Decoding culture in law departments

“Culture always expresses itself in specific values and observable, measurable behaviors.” Willie Pieterson, Reinventing Strategy: Using Strategic Learning to Create & Sustain Breakthrough Performance (John Wiley 2002) at 65.

Pieterson explains his onion model of culture in which the inner core includes “underlying assumptions,” the next level out the “values” — “beliefs as to what is important and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, what makes for good life, success, and so on.” The outer layer of the onion has “behaviors and artifacts,” the only manifestations of culture visible to the naked eye (id at 149)(See my post of Nov. 16, 2005 that expresses misgivings about the term “culture.”).

What are some ways to identify and describe your law department’s culture? You can measure your law department’s cultural values and behaviors through periodic surveys. Consultants — especially those with an ethnographers bent — can observe what goes on and can discern deeper values. Some 360-degree feedback surveys delve into components of culture. A fourth tool is your performance appraisal processe. Mission and vision statements, as well as the welter of your operating policies, likewise give insights into the onion. The stories told about the law department’s past, whether real or apocryphal, crystallize its culture. Finally, psychometric instruments, such as Graves, delve into this murky area (See my post of Feb. 7, 2006 about values.).

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