SmartLaw: The shifting culture of law firms

Culture typically is the most difficult of the three SmartLaw pillars (clients, culture and technology) to tackle. With client focus and intelligent use of technology, firms can more easily decide on some key policies, implement and enforce those, and expect to begin to see some results from the efforts in short order.

Culture is different. Culture cannot be dictated, determined, or directed. Firms can implement policies intended to influence the desired culture, but unlike client focus or technology, culture is the product of something else. 

Culture happens when people collaborate

The SmartLaw concept is intended to create a discussion within the industry, and more importantly, inside your firm. SmartLaw is not prescriptive. There’s not a particular type of culture that works for everyone. Every firm is going to be different, and that’s a good thing. 

However, as explained in The framework of the future, the three parts work together. At the very least, a firm’s culture must support a client focus and intelligent use of technology. And to create a culture, people need to work together. And therein lies the problem in a lot of instances. 

Most people in law firms work in silos—true at every level. Partners may come together to work on a certain matter, but for the most part, partners compete as much as they cooperate. Associates are in clear competition with their peers from day one.

Information technology, knowledge management, and business development teams typically work in parallel as if for different companies. And most importantly, there are lawyers and “non-lawyers.” And never the twain shall meet.

The term "non-lawyer" needs to disappear

Does Memorial Sloan Kettering refer to their nurses and orderlies as “non-doctors?” Does Goldman Sachs call their quants “non-bankers?”

So why is the dismissive and demeaning “non-lawyer” term acceptable in a law firm environment? Regardless of the culture you have or aspire to, you can start building a modern, inclusive, and healthy culture by removing “non-lawyer” from your firm’s lexicon.

And this terminological excision is not simply an act of political correctness. It’s a reflection of the important role that business people, technology experts, and support personnel of all disciplines play in the modern delivery of legal services. 

There is no doubt that legal expertise is of paramount importance to clients, but gone are the days that the best lawyers working in isolation can deliver the best legal service. Now it takes a team of experts from a number of fields working in concert to achieve the firm’s goals.

Culture equals unity of purpose 

There are plenty of other obstacles to achieving a unified culture within law firms—generational and geographical divides, departmental and practice group rivalries and jealousies, management debacles, communication breakdowns, and leadership vacuums that create distrust, uncertainty, and fear.

A SmartLaw-driven culture begins by creating trust, alignment, and unity of purpose across the entirety of the firm, from the most senior partner to the most junior IT analyst. This will require a revolution in education.

Firms are good about offering Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses for their lawyers and clients, but they also need to start offering legal business courses for their own employees. Support teams need to start requiring their team members to learn about the actual business the firm is operating in. They cannot work in isolation as if they’re working for a tech company, an event planner, or a design studio.

All other functions need to be focused on benefiting the firm’s clients. At the same time, it’s not enough for the firm’s lawyers to know the law, they need to know about the business they’re in too.

How does the firm make money? What does writing off work do to the bottom line? What's the difference between revenue and profit? 

Not everyone at the firm needs to become a business expert, but everyone needs to know what the firm does and how it functions so that they can understand their role, value, and purpose. At that point, whether individual people like each other or not, they can work together with respect and trust that everyone else on the team, whether lawyer, technologist, marketer, or business person, is actively working to achieve the same goal. 

And then, good culture happens.


This post is part of our SmartLaw series where we look how clients, culture, technology, data and process converge to shape the future of law.

Explore the series:

  1. SmartLaw 2.0: The new future of law
  2. From client-focused to client-obsessed
  3. The shifting culture of law firms
  4. The intelligent use of technology
  5. Unlock your firm's data potential
  6. Future-proof your firm with process improvement

Innovation Team

With decades spent working with and practicing in leading firms and corporate legal departments, the Innovation Team is on the forefront of designing solutions and providing thought leadership for HighQ. Each member of the team has a passion for technology and its ability to transform legal services—with the ultimate goal of helping firms deliver the perfect client experience.
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SmartLaw 2.0: The new future of law

How can firms keep up with the rapid changes in the legal market? By practicing SmartLaw and focusing on clients, culture, technology, data and process.