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Tips for Adapting to Law Firm Culture

Ever gone somewhere, like another country, and tried to adapt to a foreign culture?

Maybe you had to learn a language, or at least a few phrases, to get around. The food, the dress, the music -- everything that made it interesting also made it a challenge to fit in.

That's what it's like when you enter a new law firm culture. You want to get along with your co-workers, and the last thing you want to be is a tourist.

Language

Hopefully, you chose the right place to spend your foreseeable future. So settle in, learn, and enjoy a new experience. Law firm cultures can be as different as foreign countries.

To be sure, there are language differences. It's more than practice-area-speech, like criminal law "Bivens," federal practice "12(b)'s," family law "730's," etc. Law firm culture really comes out in how lawyers talk. Some firms expect associates to call partners "Mr." and "Ms."; very few want to be called "dude."

A little humor is generally welcome in any law firm dialogue, except perhaps when talking about morbid subjects or other inappropriate matters. Even if you hear sexual or racial jokes, it's a good idea to avoid them. It's not a law firm culture thing; it's a discrimination lawsuit thing.

Food

Lunch is a great time to sample the culture outside the office. If you haven't been invited to a group lunch, invite yourself. It's about becoming a team player and finding mentors.

In team sports as in law firms, there are alpha dogs and others. By associating with co-workers, you will find out where you fit in. You will learn inside culture, too, like office politics, attitudes and potential problems.

Glue guys, by the way, are valued members of any team. They keep people together by example, working hard and focusing on all-important common goals of the group.

Dress

This is the fun part, especially if you are a clothes hound. But as with other cultural elements, take your cues from others at the firm and try not to bring down the standard.

Dressing for success is an old saying because it is still good advice. Dress like the natives works, too. If you work in a business casual environment, consider yourself lucky that you don't have to break the bank on new suits and leather shoes.

The office is not a fashion show, however. Remember, even though Joan Rivers is not around anymore to make fun of our strained style choices, somebody else will.

Music

While few legal writers will place music near the top of the law firm culture list, here's the idea: music is sometimes called the universal language. If you can appreciate a people's music, you can begin to understand them in a fundamental way.

You may not hear the partners rocking in the office. Maybe all you hear will be elevator music. But you can definitely break the ice and even form friendships sharing some favorites around the water cooler.

Then turn on the speakers on your computer or phone while you work the day away. The next thing you know, you'll be humming and your office will be your home away from sweet home.

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