Culture is a key differentiator for most firms, but it is especially important for a family-law practice wanting to attract new clients.

By Tea Hoffmann, Strategy Consultant

For today’s law firm, culture matters and should not be seen as a “buzz word” used only by the Gen X and Y crowd. In 2012, Inc. magazine reported that 18% of college graduates considered the culture of an organization to be the number-one factor in making an employment decision. Unfortunately, many lawyers and law firms don’t believe that these statistics apply to them, but in today’s competitive family-law practice, establishing and retaining the right culture for your firm can be a key differentiator when it comes to attracting clients.

What do your clients think about your firm’s culture when they visit for their initial divorce consultation? Are they compelled to tell their friends about the experience? Can they tell from just one visit which values are important to your firm? If you are not sure, then it could be time to assess or establish the type of culture that will encourage your clients to make referrals and share their positive experiences.

Culture is atmospheric. Culture is a feeling. We all know a good culture when we experience it. When I enter my doctor’s office, for example, the receptionist smiles and says hello to me by name. When I sit down, they have magazines that are current and relevant to their patients (most of who are over 50), and when I am called back to see the doctor, the nurse (who also calls me by name) asks about my children and my work before she asks me to raise my sleeve to take my blood pressure. I know that customer service is important to this office.

Culture is a shared set of values communicated and demonstrated throughout the organization. The leader sets the standard of what is important and what actions will and will not be tolerated.  A leader makes few exceptions, if any, and exemplifies the purpose of the firm.

Culture flows downward. If an organization’s leader does not adhere to the core values and stated purpose of the firm, then the other lawyers and staff won’t buy into it and the culture will become a joke. I have heard horror stories from staff who bought into the firm culture outlined in their initial interview, only to find a few months in that the talk was just, well, talk.

So, which mistakes can kill your firm’s culture?

Law Firm Culture Killer #1: Lack of Stated Purpose or Values

At my current firm, client value is one of our four stated standards. Actions that reinforce this value include: completing in-person client interviews and actively responding to the feedback; completing after-action interviews and online surveys to determine in real-time what worked well and what we could be doing better, as well as staff training on client service; and constant reminders of why our clients are important.

Our client commitment is prominently displayed in our lobby; it is also on our coffee cups and is the basis of a new website our firm is launching. These simple steps effectively keep our client commitment top-of-mind.

Family-law practitioners may choose to provide customer service training to lawyers and staff; prominently display the firm’s client commitment in the lobby and in all client materials; provide clients with a resource, outside of their primary attorney, to call and ask questions; establish a standard response time policy; or complete a simple after-the-case interview to determine what went well, and what could have been done better or differently.

Law Firm Culture Killer #2: Lack of Leadership

Leadership at all levels must subscribe to and embody the firm’s stated values. Otherwise, your attempted culture revival is destined for failure. Obtaining staff buy-in at a small family-law firm is much easier than doing so at a larger firm, but it still requires effort from those in leadership positions. Every leader has certain core values, but establishing or re-establishing a unique firm culture should involve a group discussion on current perceived core values as well as the aspired values. The gap between where you are in relation to your purpose versus where you want to be must also be discussed involving small, targeted actions that move your firm closer to exhibiting your unique culture.

Law Firm Culture Killer #3: Inefficiencies

Some studies estimate that inefficiencies cost organizations 20-30% of their revenue. Despite this, many firms are running so fast that they never slow down enough to be efficient, or they don’t want to spend the money to create efficiencies. But you can’t afford to ignore this topic, as inefficiency is an underlying source of frustration – and frustration is toxic to your firm’s culture.

If your computer is outdated and takes minutes to load, if your copiers are constantly jammed and your files are disorganized, and if your workspace does not allow you to do your job well, there is a problem that must be addressed. The cost of such inefficiencies, in addition to the frustration they cause, include lower-quality work, wasted time, damaged morale, and a higher staff turnover rate.

So, to the leaders reading this, I would ask: what are your firm’s core values and purpose? Do you most strongly value client attraction, client retention, productivity, profitability, community service, or something else? How are you communicating those values to your team? How are you embodying and demonstrating these values? Can your team describe the firm’s purpose, and are you open to suggestions from all team members on how that purpose can be accomplished? Are you willing to spend the time, money, and energy necessary to turn your firm into a place that clients will want to go and will refer to others? A firm where lawyers enjoy working, and where staff members choose to stay because they feel like part of a team?

Whether you’re actively working to shape it or not, your firm has a culture. It’s up to you to choose how to define your firm’s culture and avoid making the toxic mistakes that can kill culture completely.

Tea Hoffmann is the Chief Strategy Officer for Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein in Charlotte, NC. She received her JD from Cumberland School of Law. In her current role, she provides guidance in the formation, development, and implementation of revenue generating strategies and policies. Ms.Hoffmann is a frequent public speaker across the United States on a wide variety of business development-related topics.