Could ambiculturalism be one of the most important strategic skills of the most successful law firms in international practice in the next five years?

Should your law firm become ambicultural?

To begin to find out, invest a few minutes reading and thinking about a short article posted recently on the website of the Darden School of Business of the University of Virgina. Dr. Ming-Jer Chen, the Grayson Professor of Business Administration, suggests that the most successful international businesses are "ambicultural." 

Ambiculturalism is more than just being tolerant of, or accepting, the values, assumptions, and practices of other business cultures. Instead, ambicultural businesses incorporate, reconcile, and build on these differences in ways that enable them to navigate successfully through challenging new situations, as they move forward in time and geography.

In his most recent article on this subject, "Becoming Ambicultural: Managing Business and Beyond," Professor Chen points out several defining qualities of ambicultural businesses:

  • "Openness to new and profoundly different paradigms, practices and ways of thinking
  • "Understanding that organizations and individuals alike must be able to balance diverse — even conflicting — social, geopolitical, environmental and human needs to transcend divisions
  • "Commitment to continual learning and to sharing knowledge and experience with others in the interest of sustainable success and mutual improvement
  • "Recognition that the Western and Eastern business models, individually, cannot meet the challenges of globalization"

Even small, local, one-office firms in secondary business markets are now exposed to the new rigors and different ideas of the international legal market. As a partner in a Walker Clark client firm in South America said several years ago, "You might not be international, but increasingly your best clients are." The benefits of ambiculturalism are not just for "Big Law." Any firm, of any size, anywhere can master the four basic characteristics that Professor Chen has defined.

But it will not be easy.

It will be very hard -- possibly impossible -- for some law firms and partners, especially those based in the United States and United Kingdom, that have traditionally approached law practice management with an assumption -- usually unspoken but clearly visible -- that their professional cultures, values, and management structures are superior and can and should be applied everywhere. Other partners might conclude that the values and practices that built the success of their firms will continue to serve them well in the future. Moreover, ambiculturalism requires a willingness to embrace things that are new, foreign, and for many traditional lawyers, quite scary.

Even if building ambiculturalism is too scary or too difficult for your law firm, each of us can benefit from a more amibicultural approach to the way in which we live our professional and personal lives. To quote from the article:

...ambicultural individuals possess skills that allow them to work in any institution, industry or region. They seek a balanced career and life, and aspire to reach the pinnacles of not only their profession, but humanity.

Norman Clark