Culture is probably the most difficult of the three SmartLaw foci (clients, culture and technology) to tackle.

With client focus and intelligent use of technology, you can pretty much decide on some key policies, implement and enforce those, and expect to begin to see some results from your efforts in short order.

But culture is different. You cannot dictate, determine, or demand a particular culture to develop. You can implement policies intended to influence the kind of culture you want to arise, but culture unlike client focus or technology is the product of something else.

Culture is what happens when people work together

The SmartLaw concept is intended to create a discussion within the industry and, more importantly inside your firm. SmartLaw is not prescriptive. I'm not advising that ‘you must have a particular type of culture!’ Every firm is going to be different and that’s a good thing.

However, as I explained in my post The firm of the future, the three foci work together. At the very least you need to have a culture that supports a client focus and intelligent use of technology. And to create a culture, you need people to work together. And therein lies the problem in a lot of law firms.

People in law firms, by and large, work in silos. This is true at every level of the firm. Partners may come together to work on a particular matter, but for the most part, partners compete as much as they cooperate. Associates are in clear competition with their peers from their first day as a summer trainee.

Information technology, knowledge management, and business development typically work in parallel as if for different companies. And most importantly, there are lawyers and ‘non-lawyers’ and never the twain shall meet.

Remove the term 'non-lawyer' from your lexicon

While every firm is different, and some are undoubtedly better than others, I have never encountered a ‘non-lawyer’ at a law firm who didn’t feel like a second class citizen. Beginning with the fact that they are openly referred to as ‘non-lawyers’.

Does Memorial Sloan Kettering refer to their nurses and orderlies as ‘non-doctors’? Does Goldman Sachs call their quants ‘non-bankers’?

Why is this dismissive and demeaning term acceptable in a law firm environment? Regardless of the culture you have or aspire to, you can start building a modern, inclusive, and healthy culture by removing the ‘non-lawyer’ term from your firm’s lexicon.

And this terminological excision is not simply an act of political correctness. This is a reflection of the important role that business people, technology experts, and support personnel of all disciplines play in the modern delivery of legal services.

There is no doubt that legal expertise is of paramount importance to clients, but gone are the days that the best lawyers working in isolation can deliver the best legal service. That takes a team of experts, from a number of fields including law, working in concert to achieve the stated goals of the firm.

Culture = unity of purpose

There are plenty of other obstacles to a unified culture within law firms. There are generational and geographical divides; there are departmental and practice group rivalries and jealousies; there are management debacles, communication breakdowns, and leadership vacuums that create distrust, uncertainty, and fear.

We will discuss some of those in future SmartLaw posts, but we think the SmartLaw culture begins by creating trust, alignment, and unity of purpose across the entirety of the firm, from the most senior partner to the most junior IT analyst.

This will require a revolution in law firm education.

Firm’s are good about offering Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses for their lawyers and clients, but they also need to start offering Legal Business courses for their own employees.

Support teams need to start requiring their team members to learn about the business the firm is actually in. They cannot work in isolation as if working for a tech company, an event planner, or a design studio.

All of those other functions need to be focused and performed to benefit the firm’s clients. At the same time, it’s not enough for the firm’s lawyers to know the law, they need to know about the business they’re in too.

How does the firm make money? What does ‘writing off’ work do to the bottom line? What's the difference between revenue and profit?

Not everyone at the firm needs to become an expert in every aspect of the business of law, but everyone needs to have enough comprehension of what the firm does and how it functions, so that they can understand their role, value, and purpose within the firm.

At that point, whether individual people like each other or not, they can work together with respect and trust that everyone else on the team, whether lawyer, technologist, marketer, or business person, is actively working to achieve the same goal. And then, good culture happens.