Legal Culture Must Change for Attorneys to Thrive

By Kathleen Fyfe

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The definition of “culture,” according to Merriam-Webster, is the “set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.”

Put more simply, culture is the way we operate. It is defined by our behaviors, not our mission or business statements.

In looking at the culture of the legal profession, there are some long-held generalizations that can be made. The billable hour is the bottom line. Those who work the longest hours are the most successful. Young attorneys need to learn from the school of hard knocks and earn their way up the ladder – just like their predecessors did.

Perhaps these statements strike you as outdated, cliched and more than a little off-putting. But we know they are true, as they are what has been supported, rewarded and tolerated in our industry for decades.

For the sake of the health and well-being of both the legal profession and the attorneys who practice in it, this must change. And the coronavirus pandemic offers the perfect opportunity to finally address the entrenched cultural issues that have been collectively holding us back.

COVID-19 has handed the world a poorly packaged gift. What we decide to do with this gift is up to us, individually and communally. Having been forced to find new ways to exist in the world, communicate, manage our time, work and redefine our purpose – will we adapt for the better? Or will we shed these new lessons and ways of acting as soon as it’s physically possible to return to our old ways of life?

The global pause required by the pandemic provides an opportunity to ask ourselves some hard and long-overdue questions.

For example, is it really true that those who work the longest hours are the most successful? Is our true purpose to bill the most hours or to service the client in the best and most efficient way possible? Do we honestly believe that all members of a firm are on the same team or have we placed them at odds or in competition with each other?

Are there new, better and more effective ways for us to operate, other than the way we always have, and are we even capable of trying something new? We already know the answer to that final question is “yes,” because this unprecedented public health crisis has made it so.

While individuals are responsible for their own personal well-being, real systemic change will not be realized until the industry as a whole decides to address the current culture of law. Healthy attorneys who feel clarity of mind, emotional connectedness, trust, love and purpose will be able to accomplish more, and in less time, than those who are stressed, emotionally disconnected and without a sense of purpose.

The needle of change will not be moved very far if the culture of the law industry itself doesn’t consider well-being and make it a priority.

But what is the blueprint for this overarching culture shift? How might law offices and firms find ways to cultivate health? How can the focus change?

Might a senior partner bring a new attorney hire into meetings so he or she can learn from experience and with mentorship instead of the bruises of the hard knocks school? Could that same senior partner recognize that fewer hours worked by a healthy individual are actually better and more productive hours?

A culture that is supportive of health tends to also see stronger and better productivity.

There are some who may decide that change on this scale, within this well-worn culture of law, is too much, too hard or unnecessary. Change is uncomfortable. The metric for success for some may continue to be the billable hour or number of hours spent in an office.

But those who can embrace the humanity of the people in their firms, and support their mental and physical well-being, will see a more passionate and engaged staff, increased productivity, fewer sick days, and more success with clients. We have been forced to consider new ways of being in the world, finding ways to incorporate them into the future is our gift – should we choose to accept it.


Kathleen Fyfe, President of Fyfe Consulting, is a Culture Sleuth, Change Strategist, and Community Builder. She brings decades of experience working with individuals and organizations, both large and small. Believing that the people and their choices are the most important resources a company has, she customizes trainings based on the needs of the company and how they want to grow. Her expertise includes culture, strategic planning and development, organizational assessments, emotional intelligence, leadership and management training, team building and coaching.

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