By Jenny Patten • March 29, 2019•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Other Career Issues
Over the next few months, my column will explore the role that company culture plays in a successful legal practice. I know…culture. Before your eyes glaze over, though, hear me out. An entire body of literature and best practices exist on the powerful role culture can play in business. Here, we’ll focus on exactly what company culture can mean to you, as counsel, and how focusing on this aspect of your company or client organizations can reap great benefits for your practice.
Chances are, if you are in-house, you may have come across your company’s mission, vision and values, or a quixotic set of statements that, at first glance, sound similar. They might center around ideas along the lines of let’s do good, be good, act good. Your company may have an acronym for these aspirational standards, some fancy signs, or a glossy document that was handed to you along with your benefits packet and ID badge on your first day on the job. However, have you ever stopped to really think about what the company is trying to convey in these statements? Do you understand how it translates across the company, and the individuals, teams and divisions that you support? Do you recognize the values being put into practice—for example are they used in conversations and part of how decisions are made? And have you thought about how to utilize those themes to your advantage in your practice?
Even if your company doesn’t have a formalized set of culture-related statements or documents, or if you’re in private practice and don’t work in-house, think for a moment about some of the unspoken priorities and values of your company or a client company that you work with on a regular basis. Company jargon, buzzwords and phrases can also key you in to the culture and what the company actually finds important. For example, if you constantly hear your business team ask if something is “value-add,” you may have a culture that appreciates direct, precise guidance that is specifically on-point to the issue or question the team posed to you, minus any extraneous analysis. If you hear department leaders ask their teams to “show their work,” you may have a culture that appreciates a thorough analysis regarding how you reached a specific legal conclusion.
Ignoring culture when you’re advising a company may prove perilous. Early on in my career, I advised an internal HR team on a personnel issue. I wrote an email to my primary contact, an employee relations rep, and asked a few questions about a “supervisor and her subordinate.” Within a few minutes, my phone rang. “Jenny,” the employee relations rep said, “we never use the word subordinate around here. It conveys a feeling of inequality and invokes a negative connotation, and that is not what we are about. I know it may sound like a weird thing to get hung up on, but that’s just us.” After I hung up, I thought back to my new employee orientation a few weeks earlier. I vaguely recalled a discussion about the company’s emphasis on treating all employees equally, and the distinct and important value of each member of the company, from entry level clerk to CEO. While I may not have guessed that this particular term was verboten in the company’s unofficial vernacular, I knew from then on that using the correct terminology when describing employee positions and relationships was something important to this company’s culture. By avoiding that term and others that could convey values contrary to those held by the company, I was able to style my legal guidance and communication in a way that better resonated with the teams I supported.
I challenge you to take a little time to think about what is really important to your company or your client, either through the classic expressions of company culture, like a mission statement and values, or through the less explicit expressions of culture that you see and hear during your interactions with your primary client contacts. Thinking through these themes and how they can apply to your advice, counsel and communications style may not only help build and sustain client relationships but also help shape your legal guidance to be more useful to your client.