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A blueprint for developing healthy law firm cultures

A blueprint for developing healthy law firm cultures

If law firms want to attract and retain the best young legal talent, in particular, and enable their people to thrive, they need to eliminate toxicity in their cultures and develop healthier firm cultures, writes Daljit Singh.

The International Bar Association (IBA) report in early 2022 on its global survey of young lawyers revealed that toxic workplace culture is a major concern for these young practitioners.

The IBA also noted that its 2018 global survey on bullying and sexual harassment had revealed that those toxic behaviours were rife within the legal profession globally. The IBA highlighted the significance of its findings on attracting and retaining legal talent: “The role of workplace culture is becoming increasingly important for the younger generation of lawyers, and for law graduates thinking about their first steps in the legal industry.”

Toxic and healthy workplace cultures

Donald Sull, a strategic management expert at MIT Sloan School of Management, and his colleagues have written extensively on values and culture, based on their ground-breaking analysis of millions of feedback comments on Glassdoor, a website on which current and former employees anonymously review companies.

Their research concluded that most of the large organisations researched were not “walking their talk” on their espoused organisational values, that toxic culture was present in many organisations, and that toxic culture was a major driver of attrition.

They noted that organisations that did walk the talk on their espoused values had much stronger financial performance, more women in leadership, and higher levels of psychological safety, innovation, and employee engagement.

They also noted that even healthy cultures may contain pockets of toxicity that need addressing. We know that law firm partners can create distinctive micro-cultures through their team leadership, leading to the possibility of healthy and toxic micro-cultures co-existing even within the same office.

Their research identified five categories of toxic behaviours:

  1. Disrespect
  2. Non-inclusivity (gender, sexual orientation, race etc.)
  3. Unethical conduct (lack of integrity, ethics etc.)
  4. Cutthroat behaviour (backstabbing, ruthless competition etc.)
  5. Abusive behaviour (bullying, harassment, hostility etc.)

Sull cite the large body of research on the high costs of toxic culture, which includes elevated levels of stress, burnout, mental health issues, high attrition, and difficulty in attracting the best talent.

Positive or healthy cultures in contrast excel at generating positive work experiences for their people, enabling them to thrive and achieve their potential. These cultures promote a greater sense of purpose, behaviour aligned with espoused organisational values, and enable greater levels of inclusion, engagement, and well-being. The result is sustainable high performance, greater innovation, and higher rates of talent attraction and retention.

Marcella Bremer, in Developing a Positive Culture Where People and Performance Thrive, outlines the extensive research on healthy cultures and their impact. Bremer points out that a toxic culture creates “suffering” for its people, while a healthy culture enables “thriving” for its people. She also explores an in-between cultural state, characterised by “surviving”.

Given the reported prevalence of toxic culture in the profession, and the long-standing concerns about lawyer well-being, it would be reasonable to conclude that few lawyers are likely to describe themselves as currently “thriving” at work.

So how do we develop a healthy law firm culture where people (and not only high performance) thrive? We will explore core values and leadership as both are critical in developing a healthy culture.

Core values

Many law firms publish their core values on their websites. The following are the five most cited values from the websites of the world’s largest global law firms:

  1. Diversity and inclusion (D&I)
  2. Collaboration
  3. Excellence
  4. Client focus
  5. Respect.

Sull considered respect, diversity, and integrity to be critical values of a healthy organisational culture. We can see how these values serve as a strong antidote to toxic behaviour and are integral to the success of other organisational values.

For example, let us look at ‘respect’. We know that respect is an essential ingredient for diversity and inclusion and a culture built on respect will not tolerate bullying and sexual harassment. It is also hard to imagine a strong culture of collaboration, excellence, client focus existing in the absence of respect. Excellence for many firms also means having strength in innovation. We know that innovation is fostered by psychological safety, and psychological safety is simply not possible without respect.

Professor Rushworth Kidder, an American ethicist, noted that research across cultures and different time periods has revealed that there are five widely shared values. These are compassion, respect, responsibility (or accountability), fairness, and honesty (or truth), with the acronym CRAFT suggested by some writers.

These values (compassion, respect, responsibility (or accountability), fairness, and honesty (or truth), D&I and integrity) should be the critical or foundational values of any law firm’s culture. These and other core values adopted by firms, such as collaboration, client focus, excellence etc., also need to be lived values, rather than purely aspirational ones.

Carolyn Plum commented on the traditional approach to values by the legal profession: “The traditional approach has been to wait until someone complains about an issue or brings a lawsuit before acting. Recent headlines reveal blue-chip law firms embroiled in disputes ranging from sexual harassment to pay equity and discrimination. All can agree that reacting after the fact is not the most effective method. Often these issues are the result of smaller inequities or injustices that go unchecked or unchallenged for years, growing into substantial and intractable matters that harm firm culture, tarnish organisational integrity, and diminish the profession.”

Firm leaders cannot assume that having few complaints regarding value breaches implies that they have a healthy culture. Complaints will often be the tip of the iceberg regarding what is really happening in any firm. People may be reluctant to complain of value breaches due to their fear of repercussions and/or their cynicism regarding formal complaint processes.

Firm leaders must ensure that everyone walks the talk on firm values, starting with the top leadership team itself.

Leading with values

Sull provide helpful practical recommendations on how to fix a toxic culture, with suggested actions around three areas – leadership, social norms, and work design.

