Leading Culture Change—It’s Time

The #MeToo movement gave rise to conversations about culture in media, entertainment, and government. Now is an opportune time for the legal profession to shine a light on its culture. Seeing the perspective of millennials, minorities, and women can help.


After decades of women graduating from law schools at rates close to that of men, their share of equity partnerships has remained stagnant at near 20%.

The percentage of black associates in law firms has declined every year since 2009, except for a small increase in 2016.

Questions about culture must be asked and addressed when we see these statistics.

Millennials, too, make us face culture questions. Millennials want flexibility in the workplace, but they want more. They value ethics and inclusiveness, including leaders who are concerned about the excluded or isolated. They value passionate opinions and want to be part of the conversation about something more than merely maintaining the status quo. They care about good causes, not just good paychecks.

A culture is not read in a personnel manual. In may not be spoken aloud. But cultures can be felt. They can be infused. And they can be spread.

Strong hierarchies have historically been a huge part of law firm cultures. There are the partners, the associates, and the support staff. Partners made decisions, often with little transparency, and people knew their place. They also knew where their place wasn’t.

Lawyers can lean toward the analytical, which can result in black-and-white thinking. Partners delegate. Associates do what they are told. If you are not a partner, you may have an opinion, but you may also be advised to keep it to yourself.

The rationale for this approach: We had to go through it, so you should too. Besides, it’s working for us.

Why Change

The future demands that we bravely examine our cultures today. It’s time that we acknowledge that we no longer live in a world where every partner has a spouse to take care of our dog, our dinner parties, and our daily household chores. Fewer parents are willing to leave their home in the early morning dark only to return home after their family has had dinner without them.

How we have always worked is no longer working, or perhaps it never did work all that well. The context in which we practice has shifted to increasing complexity, demanding new ways of leading if we are to thrive in an era of increasing competition and the acceleration of technology and artificial intelligence. We must challenge beliefs such as that working absurdly long hours is the only path to success.

Commitment From the Top

When we consider changing a culture, it is only human to first think about how it impacts us personally. Will I have to give up my office? Will someone else’s software suggestion be adopted instead of mine? If I email an assignment at 10 p.m., will my associate still deliver the memo by morning? Will I lose my suite at the stadium? Will my billable hour requirement change? Is my bonus at risk?

Is there buy-in from the top that a change is necessary? No matter what speeches are given at retreats or partner meetings, if the actions of those in power do not demonstrate their commitment, culture change will ultimately fail.

Without a commitment from the top, the powerful change makers will make the change somewhere else. Those who remain will show up for work, but never with the full engagement.

It’s a choice to commit to culture change. Have you made it?

Truth Telling

When we are deep in a culture, we can be the fish who do not recognize the water we are swimming in. Our longstanding ways of operating become invisible to us. Even with well-intentioned efforts at observation, we are bound to have our blind spots.

To begin on the path of creating or changing a culture, start with seeing where you are. Have you created a safe mechanism for others to share their experiences of the culture? Have you done exit interviews with employees who left? How have you handled complaints about bullies and harassment? What is the quality of engagement at all levels? Have you invited anyone from the outside to help you see from a different perspective?

Google spent years collecting data on what made the best teams. Was it the most intelligent people? The hardest working? The most diverse? The research, known as the Aristotle Project, concluded that in the best teams, people experienced psychological safety. Team members must feel free to share ideas without being shut down, give feedback, take risks, have good intentions acknowledged, and experience failure knowing they still have the support of their team.

The inability for critical conversations to take place often contributes to the proliferation of unhealthy cultures. When it is not safe to talk about mismanagement, harassment, and ethical violations, the toxins spread throughout the culture. Over time, good people either let go of the notion that they can make a change or leave for a place where they can work in integrity.

Message Ambassadors

Whether it is a change in your commitment to your flex-time policy or to increase the number of minorities and women in leadership, is your message unequivocal? Truthful? Inspirational?

In addition to leaders being voices for the vision of the future, we must invite others to be the carrier of the message. Trusted messengers might be your file clerk or a young associate. Let them know the difference they will make and ask them to be ambassadors.

Your change message must be perpetually repeated at every opportunity, both formally and informally. To spread the message throughout the organization and to keep it top of mind it must be emphasized at meetings, in one-on-one conversations, and in the elevator.

The culture did not develop overnight. Neither will it change. Plan to persist.

Empower Your Change Experts

Innovative ideas for supporting a change of culture are often shut down by those who consider themselves experts in leadership. After all, if I’ve lived law practice management for 35 years and you’ve lived it for 35 months, aren’t I the expert?

When a firm is small or new, culture is defined by the founding partners. Two weeks after a C-section delivery, I returned to my solo practice with my newborn in tow. I was unknowingly creating a culture just one step removed from a generation of hardworking, stoic German farmers.

Years later, when I was captured by the call to become a coach, the culture of our practice was expanded by the young lawyer who became my law partner. Angela would preserve some aspects of the culture and also became the guardian of growing the culture of caring.

What do you want more of? What do you want less of? Once a decision is made about the desired change, we can’t get in the way of those who willing to lead the “how.” We need to make it possible for those at all levels of the organization to contribute solutions.

Beware of the ego attached to holding on to the culture you may have invested in for years. As the boomer who founded our firm decades ago, I would have been the last person to suggest an annual Spirit Week. It has now become one of our firm’s most cherished traditions.

Keep Accountability

Above all, the leaders must demonstrate the change or the entire initiative will fail. Allocation of resources and actions aligned with your words are essential. Provide the resources and support success, and don’t get in the way.

Set high expectations for delivery. Who is leading the change? What support do they need?

How will you measure the change? What are the goals? Is there an action plan for execution? Who will be held accountable for seeing that the promised actions are taken?

If you proclaim a concern about work-life balance, but associates are made to work until midnight night after night, no slick soundbite will change a culture. If the actions of leaders don’t align with the culture change message, the lack of integrity will derail any proclaimed intentions and will only add to cynicism.

We may be excellent at the practice of law, but lots of lawyers never learn how to lead. Without training, mentoring, coaching, or experience, many are placed into leadership roles wholly unprepared. The practice of law is the practice of business, and investment in developing our lawyer to lead needed change is essential. It’s past time.

About the Author

Susan Koenig is an attorney turned executive coach, writer, and speaker. She is of counsel with Koenig|Dunne, an Omaha, Nebraska firm focusing on family law and debt resolution. Contact her at susan@coachkoenig.com.

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