find the latest legal job
Corporate Counsel and Company Secretary
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: Newcastle, Maitland & Hunter NSW
· Highly-respected, innovative and entrepreneurial Not-for-Profit · Competency based Board
View details
Chief Counsel and Company Secretary
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: Newcastle, Maitland & Hunter NSW
· Dynamic, high growth organisation · ASX listed market leader
View details
In-house Projects Lawyer | Renewables / Solar | 2-5 Years PQE
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: All Australia
· Help design the future · NASDAQ Listed
View details
Insurance Lawyer (3-5 PAE)
Category: Insurance and Superannuation Law | Location: Brisbane CBD & Inner Suburbs Brisbane QLD
· Dynamic organisation ·
View details
Senior Government Lawyer
Category: Other | Location: Canberra ACT 2600
· FINANCE LEGAL AND GOVERNANCE GROUP | CANBERRA, ACT · EXECUTIVE LEVEL 1 (ONGOING)
View details
Lawyers must be culture vultures

Lawyers must be culture vultures

No two law firms are the same, according to Gerry Riskin, and cultural issues must be considered when dealing with lawyers in other countries - or even in an office down the street. He speaks to…

No two law firms are the same, according to Gerry Riskin, and cultural issues must be considered when dealing with lawyers in other countries - or even in an office down the street. He speaks to Angela Priestley

Large law firms, on a superficial level, can appear remarkably alike across much of the globe. While their physical outlooks may be different - the London Eye from one, the Sydney Opera House from another - their interiors often share a great deal of similarities.

But on an operational level, law firms from one location to another vary dramatically. They may share similar challenges around personnel, technology and the needs of clients, but their cultural differences can, in many cases, be poles apart.

And for many lawyers across the globe, a failure to recognise such difference can result in some fatal errors when operating in unfamiliar territory.

Gerry Riskin, a former managing partner - in his home country of Canada - turned law firm consultant, labels the cultural difference law firms and lawyers face as an intensifying challenge for a globalised legal community.

"Law firms can be said, in many ways, to be the same: once you know a law firm you know every law firm," says Riskin. "Yet, country by country, region by region, sometimes even within a country, you get these dramatic differences and perspectives, and behaviours and attitudes, so that things have to be done differently and appropriately for that environment."

To an Australian, such cultural differences might be dramatic - say in visiting Japanese lawyers in Tokyo or sitting for a board meeting with a number of Russian lawyers in St Petersburg, or exchanging on a deal between lawyers in Beijing. But according to Riskin, it's the more subtle cultural differences that can often cause a lawyer to trip up - even between British, Australian and American lawyers.

"In the UK, hyperbole is despised," Riskin says, by way of example. "In walks an American lawyer and says, 'that just super, that's fantastic, that's wonderful' and the British lawyer is listening to fingernails on an old chalk board."

Even within the same country, cultural differences between cities, law firms and clients can be dramatic, says Riskin. "There are no two places on Earth with cultures that are as different than San Francisco and LA," he says, while adding that a similar experience may well occur between Australian cities. "If we treated a client from Adelaide as if it did not matter where they were located, I think some clients could take offence."

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, in the lead up to his presentation to the Australian Legal Practice Management Association's (ALPMA) national conference, Riskin advises that lawyers should be warned about the potential for cultural conflict, and should always study up extensively on the regions in which they plan to do work

Riskin adds that the risks do not end with lawyers physically entering another law firm or a client's office. With the increasing uptake of videoconferencing technology and the proliferation of update materials being sent to clients - via social media, enewsletters etc - lawyers must also give regard to cultural differences while sitting in their own office.

"I saw a communication that was about to be sent by a global tax expert and in the photo of him I could see the bottom of his shoe ... I politely told him he needed to crop that picture," says Riskin. "While it certainly didn't offend me, it was certainly capable of offending people over the world."

And by taking on such advice, Riskin believes lawyers can also better manage their client relationships - even to the extent of anticipating their future needs.

"If you are dealing with a client in Madrid, you must act as if you are dealing with a client in the centre of the universe," he says. That means understanding everything from cultural sensitivities to their working habits, broader economic conditions and their company's timetable for budgeting.

Riskin says that plenty of law firms are already heeding the call to better understand the environments in which their clients and colleagues work, and to address them accordingly. He says that he's worked with a number of law firms with an appetite to develop an understanding of such differences.

"I'm talking about protocols and processes where we create an environment of continuous learning, where the more experienced people in this area are continually teaching the others, and they have a method for bringing back their teaching and learnings to each other and building on that on an ongoing basis," says Riskin.

But such learning need not completely interrupt regular legal work. Instead, Riskin adds that developing such an understanding can be done incrementally.

"If you take a month in a lawyer's life and you don't put any pressure on that lawyer to invest in his or her future, the default pattern will be that they invest 100 per cent of their time dealing with their current client. Who can blame them?" says Riskin. "I just want groups, or sub groups in law firms, to invest tiny bits of time into these issues. If you move from zero (per cent of you time) to one percent, then you've made an infinite improvement."

As for those who can't find at least that one percent, Riskin says he simply has no patience to deal with them. "As soon as the recession hits, as soon as rough times hit, they are screaming and whining and they want immediate change and improvement, and the fact is that the great orchestras of the world are created because they have practiced everyday."

Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

The legal budget breakdown 2017

Lawyers must be culture vultures
lawyersweekly logo
Promoted content
Recommended by Spike Native Network
more from lawyers weekly
Scales of Justice, Victorian County Court, retiring judges
Aug 21 2017
Replacements named for retired Vic judges
Two new judicial officers have been appointed in the Victorian County Court, following the retire...
Applauds
Aug 21 2017
LCA applauds proposed Modern Slavery Act
The Law Council of Australia has welcomed new recommendations for the development of a Modern Slaver...
Mentoring
Aug 21 2017
Top-tier offers targeted mentoring for Indigenous law students
Students at Macquarie University will be the first to benefit from a new Indigenous mentoring progra...
APPOINTMENTS
Allens managing partner Richard Spurio, image courtesy Allens' website
Jun 21 2017
Promo season at Allens
A group of lawyers at Allens have received promotions across its PNG and Australian offices. ...
May 11 2017
Partner exits for in-house role
A Victorian lawyer has left the partnership of a national firm to start a new gig with state governm...
Esteban Gomez
May 11 2017
National firm recruits ‘major asset’
A national law firm has announced it has appointed a new corporate partner who brings over 15 years'...
opinion
Nicole Rich
May 16 2017
Access to justice for young transgender Australians
Reform is looming for the process that young transgender Australians and their families must current...
Geoff Roberson
May 11 2017
The lighter side of the law: when law and comedy collide
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much that is amusing about the law, writes Geoff Rober...
Help
May 10 2017
Advocate’s immunity – without fear or without favour but not both
On 29 March 2017, the High Court handed down its decision in David Kendirjian v Eugene Lepore & ...