The London Lawyer: Law Firm Culture Is Money Culture

Anyone who has been into London this week will know that the city is getting busy again. That’s not surprising; a poll of some of London’s most senior partners found they are overwhelmingly in favour of a return to the office.

For many of them what’s at stake is nothing less than ‘law firm culture’ itself. As Hannah Walker reported, many said that remote working was damaging their institution’s culture and made it harder to retain staff.

One partner asked: “If you do not see people from one week to the next, except on a computer screen, how can you have a relationship with them. Even if you use Tinder you still have to meet the potential date!”

Nicely put.

But what mass remote working and the ensuing return-to-work debate has given lawyers is the opportunity to step back and ask: what is law firm culture, anyway?

Yes, interactions, values, rewards are all part of it. But one person on LinkedIn recently asked us whether it was entirely about money, and whether every other aspect of ‘law firm culture’ was really just an outgrowth of those thousand-year-old concepts of pay, structure and hierarchy.

Because behind the preponderance of sustainability, ESG, well-being, diversity and pro bono efforts still rages a never-ending pay war, and, as Jack Womack discovered, a culture of perpetual inequality.

In an essential piece of data reporting, Jack found that, on average, the highest remunerated lawyers at the U.K.’s top 50 law firms make more than 17 times what newly-qualified lawyers earn. Even despite the junior pay war. And that’s nothing compared to Fieldfisher, where the top earner pockets 47 times what the firm’s NQs earn.

These are sizey gaps that remind us that money is at the heart of everything firms do, from junior rung to senior.

In a WhatsApp exchange, one law firm consultant told me that all the “fluffy trimmings” at law firms did was “cushion the impact” of the shrapnel that breaks off a hardened, time-honoured “money culture”: stress, intense competition between colleagues, power struggles, and, increasingly, health issues.

“Culture has become a buzzword,” they added.

So, the person on LinkedIn asks: What are firms returning to when they talk about a return to the office?

In the midst of a talent war, at junior and senior levels, it’s something firms are going to have to get much more specific on.

Other top stories

What’s the best way of keeping your top clients close? I know! A world beating service, round the clock accessibility, competitive rates…

Nope. How about getting your boss to join the client for a year. As Varsha Patel reports, this is what Ropes & Gray has done. As part of a 12-month secondment, London managing partner Will Rosen is working at private equity client Bain Capital, supporting its interim general counsel of European private equity.

Will Rosen, Ropes & Gray

It’s a move that got top PE lawyers at two Magic Circle rivals talking. “Unusual” and “big investment” were some of the words used, with one partner explaining that it was something that happened in the U.S., but not here.

But they saw sense in it.

“You get someone with huge embedded knowledge of the organisation and new contacts, and then that person returns to the firm with a deeper existing client relationship and can create avenues for a new one.”

For Ropes & Gray, a client such as Bain is likely to be so important that losing a senior partner for a year may be a small price to pay in order to keep the relationship strong, especially with the likes of Kirkland & Ellis sniffing around.

Meanwhile, we reported on how a London staffer at one of China’s largest law firms was fined and banned from being a sole practitioner or manager of a law firm for enabling an unauthorised individual to take control of part of the litigation practice of his previous firm.

We also had two stories on the little-reported issue of fertility: how some lawyers, particularly women, face a struggle that impacts their work lives.

In a contributed piece, Somaya Ouazzani and Natalie Sutherland talked about how the grief, sadness, and exhaustion some have experienced on their fertility journey has hindered their professional performance. In a bid to address the issue, firms like Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer are broadening their health care plans to include fertility treatment. Varsha has the story.

We also saw the latest U.K. law firm merger, in what is proving to be one of 2022′s surprise trends.

And don’t forget to check out the shortlist for this year’s Women, Influence & Power in Law (WIPL) U.K. Awards, with lawyers at Ashurst, Paul Hastings, Morgan Lewis & Bockius and Latham & Watkins among the top female talent being celebrated.

Zubair Q Britania

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