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Defining a Work Culture and Evaluating “Fit”

Defining a Work Culture and Evaluating “Fit”

If you are considering making the switch to a new legal organization (firm or in-house legal department), then one of your primary concerns will be work culture.  After all, if you don’t fit the culture, you’re likely to be disappointed with the position/organization and may want to leave soon after starting.

Too often, attorneys underestimate just how important work culture is in terms of overall career happiness.  If the culture doesn’t match the expectations and desires of the attorney, a long-term, sustainable work relationship is not usually possible.

Let’s take a closer look.

What is Work Culture and How Does it Vary Between Organizations?

Work culture is a nebulous concept, perhaps, but a legitimate one — most organizations have a certain “culture.”  They have a style, office environment, project expectations, and workforce makeup that is unique compared to others in their industry.  This applies to law firms and in-house legal departments, too.

Legal employers often use certain buzzwords to help identify aspects of their work culture for prospective attorney-candidates.  Common buzzwords include:

    • Flexible
    • Collegial
    • Collaborative
    • High-energy
    • Engaged
    • Social

For example, a flexible and collaborative firm may be willing to let attorneys work from home for a few days of the week, may give attorneys more choices with respect to project assignments, and might also be more understanding on work-life balance concerns.  They are also likely to encourage attorneys to work together internally, as opposed to having miniature interest groups within the firm competing against one another (which can create an unnecessarily aggressive work environment).

By contrast, a high-energy, social firm likely fits the “work hard, play hard” theme.  High-energy is a buzzword often used to disguise the fact that a firm demands significant time and attention from their attorneys.  This is not always a bad thing, of course — attorneys who are willing to make the sacrifice of free time may find that the fast paced culture is exciting and suitable for their personality/career goals.

How Prospective Candidates Should Weigh Cultural Fit

Prospective candidates should take the time to carefully evaluate cultural fit alongside their personality and career goals.  If a firm or in-house legal department’s work culture does not suit a candidate, they are unlikely to stay and grow their career at the firm.  Depending on the degree to which the work culture was a “bad fit,” the candidate may even find themselves struggling with career motivation and productivity issues after enough time in such a frustrating position.

Burnout is a real problem for many attorneys, and ensuring that a new job is a “cultural fit” is an important strategy for managing burnout.  A slow-paced firm is likely to bore an attorney who thrives on an exciting work environment, for example, while a contemplative, metrics-focused firm is likely to bother attorneys who prefer a social work environment.  Though these issues may seem minor at first glance, over the course of years they can have a significant accumulated impact on the happiness of an attorney.

Organic Interactions Play Better Than Targeted Inauthenticity

When communicating with an employer, it’s important to be genuine.  Even if you are fully aware of the “work culture” of the organization with which you are interviewing (thanks to insider information gained from working with an experienced legal recruiter, for example), you should try to balance how much you attempt to steer the conversation towards work culture matters, particularly if you are doing so in order to be seen in a more favorable light — doing so excessively can have the opposite of the intended effect, making you seem like a “people pleaser” who is not being entirely honest.

Let’s not speak too vaguely.  Consider the following.

Suppose that you discover that a Biglaw firm has a famously-intense work culture.  They are known for working attorneys on most weekends, and working hours often stretch till 11PM or even midnight in some cases.  Many attorneys complain about the lack of a proper work-life balance at the firm.

Now, imagine that you have no problem with a work culture like that, as you are willing to put the time in at this point in your life, and are excited about their projects.  You hope to gain an advantage by talking about how much you are willing to work late and on weekends to get the job done.

Seems reasonable, right?


Though competitive candidates must be capable of handling such an intense daily workload, the firm is likely to find your attempts at actively painting yourself as an employee who will not challenge the status quo off-putting.  You can more subtly demonstrate that you are capable of sustainably working long hours by discussing various projects that you’ve taken on in which you were required to follow a difficult schedule.  If you discuss those projects positively, then there will be a strong implication that you have no problem with continuing under similar time pressures into the future.

Contact Garb Jaffe & Associates for Legal Recruitment Help

Here at Garb Jaffe & Associates, our experienced San Francisco Bay Area legal recruiters have spent decades helping a variety of attorney-candidates in California — from mid-level associates to junior partners — transition to new positions, whether in Biglaw or at an in-house legal department.  Over the years, we have successfully placed such candidates in ideal positions that are suitable given their particular requirements, personality, and career ambitions.

As a legal recruitment firm, we are committed to close engagement with our clients.  We are not a volume business.  It is our belief that effective legal recruitment depends on the ability of the recruiter to find the “perfect fit” for a candidate with respect to the position and the employer — work culture is one of several factors that we evaluate.

Ready to speak to a legal recruiter at our firm about your intentions to move to a new position in the industry (and the next steps that you should take)?  We encourage you to either call us at 310-207-0727 or schedule a consultation by completing a brief intake form through our website.

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