Do Law Firms Value their *Values*?

No, not nearly enough.

In fact, I would go further and say that for a lot of firms they haven’t even thought about the impact of their (supposed) values, internally or externally.

Most lawyers, and I would count myself amongst their ranks (when in practice), don’t give due consideration to values. If anything, we see them enshrined in the vibes/messaging given off by certain, dominant partners. Words like ‘expert’, ‘professional’, ‘best of’, ‘niche’ or ‘valuable’ are the order of the day.

As to the working environment that was pretty much made up on the hoof, and beset with a whole plethora of problems that usually manifested in how busy we were.

In quiet times, we had more time to consider if XYZ firm truly was a great place to work; in the manic phase, we didn’t have time to blow our noses, go to the bathroom or say thank you, let alone think about what we stood for.

This again reminds me of the three personalities that Michael E Gerber talks about in his masterful book The E-Myth Revisited where he describes the technician, manager and entrepreneur running a business. We were most definitely in the technician mode – “doing it, doing it, doing it”.

Looking back, I wish that I had a bedrock set of values to guide me in good times and bad.

I am not naive enough to accept that simply reading a set of trite ‘feel good’ messages would have made any difference, but they could have done if the firm had demonstrated its commitment to them over the long haul.

If you take the values espoused by Zappos they are probably too vague or altogether non-PC for a law firm/its partners, but I can quite see why, if inculcated from the top down, it would make for a great place to work and ipso facto it produces awesome service.

Of course, values do not maketh a law firm no more that a website does but if firms have a vision or mission statement then they need to be underpinned by meaningful values. Further, the brand values need to work seamlessly with the core values as much as the strap line or words that you use to describe the law firm.

If you think all of this is a bit too ethereal then you have my sympathies. In the past your clients were no more interested in the colour of your logo, the fascia of your building or how slick your marketing literature was than anything else. In my experience a lot of these were an afterthought. I still remember the majority of law firms having a long-sounding firm name of its original founding partners, and the letterhead font was black and of a script type.

My raison detre is to help law firms, partners and lawyers leverage their knowledge and expertise for the betterment of all – bottom line, be more profitable or sustain their profit, and that normally comes down to the numbers. Values don’t always sit easily with some of the soft skills, and for many may even get in the way. But it is vital that when you start asking about the culture of the firm, what you stand for and how you position yourself in the market that you don’t just come back to the technician’s mindset and talk about the fantastic work you do. In my view, this is not enough.

In Stephen M R Covey‘s book Speed of Trust he deals exquisitely with the 5 levels of trust, the metaphor being a ripple effect with self trust in the centre moving to the outer limb being societal trust. All levels impact upon values but the third wave, organizational trust, and the fourth wave, market trust, are perhaps the most apposite.

The idea of market trust bears on reputation, and I think values have an enormous part to play in espousing and grounding them to who you are. Organizational trust is about “alignment”, the idea that everything that a firm does is aligned with its systems and structures.

The exercise of working out what you stand for and rolling those values out like you roll out a piece of clay is immensely difficult. If you try to do everything by consensus then you are likely to get a watered down version of what you really stand for. Values are not set in stone but one would hope that you do not change them every week to fit the mood in the camp.

In any project like this it is always going to be hard to see the hard, tangible results. But the more time you work on this – and I mean really work at it – the bigger impact that it will have on the firm.

It will drive in no small measure:

  • Your perceived value in the market;
  • Your profitability;
  • Recruitment of the brightest and the best;
  • Retention;
  • Branding;
  • Marketing; and
  • Business Development.

Give yourself a framework that includes all departments, the support functions, suppliers, and referrers and trusted advisors. Start tapping into their knowledge and understanding of the firm and get an unbiased opinion on where they think you are at the moment, aligned with any values that you have. That should cement you to the here and now; and thereafter you need to consider how you might move things forward to bridge any weaknesses or build a stronger bond of trust with the market and your staff/partners.

Here is an extract from Allen & Overy‘s About Us page:

“Because our culture is built on the idea that we can achieve extraordinary results by working creatively together …”.

Even with my trained eye, I struggle to understand what this means. It sounds great but is there a collegiate atmosphere? How have A&O achieved a working environment that is not territorial, where cross-functional excellence is applauded and the client service is demonstratively better?

You may argue that I am nit picking. A lot of firms don’t even have value statements and certainly not one as bold as this one but I want to practically taste the values and whether words can ever do that is a debatable point.

If you are inspired to revisit this whole topic for the umpteenth time can I please make a solemn request: DON’T copy what your nearest and dearest competitor is doing. Surely you know what you stand for by now!

Don’t be too precious about things but neither should you just leave things to the market to make its own mind up. If you are going to stand out from the crowd and you believe you can drive that home with a value laden values statement then do it. Don’t wait to reinvent yourself when the market suddenly speaks to you with a drop off in instructions or more likely no possible hope of changing the bottom line because of the perception of the firm.

If you are inspired to try then how about this line from Tom Peters‘ book The Little Big Things:

“Just say/shout a throaty “No!” to Non-WOW! So … WOW! Now! No bull. This is doable.”

Sounds over the top but may be that’s just it. You haven’t been aiming high enough and as a result you have a poor substitute for values, namely a melange of wishy washy, non-exact and non-exciting stuff.

Turn the dial up to WOW and go sparkle your audience and teams.

~ JS ~