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Workplace Culture: Tips for finding the right fit

  • October 05, 2017
  • Catherine Brennan

Law is not an easy career. The mental and physical demands of this profession can wear a lawyer down quickly, but the good news is that, thanks to campaigns such as the OBA’s Opening RemarksCBA Wellness and articles like Danielle Harder's Out of Balance, lawyers and law firms are becoming increasingly aware of the impact workplace culture has on one’s health and happiness.

It can be particularly difficult for lawyers who are just starting their careers, as they have fewer connections and general knowledge about what they’re getting into. This is compounded by the fact that many students are facing sizable law school debt and have young families to support. The pressure is on to take the highest pay or next available offer, and that may not be their healthiest option.

“The expectation put upon young lawyers is that they will “pay their dues” in order to earn the holy grail of partnership,” says Warren Bongard, president and co-founder of ZSA Legal Recruitment. “If a firm makes the decision to hire a young lawyer they have to trust that they will do a good job and do what is right for their clients. Trust is the most important aspect of a healthy firm culture.”

A recent study by indicated that an employee’s culture and values rating for their company has a bigger impact on job satisfaction than compensation. But how can you know what kind of a workplace culture you're getting into before signing the employment contract?

Here are a few signs to look for:


They grow their people

Take a quick spin through the lawyer bios on the firm’s website or the partners’ LinkedIn profiles to get an idea of how many started as associates and articling students. If you're an articling student, Precedent maintains a handy hireback watch for several large Ontario firms.

Look for lawyers who belong to and volunteer with professional associations - even better if the firm covers their CPD and membership costs.

At the interview, be sure to inquire about performance evaluation. Are lawyers expected to bring business development? If this is the case, does the firm provide training for it?


They know who they are

You can often find a mission or vision statement on a firm's website, which is a good start, but “a company’s values should not just be a written mission statement or brand document,” says Bongard. “They should be regularly espoused by members of the firm. Candidates should look at the employees from top to bottom, from the managing partners to the librarian, to assess whether this just lip service or really how management guides its people.”

Ask the interviewer questions that relate to the company's vision statement and assess their response. They should have a clear understanding of how your role would fit into the higher-level priorities of the company.


They are inclusive

Is there a diversity policy included with their job ad, on their website, or in their personnel handbook? Does the management team appear to be diverse? Companies that value diversity are companies that succeed.

“Look for living proof”, says Bongard. “Many forget the word ‘inclusion’ when establishing a diversity policy – it should go beyond hiring to promote diversity within the firm. Clients are now more rigorous in requiring that a firm looks like their own and is engaging in values of diversity.”


They have a social conscience

A firm that engages in charitable and pro bono work is a firm with good values. It’s one thing to write a cheque, but firms that get involved in their community and support those in need are often the firms with a foundation built on solid values.


They take the time to hire good people

Even a job ad can provide clues about how companies value their employees. Employment is a mutual arrangement, yet some companies post ads that are little more than a demand list of qualifications. The company should be selling themselves by highlighting what they have to offer prospective employees.

During the initial interview, they should ask questions that measure how you fit into their culture. If they don’t, they may not have a clear definition of what their own culture is.


Many Ontario firms use employment agencies to advertise and recruit for positions, which means your initial contact with the employer will be limited.

Bongard suggests you start by carefully researching the agency. “It is incumbent on the agency to get a handle on the needs of their clients and to get a handle of what their client looks for. Agencies are better off representing clients they know best.” Speak with other lawyers who have worked with agencies, and don’t hesitate to reach out to develop a relationship. “Several of our clients have become quite close over the years” says Bongard. “This allows us to more efficiently serve them.”


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