the two-paragraph email over a six-page or 30-page advice - depending on the issue. Sometimes people make the mistake of equating value with complexity or length. Making something simple is often far more valuable than making it complex."

Forrester also makes the observation that "frankly, you generally find nicer people in mid-tier firms. What we hear from clients is that their interaction with people from mid-tier firms is generally along the lines of 'There are good people there and they are nice people to work with'," he explains.

"We hear that less regularly with people from top-tier firms. What you do hear about them, though, is that they really know their stuff and that reflects their position in the market as well and their value proposition."

- Craig Donaldson

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