Law firms handle some of the most important affairs in all of society. The work that lawyers accomplish helps keep society moving forward. However, many factors in the legal profession can cause a toxic culture to develop within a law firm, such as prestige, wealth potential, and high-stakes pressure.
As in other contexts, toxic cultures in law firms may not be entirely visible at first glance. It is not until you’re fully immersed in a new circumstance that you begin to realize its toxicity. By then, it may be too late for a quick exit.
However, you can avoid a law firm with a toxic culture altogether by learning to recognize some of the signs of a poisonous law firm.
1. High Employee Turnover
High turnover indicates toxicity because most lawyers will leave a bad work situation eventually. However, remember that high turnover might also indicate low pay or other factors not necessarily linked to toxicity.
2. Lack of Collaboration
A lack of collaboration leads to crossed wires, misfires, and miscommunications because, in the end, a failure to collaborate is tantamount to a failure in communication, which, in turn, allows toxicity to fester.
3. Excessive Competition
Money and prestige factor heavily in the legal profession, and many attorneys take competitiveness to the extreme. The result is a reduction in morale, high turnover, and other unnecessary consequences.
4. Lack of Transparency
A law firm need not require or be required to divulge every piece of information about itself or its employees. But society is currently demanding that law firms be much more transparent with clients and the public than they are, especially regarding:
- Billing practices
- Compensation practices
- Recruitment practices
Firms that lack transparency in these and other areas tend to use exclusivity and lack of information as a tool of power. Yet doing so is holding them back in a world where transparency is increasingly important.
5. Unhealthy Work-Life Imbalance
It takes hard work and countless hours of work to get ahead in the legal profession. Many attorneys work far more hours than their friends and family in other jobs and professions, and they are far more likely to take their work home with them over the weekend.
This type of schedule interferes deeply with an attorney’s work/life balance and leads to toxicity. But it is not the only type of schedule out there; many lawyers find employment arrangements that allow them to strike a healthy balance between work and life.
6. Unresolved Employee Concerns
If a law firm cares about its employees, it will address its employees’ concerns in a timely manner. When it does not do this, many employees may eventually come to resent the law firm and reduce the quality of their work.
Resentment can also grow among employees if the law firm only addresses the concerns of select employees. The result is a toxic culture fed by backbiting, compromised legal services, and loss of trust.
7. Negative Employee Behavior
Where there is negative employee behavior, there is likely an underlying toxicity at the root of the behavior. Some examples of negative employee behavior include:
- Unethical behavior
- Substance use and abuse at work
However, isolated instances of negative behavior do not signal a toxic culture.
8. Lack of Development Opportunities
Sadly, some law firms do not offer a reasonable chance to move up, and lawyers who stay stagnate in their professions. This stagnation eventually leads to toxicity as others in the profession advance in their careers.
9. Unreasonable Expectations
Law firms that place unreasonable expectations on their workers eventually cause toxic cultures to develop. To justify these expectations, leadership might point to an employee who is toeing the line.
But the fact that one employee has decided to take on the unreasonable load, whether it’s too many billing hours or too much travel, does not make the load reasonable.
10. Employee Burnout
Law firms that don’t consider the limits of their workers cause them to crash and burn. Unable to work productively, they either compromise their family lives to be able to work more or they get replaced with a fresh new worker.
None of these issues is alone a definitive sign of a toxic culture. Law firms go through tough times, and you may just be witnessing a temporary blip. But if you notice that these signs are characteristic of the law firm, a toxic culture may be afoot.
How to Identify Toxicity in a Law Firm
Various methods can determine whether a firm has a toxic culture. Some of the most effective are detailed below.
Research and Online Presence
Use the power of the internet and social media to research everything relating to the firm, including employee testimonials and other statements.
Networking and Informational Interviews
Connect with former and current employees of the firm and ask for an informational interview. Check LinkedIn or other sites for contact information.
Has the firm or its attorneys received industry awards? Have they received negative attention?
Look for respect and courtesy during your interview. An interview that is respectful and courteous is a sign that toxicity may not be present at the law firm.
Questions During Interviews
Arrive at your interview with questions about the firm that will help indicate whether it has a toxic culture.
Office Visit or Virtual Tour
Take an actual or virtual tour of the firm to observe the reactions between the firm’s staff. You can detect quite a bit about collaboration, respect, and other aspects of a firm’s culture with just one visit.
Look at sites like Glassdoor and Vault for employee reviews of the firm. They may give some insight into the culture there but may also be skewed. Multiple reviews that say similar things are more trustworthy than a one-off.
Some firms have alumni networks, which can be fruitful in your efforts. Contacting former employees can give you much of the information you are seeking.
Final Thoughts About Law Firm Culture
Keep in mind that you want a variety of perspectives and information points when determining whether a law firm has a toxic culture. Try not to rely on just one indicator or instance. Take your time to consider the many factors carefully, and you will find the right, non-toxic environment.