Capturing Your Practice’s Purpose

Capturing an authentic, purpose-driven mission statement can have surprising benefits for your entire law practice or law firm. While most people think of a mission as something you do for marketing, studies have shown that purpose-oriented organizations outperform the competition when it comes to engaging customers and employees alike.

Read on to learn how to craft purpose-driven mission statement that is succinct, authentic, and motivational. Or, if you prefer interactive learning, be sure to register for my upcoming webinar on the topic.

Why Did You Go To Law School?

One of my earliest memories from law school was my 1L Property Law professor (now the school’s Dean) asking the 80-some members of my class, “Who here is in law school because they want to make a lot of money?”

Several hands shot up. Others were raised tentatively, reflecting some internal conflict. Who wouldn’t want to make money? Most of us were going into debt to invest in our legal education. Shouldn’t we be entitled to reap some rewards on the other side?

“If all you want to do is make a lot of money,” she continued, “you should leave this class, tell the registrar you’re dropping out, and go into title insurance.”

The class chuckled. It was a practiced laugh line, but it worked.

“Some of you will make a lot of money as lawyers. Most of you will make a decent living. A few of you will struggle.” (We were the class of 2007, and her crystal ball wasn’t clear enough to see that more than a few would struggle.) “But if your primary goal is making money, there are a lot of ways to do it that are way easier than becoming a lawyer.”

“If you’re here with a higher purpose,” she continued,” you’re in the right place. Law school is tough, and practicing law is tougher. But the things you’ll learn will give you tools to change people’s lives and make a difference in the world. If you can do that, your career will be rewarding no matter how much money you make.”

She had us hooked.

Of course she was right; we humans find value in lots of activities that don’t necessarily yield economic benefit. Looking back skeptically (one of the tools law school teaches us) it was also a great way to motivate folks to stay in school and keep paying tuition. She ain’t Dean for nuthin’.

Intrinsic v. Extrinsic Motivation

The truth is that both are true. People will spend all sorts of time, money, and other hard-earned resources to engage in activities that connect them with their higher purpose. Money can be a motivator, but it is an extrinsic one. As Daniel Pink explains in his book Drive, extrinsic motivators at best yield short term benefits, and at worst can be detrimental over the long term.

Intrinsic motivators, however, have the potential to unleash all sorts of human creativity and dedication. When people connect with your purpose—or, better yet, when you connect with theirs—the depth of their commitment and energy will surprise you.

Don’t believe me? Harvard Business Review dedicated an entire issue to the topic of building purpose-driven companies:

“If, like many executives, you’re applying conventional economic logic, you view your employees as self-interested agents and design your organizational practices and culture accordingly, and that hasn’t paid off as you’d hoped.

So you now face a choice: You can double down on that approach, on the assumption that you just need more or stricter controls to achieve the desired impact. Or you can align the organization with an authentic higher purpose that intersects with your business interests and helps guide your decisions. If you succeed in doing the latter, your people will try new things, move into deep learning, take risks, and make surprising contributions.”

Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor, Creating a Purpose Driven Organization

Sound business fundamentals are obviously important, but purpose-driven organizations are more profitable and more resilient over time.

How then can you define and capture your firm’s purpose to reap these benefits? I’ll offer three tools, ranging from the conceptual to the highly practical, for creating a law firm mission statement that succinctly and effectively captures the essence of your purpose-driven firm.

Authentic Words, Authentic Outcomes

The most common mistake I see in law firm mission statements (the place where your purpose should be most evident) is stuffing it full of platitudes. Sometimes these are things the firm leadership thinks their clients want to hear, other times they’re the things they want to hear themselves.

The best law firm mission statements reflect not what the people of the firm do (that’s tactics) but what outcomes they’re working to achieve. Take this example of what not to do from my earlier post on law firm missions:

/“Our mission is to help clients achieve their goals by providing high quality, ethically sound legal counsel and strategic advice. We work with clients to understand their objectives, resolve current issues and proactively anticipate and prevent future problems. We are committed to delivering efficient and cost-effective legal services with a focus on communication, responsiveness, and attention to detail.“/

That’s not a mission, it is a task list for any halfway competent law firm. As I pointed out before, it is boring as heck, not only because the words are boring but because they don’t tell me anything at all about the humans behind the words.

The HBR authors of the article above emphasize the importance of authenticity in your organizations purpose. For one, your purpose isn’t something you create, it is something you /discover/. Especially if you already have a team, finding your team’s purpose should be a process of collective creation not top-down imposition. Remember, you’re trying to discover your people’s intrinsic motivation so you can connect your organization more closely to it.

“If your purpose is authentic, people know, because it drives every decision and you do things other [firms] would not,” the HBR authors say. It should reflect who you are, who you care about, and what you hope to help them accomplish. A great example is Agile Attorney Rebecca Flanagan of Flanagan Legal Services.

Rebecca is a 3rd generation small business owner whose mother owned a small-town veterinary clinic and whose dad constructed log homes. She launched her law practice after extended stints in the Tax Department of KPMG and the Legal Department of a Fortune 150 company because, lucrative as those positions were, they didn’t connect her to the people she most cared about—entrepreneurs like her parents.

