The Achievability of an Organisational Culture Change Project

In this post I consider two linked but quite difficult questions: Do law firms have any sort of organisational culture and, if so, how easy, possible or desirable is it to change it?

Culture is a notoriously difficult area for any professional service firm and is a tricky area to write about. For a start, culture is intangible and somewhat hard to define; there are apparently more than 150 definitions of it extant today, and many of these lean on a confusing array of frameworks, matrices, overlapping circles and pyramids, accompanied by vocabulary and phrases that at times appear either downright weird or largely irrelevant to law firms.

The majority agree, however, that the concept of culture refers to the taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations, norm and behaviours that are perceived to characterise the firm and its members.

 Identifying culture

I have seen firms where the predominant culture is almost completely heterogeneous and individualised. In such firms, sometimes there are as many cultures as there are partners, and the glue holding the firm together is weak. But, although many firms do not have strong-glue cultures, many display some identifiable and shared cultural characteristics.

 A good start is to define those characteristics in vocabulary that resonates with law firms. I believe that there are four main elements to consider:

 the manner in which people within the firm deal with each other;

  1. the degree to which the firm has a clear identity, both to itself and in relation to other firms;
  2. the manner in which the firm deals with its people, and the way that its lawyers and staff deal with the firm; and
  3. the belief systems that represent the collective aspirations and assumptions of the firm’s members.


Changing culture

You cannot change what you do not understand. As a first step, therefore, it helps if the specific characteristics of the firm are analysed and identified; there are methodologies to achieve this. A culture change project can then be scoped, planned and implemented. The scoping stage is critically important and, in many ways, forms the most fascinating but difficult piece of the project jigsaw, focused on the following key questions.

 What are the attributes and activities that we want to emphasise or develop if the firm is to move towards its strategic objectives?

  • What attributes or behaviours should we aim to reduce or eliminate?
  • What elements can easily be turned into routines, processes and procedures?
  • Which of our existing processes and systems need to be redesigned?
  • What can or must be enforced (at the control extreme) or loosened up (at the empowerment extreme)?
  • What barriers and obstacles are we likely to face and how do we overcome them?
  • How will we recognise success, what milestones will mark progress and what are the best metrics that can be collected?
  • Who are the exemplars that represent the best we can achieve and how can we deploy them?

 Answers to these questions can then be converted into a change project that relies on the standard project phases (scoping/initiation, planning, implementation and evaluation/closure), combined with classic change leadership steps (establishing urgency, creating a compelling vision, identifying a communications strategy, planning small and easy wins, removing obstacles and, most important of all, identifying and harnessing the right project leaders and giving them appropriate resources).

 Metrics and milestones

One major reason that change does not occur in individuals or firms is that accountability for achieving desired outcomes is not established or maintained. Key to this is the development of metrics that help assess progress. Some changes can be measured quantitatively at least in part.

To give just one example, the improvement of collaborative activity in client engagements can be measured by reviewing the extent to which lawyers end up working more in groups than by operating alone.

 Some more intangible changes can only be assessed by repeating the initial cultural assessment. What is vital, however, is to identify and agree the metrics from the start of the project. As with all projects, if measurement takes place, implementation tends to get done.

Why change?

Culture is a tricky area, which many law firm leaders fail to prioritise. Even where a dominant set of cultural norms can be identified, some sceptics question if a culture change project is possible in a business made up of independently-minded professionals.

However, the most successful organisations in the world (of which Apple is perhaps a leading example) have developed a distinctive set of cultural attributes that energises forward momentum, binds members together and creates continuity and a sense of shared purpose. Improving the strength of the glue in the firm should therefore be seen as a high priority concern.

This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Managing Partner and is reproduced with their permission