With all this talk or blogging about AI, Big Data, metrics and analytics, pricing protocols, KM, Six Sigma and Lean and Agile, I wonder if I am working in a manufacturing shop or a law firm. In the world of manufacturing widget A can be compared to widget B, the two widgets can be taken apart, reverse engineered, put under stress tests and compared one against the other down to their composite parts. But if you’ve ever done what I call the website practice description test, you will know that law firms all use eerily similar language, nuance and style to describe what they do and for whom they do it.  And yet, each law firm is unique, there is something that makes one firm embrace AI  or LMP while another will shy away from anything other than the billable hour.  What then is the *real* differentiating factor for law firms?  Culture. 

Culture is hard to define, dictionary.com says this of culture: “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.” Firm culture then, in my opinion is what a firm or firm leadership regard as excellence in the practice and business of law.  For some firms, culture is about billing, billing, billing, the relentless pursuit of commercial success and heaps upon heaps of billable hours. Though arguably an outdated machine like model this type of firm culture does still exist.  It is the kind of caricature you would imagine law firms would take on in a Tim Burton movie.  Other law firm cultures are built on a solid foundation of the hierarchy, ruthless behavior and one up-man-ship.  This is the kind of culture that the Anonymous Lawyer  blog and book were predicated on and to some extent do still exist. Many of us are familiar with these firms either by experience, by anecdote or by TV portrayals.  Other firms are not firms at all but a loose collective of lawyers with a firm culture that resembles a start-up or a technology company – think foosball tables, Macbook docking stations and white open concept spaces – rather than mahogany, privacy partitions, and gleaming reception areas. 

Success or failure of the firms to be commercially successful, embrace or refute technology, encourage new management roles and processes is, in my mind all tied to culture.  One culture does not necessarily suggest success and the other failure but the ability of a firm to pursue its quality of excellence – however they define and measure it – rests solely on its ability to maintain its cultural balance in every interaction.  Little gestures such as ending emails with “Smiles” or “no response required” or offering clients use of a firm’s meeting spaces or larger firm discussions around collaboration, sharing of financial data within the firm or making use of the Cloud in technology initiatives each point to the culture of the firm and reinforce for partners, clients, staff and business partners what a firm ultimately privileges.  I have often wondered how it could be that laterals who were floundering at one firm move to another and are suddenly rainmakers or lauded as being the best of the best in the business or how one firm can implement a new software tool at a significant cost while others wouldn’t touch that same tool even it was free. The answer is of course “fit” or culture.  Unlike in manufacturing where the goods produced undergo strict quality assurance testing, is it the people who work in firms each and every day that offer up the defacto QA testing, turning ISO (certification) into IMHO. 

As bloggers, it is our job to bring you the latest and greatest (or not) in law firm trends, technology, professional development opportunities and just plain intellectual sparring.  But I hasten to remind readers that each and every firm or in house legal department has a unique culture or signature that will determine what may or may not work in your specific firm or within the context of your role.  The glint of the shiny new toy is always appealing, but may not perform well for the work you and your firm are trying to do.  Over time, cultures change. Big Data, AI and LMP may run the legal world one day, but in the mean time remember, sometimes, it the simplest methods, tried and true that are the best fit for your firm’s culture right now.