Creating a discernible and identifiable culture is no mean feat; creating one worthy of Law Firm of the Year is even harder. At a breakfast roundtable in the heart of the City, The Lawyer and Travelers spoke to those shortlisted for the top prize about how they cultivate, maintain and progress something so intangible.

A diverse range of business models and strategies gathered from AIM-listed businesses to NewLaw firms to traditional LLPs, all with their own unique take on how to harness law firm culture.

These firms all understand that an ongoing discourse with their clients, lawyers and staff builds towards an effective environment for business. The shortlist was incredibly difficult to create, but this is why these firms made it.

“We’re seeing an increase in requests from our clients to collaborate with their law firms,” says Pinsent Masons director of knowledge and innovation delivery David Haliwell. “We like to think we control it, but the clients not only have a better view of the market than us to some extent, they also have the buying power to get what they are looking for.”

Staying close to clients

A business fails without its clients and those attending the roundtable demonstrated a significant understanding of that fact.

However, this has to be finely balanced with the business itself. Macfarlanes general counsel and compliance officer for legal practice Jo Riddick is acutely aware of how delicate weighted the needs of the business and the needs of the client are, explaining that growth should always be client-led and not simply for growth’s sake.

“Fundamentally, it’s about staying close to clients and respondoing to client demands which has been something we’ve always been pretty good at,” says Riddick. “Everything is client-led, so therefore if the GCs are buying disaggregated services, we need to look at where we can sensibly expand and we’re not a firm which has grown for growth’s sake.”

Macfarlanes – a traditional LLP – sharing the table with firms such as Keystone Law and Lawyers On Demand (LOD) not only shows the changing face of the legal market, it is an illustration of how the market has reinvented itself in the last decade.

This shift has taken myriad forms and that wasn’t lost on a single individual.

“I just think there’s so much going on with these structures, generational shifts, attitudes to wards work, that you just have to accept that this is a scenario where you just have to keep talking,” says Travelers senior risk management consultant Paul Smith.

Not only has that shift in dynamic had a clear change on the internal function of today’s law firms, it has also created a change in mindset for the client.

“The vast majority of where change has happened with LOD has been led by, at least collaboration, if not fully client-driven,” says LOD co-founder Simon Harper. “Back in the early days of LOD, it felt like a great thing to be very clear about what you don’t do. We were pushed by a large percentage of our clients to do new things and that was the right was round. They then accept it as a risk with doing things a little differently.

“As lawyers, we like to wrap it up at least three times and make sure it’s perfect because that’s what we do. When we’ve done it collaboratively, they don’t if some of that wrapping is slightly imperfect.”

Forming a culture

No one will argue that creating a positive culture within a business is a difficult task. This summer has seen the most fiercely competitive salary war between firms as the competition for top talent heats up. But if you don’t have the depth of resources that Cravath Swaine & Moore has, how do you cultivate and maintain your identity?

“Culture has to start at the top,” says Keystone Law chief operations officer William Robins. “You really have to understand who you are, what you are, and why you’re doing it. You bring along those who believe in that and you exclude those who don’t because that’s just going to cause you problems later.”

Keystone’s model differs from many firms, largely owing to its status as an AIM-listed business. However, while it business model may be unique at the table, many others agreed that culture needs to be a process similar to what Robins describes.

“A lot of the time people blame cultural change on something that’s quite external, but actually it’s within all of us,” says Watson Farley & Williams director of client & strategic development Rippan Vig. “If you’re really going to serve your clients and be truly client-centric, it has got to come from every part of your firm and from every single person.

“Despite all of those external influences, a little bit of introspection is good, too.”

Despite the differences in how their businesses are run, these are similar problems faced across the board. Not just in professional services, but in any professional environment. These are the challenges faced in the workplace and these are the firms making real steps towards change.