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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Forum: Firm culture and values — The “foundation stone” of a law firm’s strategic success

Andrew Poole  Chief Executive / MinterEllisonRuddWatts

· 8 minute read

Andrew Poole  Chief Executive / MinterEllisonRuddWatts

· 8 minute read

Building an inclusive culture within a law firm is the first step toward forging a cohesive strategy and telling your story to clients, employees, and new recruits

When I joined in August 2018 as chief executive, I was already joining a world-class law firm. When I joined, however, I knew that to drive the firm forward and help it meet its goal of being the best firm in New Zealand and not just part of the top tier, we would have to address more than just strategic execution.

Through my interview process, I realized that little was being said about the values of the firm and the culture it was creating and exhibiting both internally to its lawyers and staff and externally to clients and the overall market. If we were going to have success in moving our strategy forward, we first had to start with our culture and values, conducting a major evaluation of what both meant to us as a firm.

Just as importantly, we needed to determine what our purpose should be as a firm in helping shape New Zealand’s future. To that end, we began to talk about culture and strategy as appropriate bedfellows, but probably not in a way that many partners at the firm had thought about previously.

Beginning the process

I decided that I would use an upcoming annual partner conference – on the calendar for just six months after I started at the firm – to hold a major exercise around our values, starting with an externally facilitated workshop.

In this workshop, we asked the partners what they considered to be the firm’s values and priorities. We then broke into groups and rotated around a large conference room with flip charts and whiteboards in the corners, talking about the potential for values centered around a few key concepts. And at the end of that first day, I honestly felt that we were probably halfway there.

I was very proud how the partners took to it because I think it could have gone terribly badly. I was concerned that the partners would approach the exercise with skepticism, especially because I had so little history with the firm. However, even though they had never done an exercise like this, most put that natural lawyer cynicism aside and really engaged in the exercise.

But that was just the first step. Right away we knew that this exercise would not succeed if our staff did not feel that these were their values as well. So, we then ran 17 workshops across our Auckland and Wellington offices with me, our HR director, and facilitators present at all of them. We discussed what the partnership had come up with and asked staff for their honest feedback. Do we have the right number of values? Have we got the right kind of core concepts? Have we got the right language?

You can imagine what that kind of exercise in language might be like when you’re involving lawyers and other business professionals. However, there was a lot of good humor, energy, and a deep sense of engagement. Not surprisingly, they did fantastic work.

Forum

Each core value resonates much further beyond its initial meaning. For example, the first value – Respect Individuality, Work as One – is about teamwork, of course, but also the idea that individuals can turn up as themselves and that we’re stronger as a diverse group. That level of respect for individuality flows right into the second value.

We wanted to capture the way we look at our performance and service both internally and how we work with our clients. Many years earlier, a young partner had come up with the phrase listen, care, and deliver, and we thought that continued to fit almost perfectly. Then it was suggested that we add with excellence to the end of that phrase to show that we’re very deliberately raising the bar for our firm.


If we were going to have success in moving our strategy forward, we first had to start with our culture and values.


We latched onto this value so solidly that we use the acronym “LCDE” as shorthand to sort of embed that phrase into how we work, especially with clients. We created our LCDE Awards for staff who were recognized as going that extra mile.

Our third value was probably the most controversial – Bring on the Future! Admittedly, this is not what you’d typically expect from a law firm. However, as a firm we have always had a strong future-facing focus including in tech and innovation. We were a founding shareholder in an artificial intelligence start-up a few years ago, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a really radical thing for a law firm to do.’ It’s not our core business, but the firm’s idea was that we want to demonstrate to the market that we are genuinely interested in this stuff, and that we think like a business because we are a business. To that end, we’re going to align with our clients and demonstrate that we’re part of the business community, not some professional services provider sitting on the sidelines.

After we affirmed these three values, we translated them into te reo Māori, the language of Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Our country has a strong bicultural foundation as a nation, and there’s been a real Māori renaissance. We wanted to be a part of that because it’s reflective of the kind of modern liberal firm that we are. Through that process, working with an advisor from the local iwi (tribe) we envisioned our idea as a kind of journey, of traveling and momentum. That translated into the image of a canoe, or waka, with a three-paddle motif, with those representing individual paddles as well as the collective effort to get all of our team paddling in unison to really make the waka go faster – that was our first value of Respect Individuality, Work as One or waka eke noa.

Our second value (Listen, Care, Deliver with Excellence) is waka whakarei. The actual symbol for that is the very ornate panel at the back of the waka – something that took a lot of care and attention to produce.

Finally, the symbol for our third value, waka hourua, is a double-hulled canoe with an outrigger, which is the next generation of waka – Bring on the Future! The whole waka journey theme really works quite nicely, and while not a literal Māori translation, it does provide a foundation that conveys the idea that binds those three values together and speaks to us as a firm.


We talk openly about our culture, values, and our cultural alignment with new clients.


It’s also a depiction of a partnership, as opposed to a corporation, because the structure is – and the real power comes from – the collective effort of partners (and staff) each with a paddle, working in unison toward a common goal, to literally make the boat go faster, rather than having a corporate engine to power the boat, with a captain on the bridge.

It’s our New Zealand-centric and more modern motif for the age-old expression of getting the right people on the bus. For us, it’s having the right people – each with a paddle in the MinterEllisonRuddWatts waka.

The launch

Almost five years ago, we did a big launch for our core values in our offices in Auckland and Wellington. We didn’t let the staff know in advance where we’d landed as a final concept, but I remember distinctly seeing the pride on the faces of the staff who had been in the workshops and now saw their particular changes come through in the final idea.

Today, we talk openly about our culture, values, and our cultural alignment with new clients. For example, we will talk about our Community Investment Programme (pro bono and volunteering) efforts, and clients will talk about where they’re involved in the community – and then we’ll see whether we’ve got alignment there. However, it’s been even more interesting with existing clients. I remember about two or three years ago, we were re-pitching for an existing client’s work, and we thought we were going to get really squeezed on price.

But the client didn’t mention price. They knew us well and didn’t need to be convinced that we were the right firm in terms of legal expertise, service, or understanding their sector. Instead, we spent the whole time talking about our culture and values, about our empowerment, our diversity and inclusion policies, and our embracing of te ao Māori or the Māori world.

In my mind, that interaction really validated our efforts. And these three core values have continued to be an important part of telling that story to clients, to our current team, and to young recruits – the story of who we are and what we stand for as a firm.


You can access the interactive Spring 2024 issue of the ϴʪPosts Institute’s .