Working File: McGuireWoods Site Visit David Owens-Hill Queens University of Charlotte November 10, 2011



An easier cultural analysis? On November 1, 2011, we visited with Kevin McGinnis, a partner at the law firm of McGuireWoods on the 30th floor of the Fifth Third tower in Uptown Charlotte. Long before the visit, I understood the culture to be different than that of our previous on-site analyses. Trader Joe’s and the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center site visits were casual and informal while we, as a class, were warned in advance of dress requirements and security concerns at the McGuireWoods site. Expectations were heightened because of the more formal setting, and this was certainly the only site visit with a security checkpoint. Several of my classmates remarked at the end of the visit that this analysis would be easier than the previous two. A curious thing to think, to be sure. The perceived ease of discovery is in-and-of itself an indicator of organizational culture—is it possible that the structure of McGuireWoods is one that encourages an easier at-a-glance review of the culture presented to the naked eye? For consistency and comparative clarity, I will use the same artifacts, values, and assumptions model that I have referenced in other working files to explore these questions.

Artifacts Like Gabbard, we met McGinnis in a conference room. Unlike Gabbard, McGinnis had many, many, many conference rooms from which to choose and McGuireWoods conference floor (unlike Gabbard’s internal development suite) offered stunning views of the Uptown skylike from their floor-to-ceiling, 30th story windows. Our meeting space was clearly designed to impress clients. Everything from the inlaid table to



the comfortable leather chairs said to the beverage selection in the built-in minibar spoke to posture and messaging directed towards the firm’s high-paying clients. Like Gabbard, McGinnis naturally took a position at the head of the table, furthest from the door. Initially, I wondered if this was out of necessity (as the class was settling in for our organizational overview, we left that seat empty, but I noted in my field notes that the materials McGinnis distributed were already stationed at the head of the table before we arrived. Clearly this was his seat. Proxemics tells us that conference tables that are boatshaped (wider at the center point than the edges) are designed for a high power-variance. The close phase of social distance, ideal for subconsciously exercising power, requires four to seven feet of distance from one’s nearest interactee. By naturally positioning himself at a further distance to the people on his right and left than the distance between our rights and lefts, McGinnis used the table and the room exactly as they were designed; to show that he was in charge and understood the goings-on that were unfolding before us. Understanding law is a specialty field—and a difficult one. A lawyers environment is meant to offer every advantage. The documents McGinnis offered to the class similarly reinforced the firm’s power-balance. The pieces spoke to diversity, ethics, and recent recognitions and employed images of actual McGuireWoods staff (as opposed to stock photography). In each example, the photos were filled with individuals wearing business attire. McGinnis, in fact, also wore a suit and tie. The formal dress of the organization presented itself in stark contrast to the casual dress of the Trader Joe’s staff and Gabbard’s attire (still in a suit, but with an interesting shirt color and matching tie, to indicate a more creative dress code.) McGuireWoods is, without a doubt, operating from a more formal model than any



of our previous visits. Formality can speak to history and authority in an organization. Formal attire can also become ritualistic, as one considers where to wear a jacket and where not to, when to loosen the tie and when not to, etc. are considered in relationship to unfolding situations in the organization.

Values McGinnis’ tour and explanation of firm dynamics was, as with our other presenters, honest and frank. It was clear that he believed in the organization and it’s authentic nature—his tenure at the firm is enough to quantify his buy-in—but he spoke with elegance and poise about the pro bono work that the firm has done in the past to “give back” to the community. Clearly McGinnis values the work he does, and believes in the work of the firm overall. In our tour of the 29th floor, McGinnis showed us offices belonging to Associates or Partners and to the paralegal and administrative staff. The differences were glaring. Offices for attorneys were on the outside of the building with floor-to-ceiling windows and wood-colored furniture. Offices for administrative staff were much smaller, on the inside of the hallways, and featured white, built-in furniture. To the casual observer, it would appear that the administrative staff was less appreciated than the attorneys on that floor. I was pleased to hear McGinnis speak to this and explain that the attorneys selfpolice a culture of respect and courtesy to the administrative staff. McGinnis didn’t explain it, but some offices had papers taped under the nameplates beside the door. I stole a glance at a certificate of achievement that an employee named Taylor French had put up beside his/her door in a public hallway. Though impossible to deduce with one visit to



a one hallway, this could indicate a value placed on achievement within the ranks. It would be interesting to see if other employees similarly post achievements for all to see. If so, do these tokens become indicators of organizational heroes? Are these symbols meant to illustrate and privilege one employee over another or to celebrate achievement in an egalitarian way? Future study is necessary to determine, but this is the first example of this type of presentation from our site visits.

Assumptions I can assume, safely, that a law firm’s authority is predicated on power. I assumed this before we began. The assumption I can draw succinctly from our time with Kevin McGinnis is that McGuireWoods’ power is derived differently than other firms. He indicated during our interview that theirs was not an “old school” law firm; that the other lawyers around town would consider McGuireWoods the “fun kids.” These are not the statements of the white suit lawyers and robber baron-era power mongers. These are the words of an individual, representing a firm, that privileges service and ethics. The poetry with which McGinnis spoke of the pro bono case award at the end of our interview was, perhaps, the biggest indicator of McGuireWoods’ commitment to social responsibility. One of Driskill and Brenton’s assumptions of Organizational Culture is that “you may find multiple, instead of unitary” organizational cultures. I feel that at McGuireWoods, because of the differences in work roles between attorneys and administrative staff, this would be more evident than in the other organizations where each member of the organization clearly propagated the forward momentum of the group in a way defined by “normal” work roles. Because attorney’s work on cases are all



unique and complex, and because they overlap with multiple administrative staffs and other attorneys, I assume that it would be harder to grasp a micro-cultural identity throughout an entire staff at a large law firm. Rather, McGuireWoods probably maintains a macro culture model where each member understands the greater role of culture in the organization, but contributes differently to it—similar to doctors in a practice, each of whom is responsible for their own work, ethical foundation, and contributions to the whole. If we had a follow-up visit with McGinnis, this is a topic I would explore further. I feel that there is rich material to gather in an organization where some employees work outside the standard nine-to-five work model and others maintain traditional administrative duties.

Conclusion Again, the differences organization-to-organization were clear. Though McGuireWoods was more similar to Blumenthal in physical environment, the “giveback” nature of the law firm contrasts with the development oriented presentation of Blumenthal. Both organizations were more buttoned-up than Trader Joe’s, but each presenter’s commitment to consistency and adherence to organizational narrative tells me that, on the surface, the identity of each organization is firmly defined. For a more complete understanding of the three organizations discussed, I would like to visit each and speak with staff members who are not in-charge. I feel that, by triangulating back to truth though multiple viewpoints, I can reify the culture exemplified by the leadership of each organization. Only then can we understand the culture of all three as project against one another.

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