Work + Growth

Warning Signs That a Firm’s Culture is Toxic

  • High turnover isn’t a guarantee that a firm’s culture is toxic, but it’s a definite red flag
  • The recruitment process can shed a lot of light on a firm’s culture. Pay attention during interviews and the way the firm communicates
  • Trust your gut. If something feels “off,” there’s a good chance it is

So, you’re well on your way to receiving an offer from a new firm.

The role sounds great and the salary is exactly what you had in mind. Congratulations!

One question remains, however: How can you be certain the firm doesn’t have a toxic culture?

There’s no way to know for sure, but there are a few red flags to be on the lookout for during your recruitment process. Below, some of the top warning signs that a firm’s culture is toxic—and that you might wish to look elsewhere for employment.

A High Turnover Rate

Start here. While a high turnover rate isn’t a guarantee that a firm has a toxic culture, it’s definitely a sign that you should investigate just why there’s a revolving door of attorneys.  Make sure to ask questions throughout the recruitment process, and push to get satisfactory answers. For instance, is the turnover rate high because a certain firm has a successful, specialized focus area and larger firms are frequently poaching its talent? Or are attorneys out the door because management is a problem and communication is nonexistent?

Awkward or Disorganized Recruitment

Speaking of the recruitment process, you can learn a lot about a firm’s culture if you know what to look out for. Were you asked strange questions during your interviews? Did you ask questions during your meetings but fail to receive satisfactory questions? Were there attorneys you would be working with that you weren’t given an opportunity to meet with? These are all signs that the firm might be hiding something.

Poor Lines of Communication

As previously mentioned, a firm’s communication style can be telling. Is the firm able to clearly and effectively communicate to you its billable-hour expectations, your salary range, and exactly what your role would be? Did you go weeks without hearing from the firm between interviews? If communication seems sporadic or disjointed, that could be a sign of management not being on the same page with each other—and as we all know, culture comes from the top down.

Pervasive Negativity

Pay attention to the way people at the firm speak of each other and their work. Are they full of compliments, both about their colleagues’ abilities and characters, or are they quick to disparage other attorneys? Even an offhand comment about a former associate or paralegal can clue you in to whether a firm’s culture leans towards toxicity. If negativity is palpable during your recruitment process—when everyone is supposed to be on their best behavior as they sell the firm to you—that’s a definite red flag.

Check out online firm reviews on sites like Glassdoor and Indeed. Look for patterns in the negative comments, especially if they mention management and the behavior of the partners. If several people complain about the same things, those things are worth considering. Also note a string of overly-positive comments after several negative ones; this could be an indication that management might be posting comments themselves to try to clean up their reputation.

Have you ever worked anywhere with a toxic culture? What were the problems? How did you handle it?

Business isn’t Booming

Make sure to research a firm’s recent financials and any headlines it’s made in the news before accepting an offer. If the firm is in the news because of a change in leadership, find out why; it could be a sign that things are a mess at the top, or it could just be because of a routine retirement. Similarly, new leadership might indicate a coming change in culture with no guarantee that it won’t turn toxic during the adjustment period. If you can find any information on the new leadership, look into them as much as possible. If revenues are down, determine why, and whether you’re comfortable with the reasoning.

Something Feels “Off”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, always trust your gut. How do you feel when you’re at the firm? How do you feel during or after your interviews? How do you feel when you’re talking to current associates? If something feels a bit “off” or wrong in a way you can’t exactly put your finger on, there’s a good chance it is. Trust your gut to point you in the right direction.