September 26, 2018
One morning more than two years ago, I walked into our office expecting a relatively routine day. Within moments, I was facing a situation that—for our firm—was extraordinary. A group of long-tenured lawyers announced they were leaving to start their own firm. What followed was much like a divorce—with all the good, the bad, and the ugly that accompanies such a dramatic split.
But that split was a catalyst for changes that helped bring us to where we are today. We are a stronger, more sophisticated firm now, buoyed by a bulletproof culture that helped us thrive through one of the more notable transformations in Schiff Hardin’s rich 150-year history.
As the first female managing partner of Schiff Hardin, a mid-size national law firm, I understood that change is an imperative and can generate enormous opportunities. My mandate became clear: Identify and encourage the development of policies and practices to further deepen the aspects of our culture we value, adapt to the new realities facing our industry to remain dynamic and competitive, and position us for the future in a way that reflects on our storied past.
Here are some steps we took to meet change and come out stronger:
Knowing our industry. In previous generations, the norm was that attorneys remained at one law firm throughout their careers. That longevity enabled a law firm’s culture to be developed and preserved over time. Now attorneys at every stage of their careers have opportunities to move, so law firms have to work hard to retain their homegrown talent.
Law firms also face significant challenges as the practice of law becomes more efficient through automation, allowing clients to review and measure pricing, outcomes, professional histories, and more. This change has ratcheted up expectations and competition, creating a buyer’s market.
While some law firms are responding to market changes by creating service behemoths through mergers and acquisitions, we purposefully chose a different path. We did not want to grow simply for growth’s sake. We wanted to keep the positive aspects of our uniquely independent culture. So we set out to strategically invest where we were already strong, while nurturing a culture that values independence and diversity and understanding what clients need.
Amplifying our culture. Our culture is what sets us apart, what attracts a certain kind of person to work at the firm and do business with us. In many ways, it is the glue that binds us together. Culture is especially important in a law firm partnership, which depends on collegiality, cooperation, and teamwork to deliver sophisticated legal services.
Over the course of the firm’s history, we have developed a set of values that are intrinsic to how we do business. These qualities are our foundation, and in the midst of change, it is especially critical to embrace and find ways to enhance them. Clearly identifying what is nonnegotiable allows us to more easily map out our future course. For us, those concrete beliefs include treating our clients’ issues as if they were our own, maintaining a collegial workplace in which we really support our colleagues throughout their careers, promoting diversity in all its forms and, importantly, hewing to our intention to remain independent.
Supporting collegiality. At Schiff, we prioritize developing the careers of our attorneys and the next generation of leaders. We appoint younger attorneys as deputy practice group leaders to provide them with professional growth opportunities, and we include them on the firm’s hiring and recruiting committees. Mentoring more junior employees, regarding their career paths and the finer points of client service, helps build trust and collegiality.
Defining ourselves through diversity. Perhaps the most invaluable stronghold of our client teams and culture through change is diversity. Employing people of different races, genders, cultures, and religions creates a work environment that generates different perspectives on solving client challenges. Given that, diversity needs to be a way of thinking about your business and its potential. We have built a comprehensive benefits package that puts our money where our mouth is, with our industry-leading policies for working parents as just one example.
Navigating the ordinary-turned-extraordinary with your culture front and center means that you better have an authentic leader in the driver’s seat. Finding my own voice as a leader became a catalyst toward the organization we are today.