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Having a big conversation: Cultural change starts with honest exchange

Herbert Smith Freehills alumnus Claire Rason and founder of Client Talk has been working on a less-than-typical diversity experiment. She set out to find out whether, if she hadn't quit the law in 2005, she would have made partner. The results were surprising.

In the fourth of our blogs reviewing the findings of the report 'The Class of 2002: Women in Law' we look at how cultural change has to start with some difficult, and honest, conversation. To read the full report download here.

Cultural change is hard. It starts with acceptance of the fact that what currently exists isn’t working. It requires difficult and honest conversations to be had internally, with clients and with other key stakeholders.

Covid has shown that change is possible and that firms are well equipped to handle it. It has also provided a driver to question what type of firms people want to lead and be part of.

Corporates are moving away from a ‘profit at all cost’ approach and thinking about all their stakeholders and how to create value beyond the financial[1]. Professional services firms have seen this already start to shift the way they are being asked to tender for work, with ESG considerations increasing in importance in pitches. It is no longer all about profit.

Money is a big factor in law firms. Many people we spoke to said, “leaders don’t want to change because they are making money”. Is that all we want our law firm leaders to be, money-making machines?

It was noted in our report that hours cannot be the only thing that is at play because Regional firms also have a problem. These firms have traditionally been less demanding in terms of the hours worked by fee earners. However, what the 24/7 culture and Regional firms have in common however is a focus on fees and the fact that those who bring in the most money are generally the most powerful. The 24/7 culture is perhaps the ultimate extension of that.

The 2021 Eldeman Trust Barometer[2] showed a shift in employee expectations. Employees want employers to keep workers safe and they want a diverse and representative workforce.

Is it necessary to have a complete rethink of what being a partner is, what is expected of them, and what is rewarded?

I would suggest the answer to this is yes. There are two parts to this though. The first is what is rewarded (which in most firms is linked to fees brought in and hours worked). This is a reward on an individual level and provides financial incentives to individually act in a certain way.

The second is what is permitted. Those behaviours go unchallenged because the partner exhibiting them is shielded due to what is rewarded (again fees brought in).

How many of the behavioural traits identified as being “partner traits” are linked to the fact that those traits are ones which help partners to do the actions which are rewarded? Assertiveness would be a good skill to have when negotiating client fees, for example. Many people I spoke to (partners included) spoke of “sharp elbows” coming out when clients or fees were involved.

What else can be rewarded that isn’t just fees and hours and how can those be given equal prominence?

The need and desire to have diversity are driven by the outcomes that this can bring. Different solutions to problems. Better performance across teams. If only one type of outcome is rewarded, how can this attract diverse talent?

How can traits like empathy be measured so that they can be rewarded? Not just rewarded, but rewarded equally to fees brought in? Do we need all of the partners in the firms to be doing the same thing? What other skills do we need to recognise[3]? [4]

  • What about the partner who enables their team to win work?

  • What about the partner who is able to manage a team to deliver innovative solutions?

  • What about the partner who facilitates discussions across teams?

  • What about the partner who listens?

  • What about those who contribute to the sustainable growth of the business (HR, business development, knowledge management, others)?

When I coach female partners, I shift the attention from the “how” to the “what”. When female leaders say they are not great leaders because they don’t fit the stereotype of what “good leadership” looks like in their organisation, I challenge them to consider what outcomes they want to achieve as a ”good leader” and to be authentic in how they get there. Could this approach be multiplied?

One male partner I spoke to said that changes to remuneration do provide hope.

“A move away from lock-step structures and a bit more flexibility in structure gives you the opportunity to change what a partner is. Client expectations have changed. You aren’t expected to be on call all the time anymore. You could work three days and be a very successful partner.”

Having conversations

A lot of the solutions above will require conversations that perhaps aren’t being had. Perhaps they are being had, maybe they are being had with coaches, or family members, or with friends.

Maybe people are speaking but nobody is really taking the time to listen.

I think that the most powerful solution, or the most powerful way of coming to the right solution, is to better enable honest conversations. For those conversations not to be punished. To build psychological safety in teams needed to enable that.

Firms need to ask:

  • What conversations are not happening that need to happen? With whom?

  • What is the thing that is being left unsaid? What are people afraid to voice?

  • What do lawyers (male and female) need to want to stay?

  • Why have previous initiatives failed? Were they trying to solve individual discomforts, whilst leaving the broader culture unchallenged? Were they putting groups into boxes and reinforcing stereotypes that were already holding people back?

  • What do we want to reward and why? AND do we need to reward everyone for the same thing?

  • What are the things we are unwilling to accept? What happens if that conflicts with financial performance? What is more important?

To read the full report download here.

Client Talk

Client Talk is a coaching powered consultancy, bringing together expert consultants and accredited coaches.

We were created to change the conversations that professional services companies are having with - and about - their clients. Our unique approach promotes active listening, leverages empathy within businesses, and champions diverse thinking.

To find out more about our services and upcoming events please click here.

[1] This is seen in B Corporations and the Better Business Act Initiative. [2] Visit here. [3] The O Shaped Lawyer has set out skills that in-house lawyers value [4] See also here.


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