~ Old School Values ~

They sound 19th century.

Or out of touch with reality; or consigned to those people of a different generation.

But we are far too quick to dismiss Old School Values as somehow irrelevant to our modern world.

‘Things’ have replaced relationships, conversation and enjoying the company of others.

Instant gratification is the norm.

No one, least of all me, would wish to slow progress but ask yourself how much better you are now than you were 10, 20 or 30 years ago?

When I think back to my early career experiences, I am touched by the number of amazing people that I came into contact with. Two people in particular, Bill McGowan and Douglas Knipe, really influenced my outlook.

Bill had been in the Army and had escaped a very tough upbringing in Glasgow.

Douglas kept his past well hidden but I understand he came from Plymouth and had, before starting his business, worked for Geest as an accountant.

What set them apart, from all the other people that I worked for, were their amazing values. In particular, their discipline, manners, sense of right and wrong and focus on success but not with a winner takes all mentality. They were also patient, measured and calm under pressure.

I learnt a lot from working with them, and, when I started my law degree, I was much more insightful and certainly less arrogant than I might otherwise have been.

My experience of those around me was that quite a number took everything for granted. A lot of people had family ties to the legal world and a long-standing tradition of supplying the next partner for the firm.

As I have explained before, my reason for choosing law was to help people. I wasn’t focused on how much money I was going to earn, although I did have a goal to become a partner by the time I reached 40. Nearly everyone else seemed to be focused on status, reward, and held law up as something apart from every other career.

Having worked in practice for 14 years, I saw a gradual change in values. When I started no one was that focused on billing and the work seemed far more important. Right or wrong the amount of chargeable time that could be set against a job wasn’t the driver.

Of course, we have all changed and no doubt that former modus operandi would not keep a practice afloat nowadays – cash flow being paramount; but the extreme focus on billing, does cause me to question from time to time if things are that much better.

Money does not abet better lawyers. I don’t have the figures for the average equity partner remuneration, but I would question whether they represent value for money in pure labour terms. And very often their values are too skewed in the direction of “What’s in it for me”.

Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that private practice should be an altruistic enterprise, but the money has become the sine qua non and the values are espoused in support thereof.

In simple terms values follow the money.

If law firms want to compete successfully in a liberalised market then it is not sufficient to label their values. They have to live, breathe and die by them. Check out Zappos for a company which has taken the idea of values to a different level.

As more Old School Values are replaced by 21st century values, ask yourself if, in the process, the best/decent parts of the firm, including its people, are being jettisoned in pursuit of something worthwhile.

It is easy to knock those who seem incapable of change, but the firm didn’t grow entirely by accident and perhaps some of those Old School Values might be worth polishing up again.

Don’t ditch the old for the new without a compelling business case. Once you lose your sense of purpose and the values that underpin your direction, you will find it harder to get up for the next challenge to confront you.

~ JS ~

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