Finding the BEST workplace culture for you // Ashurst

We recently caught up with Tim Rankin a lawyer at Ashurst to discuss workplace culture and how vast people’s different perceptions of workplace culture can be.

In Tim’s article below he talks about the importance and perception of culture as well as the ways in which you can suss out exactly what the culture might be like in any given workplace.

Although Tim focuses on law and the differences between law firms, the beauty of his article is that everything he describes could be applied to all industries and any job. And when you are spending at least 2080 hours at work each year, spending some time understanding workplace culture and finding the right fit for you seems worth devoting some effort to.

“Why did I choose to work for [INSERT] law firm? The people of course!”

If you have attended a careers evening, or spoken to firm representatives on campus, you might have noticed that everyone seems to prefer their firm because of the culture. How can that be?  Surely in such a highly competitive market like the law, there must be some firm that has figured out the “BEST” culture?

However, much like the students studying law, law firm cultures are a diverse and varied bunch, even between firms of similar size and speciality.

Defining workplace culture can be exceptionally difficult. If you asked 10 people to do so, you would get 10 different answers.  Despite this, everyone knows a good culture when they see it.

It’s everything from basic conventions such as staying off your phone while listening to a colleague present, the number of mid-morning coffees you go on with your team, to the friendly hellos from people you see in the lift. It’s the closest thing to “the vibe” you’ll encounter in law until you’re senior enough to work on constitutional law disputes on compulsory acquisition.

The reason why every person you’ll speak to will mention workplace culture, is because it’s very important to distinguishing between law firms. Law firms recognise this too, and devote significant resources to ensuring workplace culture is fostered and flourishes.

At Ashurst, as with many other firms, we have monthly firm-wide social functions to ensure colleagues have a chance to catch up with friends across different teams and floors. This is augmented by team social functions (such as drinks for welcoming new staff or celebrating birthdays and milestones) and specific interest groups like the environment committee or firm netball team.

The seasonal clerkship recruitment process is your best chance to find out what a law firm’s culture is like and whether it suits you.  As much as you may be concentrating on putting your best foot forward, try to take advantage of the opportunity to test out the firm.

You’ll be in law for a long time so give yourself the best chance to find a firm that suits you.  During networking evenings chat to the junior lawyers about their day and ask what activities they do outside of work, ask HR about the firm’s committees, networks and sport teams.

Importantly, during the clerkship itself, really try to be mindful of how you feel each morning before work and each night afterwards.

I was pleasantly surprised by the positive culture of all the law firms where I was fortunate enough to clerk.  Law is a very demanding profession, and senior members of large firms are some of the most experienced, and in demand, members of it.

Despite this, the vast majority of practitioners I have met will always have time to speak to you, answer your questions or take you out for coffee. This is a very important thing to consider, because you want to find a law firm that will invest in you and your development as a lawyer.

A very interesting question to consider is where does culture come from? Is it the manifestation of the firm’s values, a collection of conventions and habits of long-serving “lifers” now in the upper-echelons of power, or the collective attitudes of all the staff (including the mostly recent arrived)?

In truth, it is a combination of all three operating together. For example, at Ashurst the firm values collaboration and initiative and facilitates staff led projects. Taking advantage of this, my graduate cohort decided to celebrate each grad’s birthday with a morning tea, and took over the level 25 kitchen every other week to do so. This small effort made a big difference to my year as a graduate and is one of those countless examples of “know-it-when-you-see-it” culture.

The final point I want to make is that cultural “fit” is an individual and bespoke phenomena.  Two equally qualified law students may clerk at the same firm, in the same team, and one will love it and other may not.  This is not a reflection of one being better than the other, it simply means that one student may prefer the “flat” and collaborative style of that particular team where the other may prefer a more structured experience.

I was privileged to be able to choose between clerkship and graduate positions.  At every stage, my “gut feeling” of where I wanted to end up did not change after any number of pros and cons lists I prepared, and I have had no regrets about my choices.

You will know a good workplace culture when you see it and it is one of the most decisive factors in differentiating between law firms.  That’s why it’s the answer you’ll get every time you ask “Why did you choose to work for [INSERT] firm?”.


Ashurst is a 2018 National Career Partner of our generationYOU Live Events. Jo Dean, HR Manager of the National Graduate Program at Ashurst, will be speaking at our upcoming Sydney and Adelaide events.