Forget Foosball and Tree Houses: How to Build a Great Company Culture In a Buttoned-Up Industry

Amazon’s Seattle headquarters will soon have meeting rooms called treehouses, suspended in the middle of an urban greenhouse. Companies like Facebook and Kickstarter tout their creative headquarters designs. And it’s no longer a big deal for as many as one in five American companies to let their employees bring dogs to work.

Corporate offices and culture sure have changed. But if you’re in a more buttoned-up industry, and these kinds of perks aren’t really accepted or appropriate, what can you do?

As a recovering lawyer myself, I’m quite familiar with law firm culture–and to put it mildly, the idea of foosball tables and nap rooms would still be pretty foreign to that industry. 

Alan M. Tarter is managing partner at Tarter, Kinsky & Drogan, a law firm that was ranked among the top 50 “best places to work in New York City” by Crain’s New York Business

Here’s Alan on his top 10 tips for creating a compelling culture in a more conservative industry:

1. Know thyself.

In an age of global giants, Tarter Krinsky & Drogin is not interested in being the biggest, but we do want to be best at everything we do. Committing to your mission creates stability for your employees, which allows them to invest more of themselves. Sometimes, it also requires challenging traditional ways of running a law firm.

For example, our people value mobility, and so we work to give it to them–even when other law firms might not. As a law firm, we have to maintain standard business hours, but by using a highly responsive mobile platform, about 75 percent of our professionals and staff  have telecommuting access.  For employees with needs ranging from elder care to childcare, we strive to accommodate their schedules in a tailored way.

2.   Check your attitude at the door

Culture develops from the top in an industry like ours, and the culture we want is one of respect, professionalism and understanding.

So, we hold a weekly team meeting with all management and their direct reports, and encourage dialogue among management and support staff. In annual employee reviews, we actively ask employees for their advice on making the firm a better workplace. Many of initiatives have come from their suggestions.

3.   Mind the company you keep

TKD has grown strategically from just a few people to over 130. Hiring for culture is key, so our vetting process has to be thoughtful and comprehensive. We make sure that candidates we consider seriously have multiple interviews with key players with diverse perspectives.

We also conduct personality testing, particularly for key executive positions, to identify traits that may overtly contradict the firm’s culture. And, we use project assignments, skill-based testing, and joint interviews between key players and a candidate to get a better sense of how their personalities would interact.

4. Listen to your people

Each year at TKD, we host an annual town hall for all staff, where they can hear about the firm’s successes and upcoming initiatives–but more importantly, have an open forum to give feedback and suggestions.  This is part of where our commitment to flexible schedules and telecommuting came from.

As another example, it was during one of these meetings that we heard about the need to invest in new technology–upgrading our copiers to automatically OCR documents, as required by some courts. We swiftly implemented these suggestions and made sure to openly thank those that had made the recommendations.

5.   Invest in what matters most

One of the firm’s two core stated purposes is to develop people, so we created a formal Professional Individual Growth program to give opportunities for the firm to support every employee in a professional goal or learning objective that he or she identifies for us.

Examples of goals achieved range from an associate landing a book deal to a paralegal becoming a certified fraud examiner.

6.   Create a “business within a business”

Ideas are great, but business demands action. So, we try to create opportunities to lead teams and initiatives, and create a culture of ownership.

For example, it was a former intern who later joined the firm as an attorney who coordinated our internship program; when that attorney moved on to another amazing opportunity (with our blessing of course), another former intern took over the program. That attorney is now considered a rising star in one of our practice groups.

7.   Empower creativity

We’re a firm full of smart people, and it’s important to empower them to solve our challenges, as well as our clients’. For example, when we had concerns about cyber-security, we created a task force to assess potential breach points and develop protocols to protect the firm and its clients.

When we identify practice areas in which we think we can grow, we make business development a responsibility at all levels. And when our firm struggled with timekeeping (very important to a law firm!), our accounting manager implemented a Timekeepers contest with prizes and bragging rights.

8.   Encourage camaraderie

Relationships are the essence of life, so helping teams build relationships and establish strong bonds breeds loyalty to each other and to the organization. Some of the things we focus on to build relationships are straightforward, but our employees have told us they appreciate them.

These include hosting lunches for new hires with a welcoming team of peers, and ensuring that our top partners aren’t focused solely on individual achievement, and attend all our social functions–from monthly luncheons to congratulatory toasts for things like employees’ wedding.

9.   Mentor, mentor, mentor

There’s no better way in our industry to get someone engaged than to take the time to teach them and help them grow.  So, we emphasize mentorship. For example, we work with a nonprofit called DSY (Development School Youth Summer Internship Program), which provides leadership and business training to inner-city young people (ages 16-21).

We also partner with law schools including Northeastern Law School, where interns join us on a full-time basis, often for months at a time.

10. Foster traditions

Traditions are a wonderful way of honoring the past while sharing our culture with our newer people joining the firm. These don’t have to be elaborate or unique; our traditions include things like monthly luncheons and regular ice cream socials. and

We also also host an annual Thanksgiving Day Parade viewing party (our office is right on the path of the Macy’s parade) for our employees and their friends

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