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Last year I spent a lot of time talking to managing and senior partners about culture and how to define it; not culture change, but culture itself. The conversations were fascinating, but inconclusive. Do we define culture by communication? Is it governance? How do you bottle the elusive personalities of different law firms? How to articulate them without resorting to corporate-speak?
In the absence of any coherent taxonomy, I propose the Hogwarts theory of partnerships. For those of you without easy access to millennials, the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter series sifts new students into houses. JK Rowling’s genius resides in the recognition of the power of archetypes, from the orphan child to the perilous quest. The Sorting Hat identifies four distinct organisational cultures: ambitious (Slytherin), smart (Ravenclaw), courageous (Gryffindor) and collegiate (Hufflepuff).
If you have a spare half an hour, check through law firms’ values statements and see which match with our Hogwarts houses. Linklaters, for example, has teamwork (a Hufflepuff quality), imagination (Ravenclaw), determination (Slytherin) and integrity (Gryffindor).
Organisational culture is essentially a convergence of fictions, animated through endless micro-narratives of personal behaviour, victories and failures. On this basis, the Hogwarts house system is considerably clearer than identikit values statements.
And boy, was KWM a Slytherin firm through and through. As the fine investigation by Tabby Kinder and Yun Kriegler shows, this was a firm built out of maverick, entrepreneurial lawyers, the very root of its success and the very root of its failure. Everything – from the chronic undercapitalisation to factional energy – was based on the individual drive. One of the reasons that KWM has fascinated the entire market is precisely because it is a human story of a culture gone wrong, rather than a pure financial collapse.
Another of the cultural lessons of the KWM implosion is that every organisation needs to be a combination of each of the Hogwarts houses, not a caricature. Every successful entrepreneur needs a big slug of Slytherin drive with a dash of improvisational Gryffindor. An underperforming business is almost certainly lagging the market because it doesn’t have enough Slytherin steel. In recent times White & Case has managed to inject a much-needed element of Slytherin into its formerly Hufflepuff culture. Addleshaw Goddard exhibits flashes of Slytherin. So does Slaughter and May, which would have you believe it’s all Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, when in fact it’s been ruthlessly purging its partnership and has even entered the lateral market. Kirkland, one of the most successful US firms in the global market, is distilled Slytherin. So was DLA Piper before it merged with the Americans; it couldn’t have launched in London without that pure ambition.
By contrast, Lovells was a drifting Hufflepuff before its Gryffindor merger with Hogan. Allen & Overy and BLP want to play for Ravenclaw. CMS and Fieldfisher have gone all Gryffindor, though I’m willing to bet CMS’s Slytherin period will come a year after the merger. Culture is all: lateral candidates might make fewer mistakes if they forget the money and focus on the house. Lumos Maxima.
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