Four Signs of a Toxic Work Culture

The team that wins the championship isn’t always the one with the best individual players – it’s the one that successfully blends those players into a cohesive unit. And the same applies to law firms – your firm’s lawyers might individually possess razor-sharp legal skills, but is its culture making the most of them? Let’s take a look at some tell-tale signs of toxic work culture.

Four Signs of a Toxic Work Culture


  1. Colleagues don’t know each other 

Do you ever find yourself unsure about a work matter and thinking you better go and see… Oh gosh, what’s her name again, the lady in the finance team? The one with all the photos of her grandkids on her desk? Nancy? Lisa? Well, better just start with a confident, “Hey, you!” 

In a large organization, it’s easy to lose track of who everyone is, especially when we sit at our own desks all day, concern ourselves with our own work and speak only to our own team. But if we don’t know each other, we’re less likely to understand what goes on in other departments, and will lose opportunities to collaborate productively. 

  1. Too much bureaucracy

Does opening a new matter in your system involve filling in six separate forms and three checklists? Are you receiving regular emails telling you that expenses claims need to be made on the January 2020 form, not the April 2019 version, please? If so, your firm may have an over-active administration branch.

The British civil servant and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson argued in the 1950s that all bureaucracies tend to expand over time, as officials seek to grow their own remit – this leads to them acquiring more subordinates, and then needing to create more work to keep these new employees busy. Don’t allow bureaucratic over-expansion to take place within your firm.

Don’t get me wrong – processes and standards are important. Checklists can feel burdensome but can be a valuable tool to stop you from forgetting something crucial and keep you out of trouble. But the systems have to be streamlined, and importantly they should be designed for the people who will actually use them.

  1. Information is not easily accessible

It’s common in firms and organizations for information to be locked up in inboxes and files on individuals’ own computers. But what happens when that individual leaves the firm, or is off sick for an extended period?

True, all but the smallest law firms will probably have some kind of case management system, in which key documents and emails are stored for each client matter. But what about a project run by one person that doesn’t fall into any single case, such as a tender for a new contract? Make sure these matters are properly shared out and not the domain of one person – and don’t wait until that person is about to leave the company. 

  1. Performance management systems are badly planned

Finding the right way to assess employees is crucial. Make sure you are looking at quantifiable targets, such as chargeable hours, rather than considering vague measurements such as ‘contribution to the team’. 

But make sure the incentives are properly calibrated to what it is you really want to encourage. For example, everyone knows that some chargeable hours will inevitably end up being written off further down the line. If a lawyer’s performance review is approaching and they will be measured principally on chargeable hours, they may be tempted to charge large quantities of time to a client which they know will probably be written off later.

Take account of a range of measures, and look at trajectories over time rather than any isolated numbers. If employees have the right targets, it’s a great step towards getting your company culture into shape!

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