The culture of your law firm is as important to your paralegal career as it is to your job satisfaction. The attitudes and values of the attorneys have a direct impact on the reputation of the law firm and if the culture is toxic, working there could damage your career. As the saying goes, “You are judged by the company you keep.” It’s not a fair way of judging a paralegal, but it does happen. When prospective employers see a law firm on your resume that is rumored to be a “bad place to work,” it colors their opinion of you, whether they realize it or not. The question then becomes, “How can you better understand the culture of a law firm?”
If you work in a small community, you know the reputations of the attorneys and the law firms, especially if you have a strong network of paralegals and other legal staff members. People talk about their jobs to their friends and associates and it doesn’t take very long for a firm to get a bad reputation in the paralegal community. However, if you work in a large city, are new to the community, or don’t have any experience working in the legal field, it can be difficult to determine the culture from just one interview.
My first paralegal job was with a law firm that had a very bad culture, however, I was young and I had no experience working in a law firm. I took the first job that I could find. Thankfully, I recognized the signs and found another job before I had been there a full year. In addition to being miserable while working at this law firm, I realized quickly that I didn’t want my name associated with the law firm’s reputation (I don’t even list the law firm on my resume).
How do I know if the firm I’m interviewing with has a culture problem?
There are many articles outlining how to cope in a toxic work environment and handle your emotions and attitudes when you’re in the midst of it all, but I wanted to identify specific signs that a law firm may have a culture problem. Sadly, a few of them only become evident after you take the job so you need to do your research and do it well.
High Turnover Rate – Employees come and go for a variety of reasons, however, if employees stay less than a year and move on, this is a good indication that there is something very wrong with the culture of the law firm. Here’s a clue I didn’t pick up on when interviewing for my first job out of school - the office policy was to order business cards for new employees after they had been with the firm for one year.
Everyone Works Late, Every Day – Try to schedule your interview for as late in the day as possible. If everyone is still at their desk with their heads buried in work after 5 or 6 pm, this may be an indication that the firm doesn’t value an employee’s personal/family time.
Bad Reputation in the Industry – You can bet that potential employers will Google you before an interview — you should do the same. Research the law firm to see if there are any negative comments online. Read reviews on Avvo and Yelp. Talk to paralegals and others in the legal field to see what’s being said about the firm and attorneys.
Employees Bad-Mouth Their Bosses – Sometimes you’ll hear horror stories as you network with other legal staff members when your do your research before accepting the job offer. However, you may not hear it until after you’ve been hired. If everyone in the office bad-mouths the attorneys and supervisors, this is a good indication of a culture problem. It creates a toxic environment that you don’t want to be associated with in the legal community.
No One Seems Happy or Friendly – Spending upwards of forty to fifty hours per week together usually means that, as colleagues, you’ll share certain personal life details and updates throughout the course of your span with your employer. If everyone sits at their desk, not smiling or interacting, this may be an indication of a culture problem. When people are satisfied with their job and enjoy working in a law firm, they’re going to look and act happy. If they look like they’re serving a prison sentence, look for another job.
Lack of Teamwork – A good firm encourages teamwork. If everyone is only concerned with getting their work finished and getting out of the door, it’s not going to be a positive environment. This is how it was with my first law firm — we all put our heads down, did our own work, and went home. No one ever offered to pitch in when an emergency or crisis arose. If your case blew up, you were expected to stay late and work all weekend to take care of it. We make mistakes and we need all the help we can get to reconcile a difficult situation and move on to the next project or hurdle.
Supervisors and/or Attorneys Have Poor Attitudes or Management Skills – If your supervisor and/or attorney has a poor attitude, this is a definite sign there is a culture problem in the law firm. If an employer has a bad temper, doesn’t communicate effectively, makes unreasonable demands, belittles employees, expects (rather than asks) that employees work overtime without compensation, passes the blame for mistakes they make, or gossips about employees to others, you have a serious problem. Get out as soon as you can.
You Do Not Have The Resources To Do Your Job – I sat at a folding card table under the stairwell for the first six months of my first paralegal job. The attorneys cared more about providing themselves a private gym, shower, break room, and other amenities than providing staff the necessary resources to do their job efficiently and effectively. While you may need to wait a few days or even a couple of weeks for certain items, continuously trying to do your job without the proper equipment or resources is a bad indication of the culture of the law firm.
Two Questions You Should Ask At Every Interview
Most interviewers will ask you if you have any questions about the job or the law firm. Ask these two questions:
- If you could change one thing about the culture or environment of the law firm, what would that be?
- What type of person fits well in this position and why type of person is not a strong fit?
An interviewer that tells you everything is “great” and “wonderful” is not being completely honest because no law firm is perfect. Even in law firms with great work cultures, there are usually some small things that could be changed to improve the work culture.
Have you experienced other signs of a poor work culture?