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Lawyers must be culture vultures
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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."

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