Issue 15, Summer 2006

Many law firms today span the globe. Their lawyers practice in courts and markets throughout the world. Firms that are global need to broaden their perspectives and change the way they deal with professional development. One area that highlights this need is diversity. The variety and degree of cultural and international differences within and among global law firms' offices call for a more expansive understanding and appreciation of diversity. This issue of Management Solutions© discusses some of the diversity-related issues in global law firms, and announces three groundbreaking conferences exploring the impact of law firm globalization on professional development.

Many law firms are trying innovative approaches to mentoring programs, including mentoring groups and mentoring circles. These programs can be highly beneficial in the right circumstances. But, like any mentoring program, they need clear objectives and thorough planning, structure, and oversight. Some questions to be answered before launching a group-based mentoring program are presented below.

The case study presents the situation in a Japanese law office where American and local lawyers had difficulty working together. Once they became aware that the problem was based on cultural differences, they were able to fashion a remedy.

Finally, there is a list of currently available articles which I wrote or in which I am quoted, along with information about another conference where I will be presenting on both mentoring and work-life programs.


Diversity in Global Law Firms: Developing a Global Mindset

Mentoring Groups and Mentoring Circles: The Need for Careful Planning

Case Study: Bridging Cultural Differences



 Diversity in Global Law Firms: Developing a Global Mindset

In the early 1990's, when law firms began a brisk expansion to cities throughout the United States, professional development directors wrestled with the problem of maintaining a uniform firm culture and consistent performance standards across multiple national offices. That dilemma pales today for firms with offices around the world. Any current discussion about uniformity and consistency must take into account many inter-national factors that were absent from concerns about inter-state offices.

Today's law firms practice in offices located in multiple nations with radically divergent educational, economic, and political systems. The legal systems in these countries range from stable and familiar in common law countries to unpredictable in emerging nations. Some offices operate in places where local values and ethical norms are not just different, but incompatible with those of the US. This is in addition to the practical challenges lawyers face in working together across distant locations, time zones and cultures.

The top 250 US firms now have approximately 12,500 lawyers working in hundreds of offices in dozens of cities outside the US, and those numbers have been increasing steadily since 2000. When these firms initially began to open international offices, they moved cautiously, opening occasional offshore offices primarily to serve the needs of particular clients. They tended to staff those offices with American-trained lawyers who practiced US law. But after a decade or two of vigorous expansion, many of these firms have become truly global. They have offices throughout the world, represent clients from all over the world, and provide legal services under both US laws and the laws of the local jurisdictions where they are located. Most of the lawyers practicing in those offices today are not US-trained or licensed; they are "local," i.e., they are trained and licensed in the country where they practice.

For this new global law firm, the issue of consistent firm culture and standards is enormously complex - and vital to the success of the firm as a global enterprise. Consider some of the dilemmas these firms face:

  • Acculturation to firm-wide standards must be balanced with sensitivity to local culture, and where there is a conflict, cultural differences must be reconciled
  • Lawyers' education, background, work experience, and approaches to practice vary dramatically across countries and cultures
  • Norms of behavior and professional practice are dissimilar, affecting the way lawyers interact with staff, each other, and clients
  • It is difficult and expensive to bring lawyers together from offices around the globe, so they rarely meet in person
  • Global client teams require lawyers to work together effectively even though they are separated by vast distances, numerous time zones, varying degrees of language proficiency, and multiple cultures
  • Orientation, training programs, work assignments, and other professional development activities have to reach lawyers who are far apart not only in space and time, but also in experience, professional skills, and sophistication, and who therefore have vastly different training, development, and practice support needs.

Resolving dilemmas like these is essential to the firm's success in the global marketplace. Firms can only compete effectively if they meet or surpass clients' expectations. Clients of global firms expect the same high level and quality of service, and the same kind of personal treatment, in all of the firm's offices. In a market where competitors have equivalent access to information, technology and talent, quality client service is a key differentiator. But the cultural diversity present in global firms makes it extremely hard to meet those client service expectations.

To overcome this challenge, firms must think of diversity in a new way. Most law firm diversity initiatives and training programs have a decidedly (and understandably) American slant. While US lawyers are taught to respect and embrace cultural differences, it is within the familiar context of American law practice. The underlying foundation is built on American cultural thought and norms. But most of the lawyers staffing the international offices of US firms are not American. In many of those offices, the issues, categories and examples used in American-based diversity programs are irrelevant or even potentially harmful. For instance, Americans use the category "Asian" to encompass people from dozens of cultures and countries (e.g., China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, the Philippines) who have little in common except racial ancestry - and in some cases, not even that. While this designation is convenient and accepted here, it may be puzzling, disconcerting or even insulting to classify together people from cultures with nothing at all in common or from countries that are historical enemies.

