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Culture Isn't Hybrid, Remote, or In-Office. It's Communication.

I'm glad I exercised a little strategic patience in responding to a friend's question a few weeks ago about building and sustaining law firm culture in the age of remote and hybrid work. That wasn't quite the way he asked it, but that's the question I'm going to address.

He shared a story about offering a new senior associate a position with his national law firm and realizing late in the negotiations that he and the prospective associate had very different expectations about working from the firm's offices. Like a lot of folks, the prospective hire wanted to be fully remote, with no requirement to ever show up in the office. The firm expected something else. While "liberal" remote or hybrid work was permitted, in-office time was encouraged (eh-hem, expected) and the firm reserved the right to require in-office work for a variety of reasons (esp. client interactions, team meetings and planning sessions, and in the case of poor performance). Another reason to want the new hire in the office to was to ensure the firm had an opportunity to incorporate the new hire into its culture, and it's that last piece I want to focus on.

As I originally thought about my friend's situation, it seemed a classic case of the firm and the new hire being stuck on incompatible positions. The new hire wants to be at home; the firm wants everyone in the office. One can't exist while the other does. You can't connect A and B.

While that's one way to look at it, if that's where we stay, and we never shift our perspective, we'll never be able to reconcile them. This is the discussion that Pat Lencioni and his team seemed to be having on his December 28th podcast (which I only recently caught up with), and they seemed just as stuck as my friend and his firm. To find a way to satisfy both, we need to look at what interest each position serves.

Above I suggested, one of the underlying drivers for the firm's position is its interest in controlling its ability to generate and sustain culture. The firm wants to be able to create strong relational ties among its staff -- associates, partners, non-attorney professionals -- to make sure the firm they [presently] know and love keeps its essence. The new hire (for any number of reasons) probably wants to maintain a sense of autonomy and flexibility that may have become an important part of their well-being (e.g., easier opportunities for exercise, hobbies, time with family; less stress around commuting; more control over eating and sleeping habits). From the perspective of these underlying interests, their positions are no longer incompatible, they just need to be thoughtfully integrated.

I was thinking about how to present these two positions on the spectrum of autonomy and control. Those two ideas may be in tension, but they're not incompatible. And I will get to a discussion about how to integrate them, but (yet again) not today. I think the more important discussion today is about how law firms, legal organizations, or other groups of people establish their culture.

I've said before that your firm's culture is more than the tag line your marketing folks have stuck on the website. It's the demonstrable alignment between your firm's values, its policies, and its actions. And it's promulgated, kept alive, through the actions and interactions of your staff and leaders at all levels. But thinking about this recently, it occurred to me in a new way that all of those communications -- whether digitally on the website, or in firm policies, formal and informal training, and day-to-day guidance, counseling, and mentorship -- they are all just people interacting. Sometimes very directly in time and place. Sometimes more remotely. But the common thread is that there is an actual person at either end of the communication. Each of those communications contributes to our web of relationships, and the sum of those relationships is your firm's culture.

In the context of this tension between autonomy and control, between remote and in-office, this is a great reminder that we can do a lot of this via zoom, phone, chat, and (oh, heavens!) email. We can still communicate when we're not in the same room. But we do communicate differently when we are in the same room, and understanding what those differences are and how you can use each of those communication streams effectively gives you the opportunity to integrate autonomy and control.

Whatever you want your firm's culture to be (to sustain or to become), it is the way you communicate, to each other and to the world, that will influence the way colleagues, clients, and others view you. Their communal perception of the sum of those relationships is the reflection of your culture. Hopefully, that's in alignment with your tag line.

If it isn't, or if you're not sure, it's not the end of the world. It's not a problem unless you see it as one. Recognizing that incongruity is simply an incongruity. It is an opportunity to rewrite your values and your expectations of your firm's culture. Or it is an opportunity to revisit the chain of communication that added up to a culture you weren't aiming for.

Leadership doesn't have to be rocket science. But it does have to be deliberate, and sometimes taking the deliberate action to shift your perspective or to change the way you think or communicate benefits from help. I'm happy to talk with you about how you can shift your perspective and make some of these changes, and maybe I'm the right person to help you do it. (Calendly) Even if I'm not, I'm curious about the challenges and opportunities you're facing. Let's talk about how you can have the life, practice, and firm you're after.



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