Finding a Legal Culture that Fits

One of the ways LAPBC helps lawyers is with transitions in their legal careers. "Transition" in this sense does not refer to a simple job change, that is, doing the same or similar work in a new location. Rather it refers to the psychological experience of a major shift in a lawyer's career such as moving from private practice to government or from a small or solo practice to a very large firm. Transitions can also occur as a result of life events such as raising children, illness or retirement.When considering such shifts, we advise lawyers to become aware of the different and varied cultures that exist in the profession of law and to be rigorously honest about their own desires, goals and personalities. A high level of congruence will usually result in a happy, well-adjusted lawyer.

The culture of a law firm is the set of values, conventions, world view and ways of being that are unique to that particular group. Every firm, whether small, medium or large, has its own culture, as does government, corporate counsel, academia and quasi-legal groups outside conventional law practice. Culture also varies in urban or rural areas and from city to city. A lawyer's cultural surroundings will significantly influence his or her mental health and enjoyment of the practice of law. Fortunately, law is a vast field and probably has more distinct cultures than any other profession.

Cultural mismatches occur when lawyers are unaware of what is really important to them (their own values) and simply follow what everyone else is doing. Younger lawyers often pursue an idealized image of who they should be, rather than going for what actually suits their own character and individuality. It is important to know what works for you. Once you do that, you can work with others to develop a plan that fits you.There is nothing right or wrong with any particular legal culture. Cultures are just different. Thus, the only bad choice is one that is not suitable for you.

Over the past 35 years, I have had the great pleasure of working in many legal cultures. I have experienced their advantages and disadvantages. I started in a big firm, then moved to several smaller firms in Victoria, started my own firm with a few close, like-minded friends, moved to a low-overhead, small partnership with my best friend, went back to university to study counselling and then went to academia to teach law for a while. Now I counsel lawyers. I find that my experience with these varying types of legal careers is an enormous benefit in helping lawyers find a culture that fits their attributes and aspirations.

Finding the right culture for you

Given the importance of culture, what can you do to make a good choice? The easiest but often overlooked way is to do informational interviews with people who are doing the job you would like to do or with the people you intend to work with. Ask questions about the hours that are expected, what the social environment is like and how people get along. A good question is, do you love what you do? Pay attention to the voice tone and body language when they reply. It is better to ask someone other than those involved in hiring (since they have a vested interest) and preferably someone who is about the same age, gender and length of call.

Choices require substantial self-honesty, humility and introspection. If you are a person who likes autonomy, freedom, flexibility, no one else to support or subsidize, varied work, setting your own hours, direct client contact, less formal structure and clients who will follow the lawyer, then a solo practice or small firm may be best. Over half of all lawyers in B.C. prefer this model. The downside may be a lower salary, a sense of isolation and smaller cases. If you are a person who wants a larger salary, more opportunity for specialization and advancement, a large support staff, more structure, interaction with other lawyers and larger cases, then a large firm will be a good choice for you. The downside may be longer hours and less direct client contact, at least at first. If you require more structure or you don't have a natural business sense, a choice to be on your own would be a bad idea. This is where personal honesty comes in. For those who dislike the business of law, billing targets, timekeeping, charging clients and collecting money, a corporate or government environment may be the best choice. Although there is a great deal of stress in this environment (which is often underestimated), there is a lot to be said for a regular paycheque, paid holidays, freedom from timesheets and possibly a pension to look forward to.

This is necessarily a cursory overview, but LAPBC offers detailed individual help on this topic.