On leadership, they recommend focusing on the distributed leaders that top leaders hire, retain, and promote. Actions here include the following:

  1. Coaching distributed leaders on non-toxic behaviours
  2. Making distributed leaders aware of the negative impact of their toxic behaviours on colleagues
  3. Making behavioural expectations crystal clear
  4. Dealing with distributed leaders who deliver results but create toxic subcultures.

These recommendations, focusing on distributed leaders, are relevant for law firms, as many operate through distributed leadership models. Besides focusing on the management of toxic behaviours, law firm leaders should include, as a strategic priority, the building of a healthy culture where both people and high performance will thrive.

Core values are integral to the day-to-day life of a healthy culture and leaders in these cultures are custodians, and champions, of those values. These values-based leaders ensure that core values are:

  1. Embraced through an engaging process that builds commitment
  2. Communicated clearly, with behavioural examples
  3. Role modelled by all leaders
  4. Reinforced through regular coaching, feedback, and recognition and reflected in all key people processes such as recruitment, performance management, reward, and promotions to ensure alignment between values, incentives, and behaviours
  5. Being lived across the firm by getting feedback, and addressing any issues.

In getting feedback on whether values are being lived, review feedback from both external (e.g., from Glassdoor) and internal sources. Seek internal feedback through short surveys and/or focus groups. Questions on values can also be included in engagement surveys. Surveys should include open-ended questions, which often provide great insight.

Aside from the highly recommended articles by Sull, included in the references are other helpful resources on values-based leadership. This includes an article by Humprey on values-based leadership in law firms, and a practical guide from Ludema and Johnson on how to develop clarity around values, communicate values, and use values to drive people practices, decision making, and client relationships.

Developing values-based leaders

Most law firms will have to go beyond their current approaches in developing leaders as values-based leadership requires leaders to have a greater level of self-awareness to ensure behavioural change.

Unfortunately, many people (including many leaders!) have relatively low levels of self-awareness. Some leaders are unaware of the extent to which their actual behaviour is inconsistent with espoused values. Others may be aware of their incongruent behaviour, but will justify it, based on often unchallenged personal beliefs and assumptions.

Here are some examples:

  1. The leader who espouses respect and accountability, but ignores the behaviour of a known bully, because that person is a ‘rainmaker’.
  2. The leader who espouses diversity and inclusion, but does not intervene when a colleague mocks the accents of people from minority groups.
  3. The leader who espouses honesty and fairness, but avoids giving negative feedback, to avoid ‘uncomfortable’ conversations.
  4. The leader who espouses collaboration, but avoids introducing their colleagues to ‘their’ clients and seeks to ‘outshine’ others in meetings.

What we need is leadership development that uses ‘vertical development’ or ‘vertical growth’ practices. These practices contrast to ‘horizontal development’ practices which solely focus on skills development, without addressing the underlying mindsets of leaders. Skills training in isolation, for example on diversity and inclusion, feedback, collaboration etc., is highly unlikely to create behavioural change.

Vertical development practices enable leaders to critically examine the mindsets and assumptions driving their current behaviour, provide them with tools on how to change their mindsets and behaviours, and strengthen their commitment to personal change.

The process simultaneously challenges and supports leaders to achieve greater internalisation of core values, leading to more value congruent behaviour. This initiative can also be cascaded across the organisation, starting with the leadership team, thereby accelerating the development of a healthy culture.

Vertical Growth by Michael Bunting is a highly recommended guide that provides practical guidance on how to use vertical development practices to help core values come alive for leaders, teams, and organisations. It examines the alignment of personal and organisational values and includes helpful diagnostic and action planning tools for use at the individual, team, or organisational level.


Toxic culture is a major concern for many young lawyers. Law firms need to act swiftly to deal with any pockets of toxicity in their cultures, as well as develop healthier firm cultures, to enable both their people and high performance to thrive.

Core values are a critical foundation for developing healthy firm cultures, and we need leaders to lead with these values and ‘walk the talk’ on core values.

Vertical development practices will equip leaders with the ability and tools to develop a healthy firm culture, ensuring greater sustainable success for their firms. Building this leadership capability is also critical for the legal profession, if it is to continue to attract, grow, and retain the best talent required for its long-term success.


  • When It Comes to Culture, Does Your Company Walk the Talk? Sull, Donald MIT Sloan Management Review. 2020.
  • Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture. Sull, Donald MIT Sloan Management Review. March 2022.
  • How to Fix a Toxic Culture. Sull, Donald, and Charles. MIT Sloan Management Review. Winter 2022.
  • Developing a Positive Culture Where People and Performance Thrive. Bremer, Marcella. Motivational Press, Inc. 2018.
  • Giving Voice to Values in the Legal Industry in Giving Voice to Values – An Innovation and Impact Agenda (p. 126, Kindle Edition). Plumb, Carolyn. Taylor and Francis.
  • Moral Courage. Kidder, Rushworth. HarperCollins. 2009.
  • How the Best Leaders Align their Firm’s Values with Strategy. Humprey, Nick. Australasian Law Management Journal. August 2015.
  • Making Values Meaningful – A Menu of Options for Senior Leaders. James Ludema and Amber Johnson. The Centre for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University. 2014.
  • Vertical Growth – How Self-Awareness Transforms Leaders and Organisations. Michael Bunting, with Carl Lemieux. Wiley. 2022.

Daljit Singh is the Principal of Transforming Talent, and a Teaching Fellow at the Australian College of Law where he teaches two subjects in the Master of Legal Business – Workforce of the Future and Leadership. Daljit has held senior talent management and leadership development roles at KPMG and Baker McKenzie. Contact him