Great performance is tied to great law firm culture. Each employee has their own personality and values, and together they interact to create an environment of shared personality and values. The culture of your workplace can either build up your motivation and energy, or eat away at it. The best performers will find a company with great culture to keep them consistently energized and at their best.

Most people have an environment they thrive in. You can do your job anywhere, but where will you flourish?

Law firm culture: Where will you fit in? Where will you stand out?
Law firm culture: Where will you fit in? Where will you stand out?

In this article, I look at what separates a healthy culture from a toxic one. Following this, we’ll look at investigating the cultures of law firms while job searching. There are key questions to ask, and indicators to look for, to determine a firm’s culture before being hired.

Finally, I think that finding a healthy culture isn’t enough for the high performer. A culture can be objectively healthy, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the right fit for you. There is more than one kind of healthy culture, and the key to thriving at work is to know yourself well by questioning your values, and knowing what kind of culture is right for you. To do this requires asking the right questions and spotting the warning signs when it comes time to pick your ideal workplace.

(1) What separates a healthy culture from a toxic one?

The effects of workplace culture were explored in a recent Harvard Business Review article by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi. Defining culture as a “set of processes in an organization that affects the total motivation of its people,” they formed experiments around the six reasons people work: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. The first three help motivation, and the last three hurt it.

Healthy cultures maximize the positive motives for working, and diminish the negative ones.

The positive motivators you experience will depend on the kind of law you practice. There could be aspects of work in Biglaw that associates find inherently interesting or rewarding (the play motivator), but they will be driven by potential more than anything: you put in the time and hard work, with the goal of being made partner a few years down the road.

Purpose will be more of a motivator for the lawyer in small firms, non-profits, or government. The public defender who interacts with clients will see directly the fruits of his effort, and those working for specific causes will be driven by their sense of what’s right.

Negative motivators focus on pressures outside of the actual work itself; the paycheck, impressing others, or simply because it’s what you’ve done the last ten years. An inability to recognize positive motivators will leave you with these undesirable reasons for working, and negative motivators that spread through the entire workforce will turn the culture toxic.

(2) Investigating workplace culture.

Now that we have defining features of good and bad culture, we can move onto their applications to law firms. When you’re researching firms, you can look at a number of factors to determine the state of the firm’s culture.

First, interviewing the people who work at a firm is the best way to learn what its culture is really like. Look for people who work in similar roles to the position you’re looking at. What do they have to say about the firm? Do they like working there? What is their typical workload like? Their reactions to the culture will be a telling sign of how you’ll fare in the same circumstances.

Second, see if the firm has strong a performance management system in place. When well-implemented, they have multiple benefits for employees and the organization as a whole. Performance management is more holistic than a simple appraisal, in that it employs coaching methods to help you do better. It also aligns your goals with the firm’s in a direct way; you see and feel your contribution to the overall vision that the firm works to achieve.

Third, explore their website. How does the firm portray itself? How do they want to be perceived by others? Law firms with a rich workplace culture will draw attention to it and market it appropriately. Work-life balance is much sought after in the legal profession, and everyone would rather work with team members, rather than competition. You might get a more realistic picture from talking to actual lawyers at the firm, but taking a moment to observe the firm’s self-conception will give you extra insight to help with your decision.

(3) Deciding if a firm is the right fit.

Ultimately, a healthy culture will not do much for you if its values are not in line with your own.

Knowing if a workplace is the right fit comes from knowing yourself. Many people do not stop and take time to really scrutinize themselves, and figure out what they want out of life. If you can articulate your values, you can find the ideal workplace. It’s only a matter of time and searching.

A great starting point to self-discovery is the classic HBR article, Managing Oneself by Peter F. Drucker. In this short piece, Drucker will walk you through the thought process of finding your strengths, your work style, what you want to contribute, and how you will translate this knowledge into a career. His main message is one that everyone should take to heart: you are your own manager, your own career counselor, and the sole person responsible for your fulfillment.