American-centered thinking about diversity also has a significant impact on the professional development - and ultimately, the careers - of lawyers in offshore offices. Many cultures value behaviors and practices unlike those in the US. Lawyers in those cultures who conform to local norms and expectations may be perceived - and judged - by the firm's US-based partners in ways that are detrimental to their careers in the firm.

For instance, in American offices, assertiveness may be necessary and expected in order to advance and be taken seriously in the firm. But in many cultures, assertive behavior is considered inappropriate, especially for women. How will the firm evaluate and advise a woman associate whose reserved conduct is in keeping with her home culture but may handicap her advancement in a US-based firm?   In an American office, diversity training might help her adapt to American law firm and business culture. But what advice will the firm give her in her home country, where she deals with local staff and clients?   To treat non-US lawyers fairly, global firms need to take such cultural differences into account in setting performance expectations, evaluating lawyers' performance, and making partnership decisions. They need to develop policies and procedures to acknowledge, address and reconcile divergent cultural expectations. They also need to be able to counsel and help non-US lawyers find ways to bridge conflicting cultural norms and expectations, and give those lawyers the training, support and guidance necessary to do so successfully.

As these examples demonstrate, global firms must adopt a global framework for diversity. US-based firms need to understand the specific cultural dynamics at work in other countries and transform American thinking about diversity into a global mindset. This does not mean that American lawyers must learn specific details about the cultures of every country where the firm has an office (although some familiarity would be nice). It does require that lawyers become more intelligent about managing themselves and their work, professional colleagues, staff, and clients in cross-cultural situations. This requires:

  • Making American lawyers realize that not every culture accepts or appreciates American norms of behavior and thinking, and that in some cross-cultural situations, American ways may be counterproductive
  • Increasing all lawyers' awareness of cultural differences in nations where their colleagues and clients operate - and where it is the lawyer who is the "foreigner"
  • Teaching all lawyers to closely observe and interpret cultural cues
  • Helping all lawyers learn a repertoire of techniques and behaviors for operating effectively in various cultures

Global diversity will be one of several topics discussed at three upcoming programs on the impact of law firm globalization on lawyers' professional development. With my internationally experienced colleagues, Tony King of Clifford Chance and Terri Mottershead of Lex Mundi, I will lead a half-day program at the Professional Development Consortium (PDC) summer meeting in Toronto on July 27, and two half-day programs at the International Bar Association (IBA) annual meeting in Chicago on September 19 and 20. The topics at the PDC meeting will include: infrastructure for professional development in a global firm; acculturating internationally diverse lawyers; and preparing lawyers to work in international offices. The IBA sessions will address the management of diverse lawyers within and across offices; setting performance standards and managing performance in global firms; and the impact of international office assignments on lawyers' careers. Links to further information and registration information about the PDC and IBA meetings appear below.


 Mentoring Groups and Mentoring Circles: The Need for Careful Planning

Mentoring is traditionally a one-on-one relationship, but some mentoring programs bring people together in mentoring groups. Group mentoring pairs a small number of experienced lawyers with a larger number of lawyers who have less experience. The typical mentoring group consists of 2 mentors and 5 or 6 mentees. Mentoring groups allow firms to leverage available mentors, give young lawyers access to a larger number of lawyers in the firm, and enable mentors to share responsibility for leading mentoring activities.

A popular variation of group mentoring is the mentoring circle. In mentoring circles, a small number of lawyers who vary in terms of age, experience and status meet together to learn from each other as they explore shared interests. Unlike mentoring groups, which are generally led by mentors, mentoring circles can either be facilitated by mentors or entirely self-directed, with all members of the group rotating leadership responsibility. Both group mentoring and mentoring circles are excellent ways to provide developmental learning and networking opportunities for lawyers.

Many law firms start mentoring groups or circles thinking that they will be easier to run than one-on-one mentoring programs. They hear about organizations like women's professional associations with successful group mentoring or mentoring circle programs and believe they can duplicate that success in their firm. Such mentoring programs work because people participate voluntarily, are highly motivated, come from various sectors of the profession, and use shared experiences to learn from and support each other.

