Law Firm Culture

Keith Lee

What do you need when starting a solo practice or a small firm? A huge office in the middle of downtown? The most cutting edge computer? A paralegal and an associate?

You don’t actually need any of those things, but the one that often costs small firms the most headaches in terms of time and money is hiring staff. Many times, new solos or small firms feel the need to staff up right away — they’re lawyers! They have to have a secretary, an assistant, a paralegal, etc. It’s expected. Clients won’t feel comfortable coming into an office without a secretary. But after six months of a low volume caseload, becoming familiar with case management software, and discovering that clients don’t particularly care if you have a secretary, lawyers realize they are wasting money on unnecessary people. Even worse, lawyers might find they hired the wrong people. In a rush to get their office started, they took on whoever first came in the door. Or they only spend a cursory time with the interview process, relying on people’s résumé or referrals. After which they discover hiring the wrong person pulls everyone else down.

So when is the right time to hire someone? And how do you know if they are the right fit?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of the ATL Interrogatories. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Paul Steven Singerman is Co-Chair of Berger Singerman and concentrates his practice in troubled loan workouts, insolvency matters, and commercial transactions. Paul is active throughout the United States in large and complex restructuring, insolvency, and bankruptcy cases. Although Paul is best known for his representation of debtors in complex restructuring cases, he is also experienced in representing creditors’ committees, lenders, large unsecured creditors, asset purchasers in § 363 sales and trustees. Much of his work has involved companies with international operations or European or Asian parties-in-interest.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

One of the thorniest issues any leader has to deal with is telling senior-level underperformers that they’d be better off elsewhere. It calls on every skill in the manager’s bag of tricks, from financial analysis to subtler cultural and personality judgments, and accurate perspective on the impact on the organization overall of asking a high-profile person to leave.

To be honest, it’s also one of the most difficult challenges we deal with in advising firms about their paths forward. Although at times it’s crystal clear what needs to be done, far more often you have no such luxury of being able to shortcut analysis and judgment, and you have to work through all the potential interactions and repercussions to decide with some degree of confidence what to do. Then of course you actually have to do it. You’d be surprised — or maybe you wouldn’t — how often otherwise hard-headed and decisive leaders never quite get around to that part of it….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

For years, I’ve been hearing firms describe their cultures as “entrepreneurial,” and I hardly paid the slightest attention. Like “collegial” or “collaborative,” it just seemed like so much white noise. Then finally I heard it once too often and had to face cold reality: I had absolutely no idea what these people — a lot of smart, articulate people — were talking about.

Let’s go to the dictionary, where we find:

/äntrəprə no͝orēəl/

1. characterized by the taking of financial risks in the hope of profit; enterprising

Other notions orbiting around the concept of entrepreneurism include engaging in genuine innovation and invention (to the extreme of shattering the status quo), proceeding decisively in the face of profound ambiguity and uncertainty, and shouldering the personal risk of sacrificing years of reliable income provided by others for whatever rewards you can persuade the market to deliver — with a meaningful risk those rewards could be nonexistent.

This is an audience participation column, so I ask you this: Would you describe your own firm as “entrepreneurial?” Are there firms you admire or look down upon that you’d describe as “entrepreneurial?” What mental image or behavior, what cultural archetype or partner personality type, pops into your mind when “entrepreneurial” is used to describe a firm?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Jami Wintz McKeon is chair-elect of Morgan Lewis and leader of the firm’s litigation practice. She is responsible for the strategic and day-to-day operation of the litigation practice, made up of 700 litigators in 25 global offices.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Gary Luftspring, managing partner at Ricketts, Harris LLP, enjoys a high-level litigation practice. He’s successfully represented clients in a significant and growing number of major cases and was named by Lexpert as a litigator who is “consistently recommended.” Read his full bio here.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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Jay EdelsonEd. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Jay Edelson is the founder and managing partner of Edelson LLC, a national consumer class action firm. Edelson LLC focuses on consumer technology, privacy, and banking litigation, and has secured settlements valued at over $1 billion in the last five years. Jay also serves as an adjunct professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, where he teaches class actions and negotiations. The American Bar Association has called him one of the “most creative minds in the legal profession” for his views on associate training and firm management.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Terry Conner serves as Haynes and Boone‘s Managing Partner and a member of its Board of Directors, and is an active member of numerous other committees within the firm. Terry has more than 30 years of experience practicing in the area of business transactions, including commercial loans, loan restructures and technology transactions. He has been an adjunct professor of commercial law at Southern Methodist University School of Law, a Director of the Texas Association of Bank Counsel, the co-editor of the Matthew Bender Commercial Loan Documentation Guide, the co-chair of the Southern Methodist University Law School Commercial Lending Institute, a lecturer on business law at The University of Texas at Dallas, and a member of the State of Texas Science and Technology Council appointed by then-Governor Bush.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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Ed. note: The Aspiring Lateral, a new series from Levenfeld Pearlstein, will analyze a variety of issues surrounding lateral moves, drawing on the firm’s experience in the lateral market as well as the individual experiences of LP attorneys. Today’s post is written by the firm’s chairman, Bryan Schwartz.

I spent all of July on sabbatical from the law. I didn’t field a single work-related email, or phone call, or even check the news. For an entire month, I focused on fly-fishing, golf, and family. I focused on myself.

Now, I don’t say all that to make anyone jealous. (If I were going to do that, I would have mentioned my week in Punta Cana.) I say that because, as I sit down to write about how law firm “culture” should impact lateral decision making, I keep coming back to my sabbatical. I was as unplugged from legal practice as I’ve been in years — okay, decades — but it told me more about culture than any month in the office.

As anyone who has been through it knows, the recruiting process is rife with talk about law firm culture. Interviews that pass without glowing reference to a firm’s “collegial culture” are as rare as sightings of the Dodo bird. But let’s face it: some minimum amount of camaraderie among peers is a pretty low bar to meet.

The cultural questions that should concern laterals most do not have to do with the frequency of happy hours, the annual barbeque, or the degree of a partnership’s collective inebriation at the holiday party. Instead, the most important question of culture is this: does this firm have a motivating purpose beyond the production of income for its individual lawyers?

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