Ask any law firm managing partner what his or her firm’s culture is like and, more than likely, you’ll hear, “We’re collegial.” Even though the dictionary tells us that collegiality has something to do with “Power sharing by bishops,” I suspect that the meaning in law firm parlance involves people liking each other. Now, I have probably worked with a couple of hundred law firms in my career and I’ve seen very few where the partners actively hate each other. So, while partners’ mutual affection for one another makes up only one aspect of a law firms’ culture (along with Values, Governance and Strategic Focus), it is the aspect with which lawyers always seem most concerned.
We do a lot of work with firms to identify and manage their cultures so we have devoted a lot of study to the concept of Collegiality (recognizing that it is only a singular aspect of a firm’s overall culture. While there are lots of aspects of collegiality, we believe there are seven primary elements that directly impact on law firms’ operations. They are:
- Camaraderie is most commonly thought of element of collegiality. It involves the degree to which people really do like each other and get along on a functional basis.
- Collaboration, both among groups and individuals, is the degree to which people feel comfortable working as a team as opposed to primarily functioning as individuals.
- Egalitarianism involves the willingness of people to support firm actions that do not benefit them personally.
- Social Interaction represents the degree to which people socialize with people from the firm outside the business setting (the intermixing of personal and business lives).
- Deviation is the firm’s willingness to enforce social norms in tolerance of bad behavior.
- Participation involves the degree to which participation in the management of the firm is expected of its members.
- Generationism is the degree of respect and recognition accorded to seniority in the firm’s operations.
As we look at these elements in a large data base of firms two simple truths prevail. First, collegiality is different in every law firm. The difference may only involve nuances but, essentially, no two firms are alike. And, second, collegiality, as a cultural element, seems to make no difference to the financial performance of a law firm. That’s right, our experience shows that high performing law firms have as broad a range of collegiality as do poorly performing firms.
Does this mean that a firm’s culture has nothing to do with its profitability? Absolutely not. In fact there are some distinct cultural traits that correlate with performance. But, what seems to be most important is not what a firm’s culture is as compared to how uniformly it is shared by the members of the firm. So, while the most highly performing firms may have vastly different cultures, there is one common aspect among them – they tend to have a reasonably uniform and shared culture among all offices and practice groups.
Not surprisingly, it all comes down to the definition of success. Want a more profitable firm? Focus less on collegiality and more on having a shared value system and a clearly understood and accepted strategic focus. But, at the same time, for lawyers at a good number of firms, success involves the day-to-day enjoyment of practicing law in a pleasant work place. And that trumps profitability. For them, it’s all about collegiality.