Unfortunately, law firm mentoring groups and circles often lack some or all of these key characteristics. They are usually not entirely voluntary and participants often lack personal commitment to the process. The fact that they take place within the walls of the same law firm restricts the candor of the conversations. Perhaps most importantly, mentoring groups in law firms face the same challenges as mentoring pairs: time constraints, competing priorities, loss of momentum, and lack of accountability.

This does not mean that mentoring groups and circles cannot be successful in law firms. They definitely can - provided they have sufficient structure, direction and oversight. Mentoring programs based on a group format require the same degree of planning, forethought and support as one-on-one programs.

A checklist for planning mentoring programs can be found in my book, The Lawyer's Guide to Mentoring (NALP, 2000) at pp. 142-145. That checklist presents questions that must be considered when planning any mentoring program. Here are some additional questions to answer before starting mentoring groups or circles:

  1. What does the firm hope to achieve through a group-based approach to mentoring?   How will the firm benefit?   How will participants benefit?
  2. What will be the relationship between mentoring groups or circles and other firm mentoring efforts?
  3. Will the firm culture enable the group mentoring effort to work?
  4. What obstacles will prevent success?   How will those obstacles be overcome?
  5. How large will groups/circles be?  
  6. On what bases will people be matched into groups/circles?   What will be the composition of the groups/circles?
  7. How will participants be selected?   Who will they be?
  8. Will the program be voluntary?   If so, how will participants be recruited?   If not, what is the justification for a mandatory program, and how will people be motivated to participate?
  9. What will be expected of participants?   What roles will they play?   What responsibilities will they have?  
  10. Will mentors for the groups/circles also serve as mentors in one-on-one mentoring relationships with individual group/circle members?
  11. How will the goals of the group/circle be decided? What kinds of goals will be appropriate? Will individual members also have their own personal goals?
  12. What should groups/circles do when they get together?   How will the agenda be decided?  
  13. How will group leadership be determined?   Will it be mentor-driven?   Will it be rotated among participants?
  14. Will participants need training in group facilitation?
  15. How will the groups' progress be monitored?  
  16. How will success be measured for individuals and groups?   How will success of the overall program be measured?


 Case Study: Bridging Cultural Differences

A client opened an office in Tokyo. The firm had two other international offices, both in Europe, and used the same approach in Tokyo as it used in opening the European offices: an American partner from the head office in the US moved to Tokyo as the Office Managing Partner (OMP). Within 6 months, he had added 6 other lawyers. Two of the new lawyers were American associates who relocated from one of the firm's US offices, and four were local Japanese lawyers. The office was very busy but the OMP was frustrated. He was finding it difficult to manage the office's lawyers.

When I asked for examples, he immediately mentioned decision-making. He wanted to make all the lawyers in the office feel included in office management. So when planning office policies, he would call the lawyers together for informal brainstorming sessions. He would present the facts and the issues, encourage the group to raise and debate ideas, and at the end of the session, ask them to make a decision, either by vote or consensus. During these sessions, the Japanese lawyers spoke very little and the Americans tended to dominate the discussion.

This dynamic bothered the OMP. He misinterpreted the silence of the Japanese lawyers as an inability or unwillingness to contribute. He did not realize that the Japanese lawyers found the rapidity and informality of the OMP's decision-making process strange and discomfiting. They were accustomed to an entirely different approach. Before making any important decisions, they collected extensive data, discussed issues in great depth, and took substantial time for reflection. In meetings, they customarily listened politely until a speaker was finished, and sometimes waited a few moments before answering. The American lawyers, in contrast, were used to lively exchanges and often interrupted people before they finished speaking. Silence made them uncomfortable, so when there was a pause, they jumped right in. As a result, they dominated the decision-making sessions.

Once he understood these cultural differences, the OMP spoke to all the lawyers, individually at first and then as a group. He explained what he wanted to accomplish by including them all in decision-making and worked with them to design a process that made everyone more comfortable, communicative, and engaged.



Three of my articles were published last quarter and are available online.

I was quoted in several news articles, including:



I will be speaking at the following conferences in the next quarter:

  • 2nd National Forum on Diversity, sponsored by the American Conference Institute, San Francisco, September 25-26, 2006. In addition to my September 26 panel presentation on mentoring during the main conference, I will be co-presenting a half-day post-conference workshop on September 27 with Deborah Epstein Henry of FlexTime Lawyers LLC, on "Establishing a Win/Win Work-Life Program for Women."


©2006 Ida Abbott Consulting