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Culture is key ingredient in creating a top corporate law firm

John Cummerford

John Cummerford

“Culture,” the dictionary tells us, is the collection of customs and habits that a society or organization has in common. It is the glue that transforms and bonds a crowd of strangers into something much more powerful. I recently learned that our law firm was recognized one of America’s top corporate law firms in the 2015 Annual Law and the Boardroom Study conducted by NYSE Governance Services and FTI Consulting, Inc. That is an honor, to be sure, but it made me think.

There are many other fine firms in Phoenix and across the United States. What are the facets of our culture that have helped us succeed and that we need nurture and grow in the future? Can we replicate this success? Can we “pass it forward” to the next generation of attorneys, as we grow and evolve?

Our law firm started as the dream of three young lawyers who (as the story goes) met in a delicatessen in Miami, Florida, in 1967. Together, they forged a culture that grew that little group from three to 1,800 attorneys today, in 37 offices around the world. But the one thing they never lost – and the one thing that can’t be faked – was their culture. They hired people who shared their vision, and each one contributed his or her own character, knowledge, courage, loyalty, and integrity to the culture of the organization, so that although the organization changed, it still is – in a very real sense – very similar to what it was back then.

Summarized below are some key points of what makes a great culture – whether for a law firm or any other organization.

1. You are a service business. Act like one. Put your clients first, always. Deliver an elite level of excellence, every time.
2. Respect your client’s business. They pay you well, so provide extraordinary value.
3. Build a great team, and treasure it. Create and nourish a collaborative platform, and listen to the voices of everyone in your organization.
4. Your organization is organic. Maintain a spirit that is creative and innovative.
5. Be brave. If you have a good idea, act on it.
6. Be practical. Manage your law firm as a business, because that’s what it is.
7. Watch your money. You do not pay your rent with your A/R. Control costs and expenditures. No business or law firm ever went out of business because it did not have enough office space.
8. Cherish your clients and your customers. They are the reason you have a job and a roof over your head. Be grateful, and show it.
9. Never be satisfied. Seek growth and remain innovative. Your competitors are watching you.
10. Your people are your best asset. Empower them, and strangle bureaucracy every chance you get.
11. Play nice in the sandbox. Create a reward system that reinforces the right behaviors in your organization and punishes the bad ones.
12. Delegate authority; allow your professionals to react nimbly on the ground, because that is where clients are.
13. Know your roots. You can be part of a larger organization, but still be “local.” Join, contribute, and support your local organizations and charities. Your town has given you a lot, so be sure to give back.
14. Do not follow the crowd. They have no more idea of what to do than you do. Chart an independent path dictated by listening to clients.
15. Honesty comes before everything else. Never ever tolerate anything less. Encourage your people to speak up if they see something wrong.
16. Embrace and thrive in diversity. It is the future.
17. Never stop learning. Develop deep knowledge and involvement in key industries. Know your craft. Be a true expert.
18. Do more with less. Be efficient because your clients expect timely service.
19. Look out for each other in your firm. Do not bicker. Remember, your enemies are outside the walls of your organization.
20. Never forget clients: first, last, and always!

Lists of cultural attributes mean nothing unless they are acted on. In addition, your culture will almost certainly not be the same as that of any other organization’s culture. It will, however, be yours. Be conscious of it, respect it, and love it, because it will serve you through hard times better than anything else will. Success takes strength, and culture is that strength.

— John Cummerford is co-managing shareholder of the Phoenix office of the law firm of Greenberg Traurig.

One comment

  1. John,

    Great article, and so happy to be able to share it with clients!

    Thank you, and glad to call you my partner.

    — Murray Silverstein

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