The threat of cultural fragility – and how to overcome it

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,Strategy & Leadership] July 11, 2022

Fallout from COVID-19 has had a significant, negative impact on the culture of many law firms, and the way forward is to foster strong team leaders who can guide and inspire their people, writes Joel Barolsky.

Despite many law firms thriving financially during the pandemic, there is a deep concern among many that firm culture is getting weaker, not stronger.

As one managing partner put it to me recently: “There is little doubt that COVID has had a material impact on our culture. In some ways it has made us more adaptable and open to change, but in other ways we are less cohesive and connected as a firm.”

There are four main reasons underpinning these perceived threats to firm culture:

1. Remote working: The move to a hybrid operating model may result in people experiencing a working life that has fewer meaningful interactions with fewer people. With weaker emotional bonds, the ties that bind can loosen. Most lovers know that long-distance relationships seldom work out.

2. Fatigue: Thomson Reuters Monitor suggests the past 18 months have been particularly busy. Many senior practitioners are exhausted from heavy workloads. The energy required to rebuild culture and restore relationships is simply not there. Most people at the brink of burnout will seek to lean out, rather than lean in.

3. New faces: The war for top legal talent in Australia is hot and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Some firms are now experiencing staff turnover rates of more than 25 per cent. With every departure there is a loss of institutional memory, as well as personal loss and disconnection. With every replacement, there is a new set of standards and expectations to shape and fresh relationships to form. The cumulative impact of one in four new faces each year is potentially massive.

4. Stress: the pandemic has exacerbated mental capacity and health issues. The stress of dealing with a major public health crisis, caring for elderly and at-risk relatives and coping with lockdowns has certainly taken its toll.

Team leadership the priority

Going through the list of what is in a firm’s control to address this cultural issue, the quality of team leadership is probably the most important element to consider. A strong team leader can provide a sense of direction and connection, monitor workload and wellbeing, progress careers and development, and facilitate a positive work environment.

Firms need to ensure every team leader is up to the task. Stroking the ego of a powerful senior partner by making them a team leader may not work anymore. Team leaders need to have the time, skills, support and resources to do their job properly.

Other tactics to address retention include:

  • having an effective workload monitoring system to ensure sustainable work patterns across the team
  • organising one-on-one ‘stay interviews’ that focus on career opportunities and reasons to stay
  • dealing with any ‘bad eggs’ that undermine team culture and make high performers consider alternatives.

Lateral leadership

Firms need to work both vertically through better team leadership and horizontally to preserve their culture. The latter means amplifying the role, status and skills of ‘lateral leaders’ who work across the firm connecting people from different practices to address a specific opportunity.

These roles typically include client relationship partners, sector leaders, major matter leads, business service heads and strategic pursuit leads.

Effective lateral leadership is largely about facilitating deep cross-practice collaboration. From a culture perspective it enhances understanding, widens networks and creates a stronger identity with the firm and its strategy.

Lateral leaders are sometimes referred to as ‘boundary spanners’ in that they float above the formal organisation structure. They often have to influence without the formal authority to direct action.

In conclusion

The media and business literature are filled with other suggestions about restoring firm culture. They range from offering new social activities, redesigning the office layout and using whiz-bang collaborative technology. In my view, these tactics are commendable, but do not address the most critical factor that will really make a difference.

If firms are serious about reducing attrition and preserving culture, they need to create the capacity and skills for all their partners to be more effective in their leadership roles.

Joel Barolsky is managing director of Barolsky Advisors, Senior Fellow of the University of Melbourne and creator of the Price High or Low smartphone app designed to help with pricing projects. Visit www.barolskyadvisors.com for more details.