Law Firm “Culture”
Law firms talk a lot about “firm culture.” It’s like every year the Dallas Cowboys talk a lot about getting to the “Super Bowl.” (Oh, the truth hurts for this long-suffering Cowboys fan.)
I’ve been thinking about law firm culture and values because I just started my own law firm. It’s called Zach Wolfe Law Firm. That choice of firm name was serendipitous, because my name also happens to be Zach Wolfe.
That means if I ever get around to recording one of my country-rock compositions, like “Otherwise Blameless Life,” I’ll have to do it with Hot Dog Randall. That’s the name of the band I plan to have with my 12YO son when he gets a little better at the drums. His name is not Randall, though. It’s just an inside joke.
Sorry, I got off track. What was I talking about?
Oh, right. Law firm culture.
I’ve been thinking about the kind of culture I want at my firm. I could have circulated a memo about it right before walking out of my old firm, Jerry Maguire-style. But I kept procrastinating, resulting in a totally amicable but boring exit. Which is probably fine, because I don’t think Mrs zachwolfelaw would appreciate me bringing Renée Zellweger to the new firm.
Anyway, now that I’ve had some time to mull it over, here are the five pillars of the Zach Wolfe Law Firm culture.
1. Clients Come Second
Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to put clients before almost everything else, including profits. But clients will not come first at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. That’s because my family comes first.
Of course, this will probably come as a surprise to my wife and two kids. They can all remember me pacing back and forth on my cell phone, trying to finalize a settlement, while they were literally trying to get in line for the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World.
So let’s just say the family first thing is kind of like the Texas Lawyer’s Creed. It’s “aspirational.”
Still, in my defense, on Day 1 of Zach Wolfe Law Firm I am not working, but moving my daughter into her college dorm.
And you’re humming the song now, aren’t you? I’m sorry.
2. The Bully Pulpit
My firm will be equipped to handle a wide variety of business litigation matters, plus drafting contracts and other relatively simple transactions, but my practice will continue to focus on disputes involving non-competes, trade secrets, and other “departing employee” issues.
After handling over 80 departing employee matters in the past five or six years, I’ve noticed something. There is a lot of attempted bullying in these matters, and I don’t like it.
I’m not saying litigation should be tiddly-winks. It’s more like tackle football, or girls’ middle school basketball. You’re going to get beat up a little.
What irks me is when people try to use the cost of litigation as a club to hold over my client’s head. For example, if a company doesn’t want its former employee to work for a competitor, they may file a lawsuit with little chance of success just to apply pressure to the employee in the form of attorney’s fees.
Of course, it can also work the other way: a defendant can obstruct and delay a meritorious claim just to drive up the cost for the plaintiff.
Whether I’m representing the plaintiff or the defendant, employer or employees, my goal is to do whatever it takes to avoid letting the opposing party use the cost of litigation to bully my client.
That may require some flexibility in fee arrangements, but here’s the good news. I happen to be sleeping with the head of the firm’s Billing Committee.
When I eventually get around to hiring for my firm, I will do my best to have a law firm that looks like the city around it. And I’m not just giving lip service to diversity because it’s what all the cool firms are doing.
Do you remember when law firms started caring about diversity?
I can tell you precisely when that happened. It was about five minutes after law firm partners figured out there was money in it.
But hey, if greed means the partner lounge won’t look like one of those black and white photos of the local bar association from 1953, I’m all for it. It’s an example of the American doctrine of “self-interest properly understood,” first described in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
You down with ADT? (Yeah, you know me.)
Zach Wolfe Law Firm does have a physical office, thanks to some friends who are graciously sharing their fancy office space with me. But I will probably continue to do most of my work from home. If there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that we all figured out it’s not that hard to work remotely. Maybe you don’t need to make 50 patent lawyers come to your docket call to stand up and say “ready” (*cough* E.D. Tex. *cough*).
There are, of course, benefits to collaborating with your team in the same physical space. There’s a reason WKRP had all the DJ’s “offices” in the same room. All else being equal, working in the same office with other members of a law firm is better than spending your day saying “who just joined?” or “Bob, you’re on mute!”
But, of course, as with so many things in life, all else is not equal.
You know the thing I discovered that is most definitely not equal? Driving.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like driving. I even like long road trips. I actually look forward to driving up to my daughter’s school in Oklahoma.
But you know the thing I don’t like? Traffic.
I know a lot about traffic because they did this famous traffic experiment in the Houston area. They built the Katy Freeway, one of the widest freeways in the world, 26 lanes in some spots!
The result? Thousands of people moved to Katy, enough to clog every one of those 26 lanes at rush hour.
Spending hours sitting in Houston traffic may be great for catching up with Bob and Clint on the I’m Ok You’re Ok I’m Not Ok You’re Not Ok podcast, or nerding out on jazz and music theory with Adam and Peter on the You’ll Hear It podcast. But that’s not an efficient use of time for Zach Wolfe Law Firm. So we won’t be doing a lot of that.
5. Dress for Success
Right before I left the BigLaw firm I worked for out of law school, they circulated a memo produced by the Dress Code Committee. I remember thinking, Dress Code Committee, seriously? The thought of the buttoned-down senior partners talking about “spaghetti straps” and “crop tops” around a big conference room table cracked me up.
Now, this was a blue-chip firm with top-notch lawyers, but my reaction to the idea of a dress code committee was a sign that maybe I was more of a “hang out a shingle” kind of guy. But I wasn’t brave like Aiden Durham, so it took me 21 more years to do it.
Now that I run the zoo, I guess I’m in charge of the dress code. I’ve never really had a strong opinion on burning issues like casual Fridays. If anything, I tend to like the lawyers who go to sartorial extremes. Pick a side: either dress like the cast of Suits or the cast of Dazed and Confused. Or adopt your own unique style, like the personal injury lawyer who came to my first deposition in Fort Worth in a black cowboy hat and Holstein-patterned shirt. I respected that.
But the Zach Wolfe Law Firm dress code will be more practical. I’ve always thought dressing for the season makes more sense than dressing for the day of the week. So, for the summer—meaning about nine months out of the year in Houston—the dress code will be Baywatch tank top and Lululemon shorts. I’ll save the Banana Republic look for the winter.
Of course, I will still wear a suit and tie when I go to court. You know, to stop the bullies.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.