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To understand what life is really like at your firm or at a prospective law firm, you have to look beyond cliches. For instance, there’s this perennial favorite often voiced at firms: “We have a collegial family atmosphere where we balance work and personal lives.” But does the firm have a written mission statement? Forward-thinking firms have an idea of what their strategic growth should be and have outlined their plans in writing. Still others have a mission that exists solely in the minds of a few senior partners. A firm that describes itself as “a broad-based legal services provider” probably doesn’t have a plan beyond acquiring lateral attorneys with specialties that complement the firm’s existing practices, which is known as disciplined opportunism. A clearly stated mission indicates agreement among the partners as to the direction and style of the firm. The attorneys and staff understand what distinguishes their culture from those of other law firms. The firm has a structure, with consistent policies and behaviors. A firm that cannot agree on a unified mission is often a collection of individual lawyers practicing under one umbrella. This may also indicate satisfaction with the status quo. MANAGEMENT STYLE How are decisions made? At the very top of the hierarchy, as in a corporation, or by the partnership? If you are looking to move to a new firm, the style of the interviewer gives clues. Do the questions seem designed to elicit your personality and determine whether you will be a good fit, or are they looking for responses that fit their corporate mold? Does the interviewer put you at ease and interject humor or does he interrogate you? Canned questions during the interview may suggest the desire for canned answers. If the firm seems to be looking for the “right” answers, it may be seeking someone who will succeed in a bureaucratic environment. In an organization with corporate-style management, important decisions and policies are made by the executives. This style of management will generally produce a more financially successful and stable law firm, but it allows very little room for individuality or flexibility. A social-club management style allows everyone, including associates, a voice in establishing firm policy. The focus is on the individual. The environment is more friendly, relaxed and low-key. The disadvantages of this egalitarian style are that it takes longer — sometimes much longer — to make decisions, and that decisions made by committee tend to lack focus. This style is reflective of a true partnership, but it is not as efficient. SIMPLICITY Are the policies in the firm’s manual straightforward, or are they lengthy and hard to understand? The question is not about benefits, it is about simplicity. A business leadership book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap,” by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (Harvard Business School Press), refers to “a culture that values simplicity and does not reward unnecessary complexity — a culture in which calling something ‘common sense’ is a compliment rather than an insult, and in which language used is simple, clear and direct.” Written policies and procedures at a law firm can be very good. Long, complicated ones can be bad because they are often devoid of common sense, intuition and flexibility. Substance is lost in procedures, and, as a result, you have employees who will scrutinize every word. If rules and procedures make you feel comfortable, a firm with a fat personnel manual may be just the place for you. But if you value intuitive decisions and the room to make them, you will want to be wary of a firm with a collective drive to eliminate uncertainty. It’s really the aversion to uncertainty and risk that can make an anxious firm construct thick paper walls. It won’t prevent unpredictable things from happening, but the illusion of control makes an anxious firm feel good. MUTUAL RESPECT Does the firm have screamers? Many firms tolerate and sometimes reward partners who are abusive. Because screamers produce revenue, managing partners have a hard time trying to keep the abuser and his or her victims happy at the same time. All too often, the associate or the administrator loses in this situation. Find out how the firm treats people who leave. Most firms will have a party for an attorney who leaves to work for a client, thus ensuring continuing good relations. Is there a similarly warm send-off for a departing attorney who goes to a competitor? The firm may treat departing attorneys nicely when it is to its benefit and ignore them when there seems to be no immediate value in trying to continue the relationship. Are attorneys asked to leave immediately, or are they treated with respect and asked to return that respect by not removing files and documents before they are released? In other words, does the firm keep up a professional demeanor even in uncomfortable situations? Who is invited to firm functions? Are support staff included, or are most events for attorneys only? Many firms say they are one big family but have separate outings and attorney-only celebrations for a big client victory. Find out how much attorney involvement occurred at the last Support Staff Week. Look at the office services department. If it appears cluttered and disorganized, this might indicate an unappreciated staff. This is important because it could indicate the overall attitude of the partners toward staff. If the partners treat staff as fungible, then associates and administrators may be subject to similar treatment. CONSISTENCY How long has the current group of partners been working together? Whether the partners came up through the ranks or are lateral hires, this is another cultural barometer. If the current group has been together for many years, chances are they have adopted a unified approach to managing their practices. On the other hand, if there are recent lateral partners or groups, you will likely find a cultural potpourri. A lack of consistency among partners indicates that there may not be uniformity in policies and practices within the firm. Four questions can help you evaluate a firm’s culture: � What are three events that happen here that people would miss the most if they did not happen? � Finish this sentence: “At this firm, rules are made to be … “ � If this firm had a mascot, what would it be? � If this firm had a motto, what would it be — not what should it be? The answers to these questions can help you define the image or personality of your firm, present or future. And then it’s helpful to ask yourself: Is this really where I want to work? Law firms offer an eccentric, challenging environment. But they are not a place for the meek or modest. Working in a law firm requires maximum effort for success. You will be able to do your best only when your personal values and personality are in sync with those of the firm. Kenneth Knott is a law firm administrator in Washington, D.C.

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