One of the things we hear a lot in law firms is that each firm has its own culture. Leaders within the firm strive to maintain that culture. Lateral recruiting focuses in on making sure that new hires understand the importance of the firm’s culture and that they fit in with that culture. Growth plans are centered around whether or not the plan will change the culture. We all know the Peter Drucker quote that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” The problem of giving firm culture an almost cult-like status within the organization, is that it can be used as a weapon against the people the firm needs the most. Those are people who are great at what they do, but may have different life experiences from what the firm’s culture expects.

The question to ask ourselves is “are we unfairly judging others based on the concept of how well they perform under our idea of firm culture?” Is that an honest way to evaluate people, or does it create an implicit bias which sets people up to fail simply because their life experiences are different from those who established the culture? This idea of unfairly judging people with different life experiences with the concepts of following firm culture hit me like a ton of bricks when I was listening to an episode of Thi$ is Uncomfortable called “Crying at Work.

Journalist Chiquita Paschal talks with host Reema Khrais about a performance review she received as a young journalist. Here’s a transcript of the conversation starting around 10:05 mark:

Reema [narrating]: So [Chiquita] was feeling optimistic when her boss handed her their review.

Chiquita: Right? And I go into and it’s just like page after page of just like “Mediocre…”

Reema: Do you remember any of the specific language?

Chiquita: I do remember the words defensive coming up. A lot.

Reema: They described you as defensive?

Chiquita: Yeah. I wasn’t understanding like what I was having such a difficult time communicating with, in a productive way,

Reema [narrating]: She says she was also described as intimidating and lazy, and as a black woman, it was hard for her to hear that and not think of the larger implications.

Chiquita: It’s just like a a description of caricatures of black people on how sometimes black people are seen in the context of like, white environments. Uhm and that was almost too terrible of a thought to bear. And so I think so. I tried to make it about everything else. Like I started to believe that I wasn’t good at my job and I started to believe that I was a bad writer. And I started to believe that you know, I that my news opinions were skewed, and I just became more and more self conscious over time. (emphasis added.)

Reema [narrating]: Eventually, she started to wonder whether she actually was cut out for this kind of journalism.

Paschal’s story is one that plays out in all environments, but I can see it playing out in many different ways in the legal field. We have a “round hole” that we call culture, and whenever we have “square pegs” of individuals with different life experiences. Do we pound on them until we round off the edges or they break? Or, do we work to adjust parts of the culture to bring them into an environment that is more expansive?

Using culture as a weapon isn’t always as blatant as being black and being judged through the lens of white environments. But the effects judging others on how well they adapt to the culture of the firm, and to see firm culture as a one-way street where everyone needs to adjust to a rigid culture, can create a situation where we are using culture as a weapon… even if that is not intentional. So again, the question to ask is “are we unfairly judging others based on the concept of how well they perform under our idea of firm culture?”


(Thanks to Podcast Transcribe for the transcription help. - GL)