Her purpose-driven mission is not only on the walls of her office, it is in the street-facing window for passersby to see:

“We believe small businesses are the heart of our community, and it is our mission to empower the Pacific Northwest’s business owners with legal and tax advice that is clear, timely, and actionable.

We strive to deliver outstanding value with integrity, joy, and professionalism that educates and uplifts our clients so that they can best support their businesses, their families, and their communities.”

Far more than a marketing statement, it guides and inspires Rebecca and her team. It gives them both a reason for their work and a standard of practice. More than anything, it is authentically theirs, capturing the things they care about and reflecting those things back as a beacon to guide them through good times and tougher ones.

First, Capture the Gist

Sometimes the hardest part is getting started. Fortunately, the smart folks at design superstars IDEO have recently launched a handy tool for creating a first-draft purpose statement for any organization. The Purpose Wheel consists of two concentric circles to help you answer the questions “Why do we exist?,” “How do we make progress towards that reason?,” and “Who are we doing it for?”

The inner circle is the simplest, suggesting five high-level reasons that act as solid placeholders for any organization to complete the sentence, “We exist to ___________.” Possibilities include:

  • Enable Potential
  • Reduce Friction
  • Foster Prosperity
  • Encourage Exploration
  • Kindle Happiness

The second circle is broader, with 15 possibilities for extending the above sentence by adding a “by” to the end. I won’t list them all, but a couple of illustrative combinations include:

“We exist to enable potential by championing education and pioneering transformation…” (might be appropriate to an ed-tech company, or a law practice helping small business startups).

“We exist to foster prosperity by providing security and lending support…” (a good start for an estate-planning practice).

Other options include “unlocking freedom,” cultivating connections,” “empowering growth,” and “pioneering transformation.” Be sure to check out the linked post for the full menu of options.

The final piece of the exercise comes from adding “for the good of” to the end of the sentence. Looking back to Rebecca’s statement, one way to write it using the IDEO tool would be “We exist to foster prosperity by providing security and lending support for the good of Pacific Northwest business owners.”

The wheel itself doesn’t list the realm of possible targets of your activities, but hopefully they are fairly self evident. IDEO has even included a handy worksheet to help you get started.

I like the tool not because it will produce the perfect mission statement for your law firm, but because it is an easy-to-use framework for getting started. Remember, this is something you discover, not something you just draft. And, as IDEO recommends, it can be useful to try on a few different combinations to see what resonates with you and your team.

Solving for the Needs of Legal Clients

If you’ve ever seen one of my live presentations you’ve probably heard me talk about the esoteric question, “why do we even have lawyers?” While that question can certainly lead to some serious intellectual noodling, the answers I’ve settled on can provide a useful framework for zeroing in on an effective law firm mission.

I’ve boiled it down to two sets of answers: one practical, the other emotional, and both borrowed from others. The practical set comes from Professor Daniel Katz, then of the Reinvent Law program at Michigan State. He posits that lawyers help solve for just two high-level problems, the client’s need to

  1. Mitigate Risk, and
  2. Navigate Complexity.

Full stop. And I think that’s pretty darn good—I certainly can’t see boiling it down any further and, from a practical level, there’s nothing I’d want to add.

It is missing a part of the picture of why clients hire lawyers in particular to solve those problems, however; the emotional needs of those clients as human beings.

My answer for solving for those human emotional needs comes from my friend and former law partner Eric Meltzer who, at the time he came up with these, was working as Director of Strategy for a large regional law firm. Eric’s emotional components stem from what he sees as a fundamental human need, when facing a challenging situation, to seek

  1. Wisdom,
  2. Advice, and
  3. Consortium

That is to say, people wrestling with a problem tend to seek out help from others who not only know about the problem and can provide some individualized recommendation on how to solve it (another one of those things we all learn as 1Ls about the nature of lawyering), they want to find someone who will stand by their side through the process.

Keeping these practical and emotional needs in mind can provide some alternative answers to fill in the IDEO blanks. In fact, a law firm mission statement with some version of “We exist to help our clients mitigate risk and navigate complexity by providing wisdom, advice, and consortium … “ isn’t a bad start. You’ll want to find synonyms for some of the specific terms that match your style, of course, but the gist is there.

The last bit to figure out is the “for the benefit of” part of the mad-lib. Here too, I think it is helpful to think in broad categories, at least at first. Most law firms fall roughly into two buckets, often overlapping:

  • Firms that serve a particular population, and
  • Firms that solve a particular type of problem.

The classic population-centered firm is the small town general practitioner. While some may deride such lawyers as practicing “door law,” the truth is that having broad offerings is a core part of those lawyers’ mission because they are serving an entire community. Their “for the benefit of” clause will typically end with “the residents of Anytown, USA.”

Problem-centered firms are usually experts in their field. A copyright attorney’s practice won’t necessarily solve all the needs of the creatives they serve, but they’ll execute their piece of the puzzle extremely well. Same goes for privacy professionals, or tax attorneys, or any number of the ever-growing range of legal specialties.

The truth, of course, is that most practices are a combination of both. One copyright attorney may focus on the population of musicians, another on photographers. And those practices may be geographically limited as well, especially since proximity helps with the “consortium” part of a client’s needs.

Turning the IDEO framework around then, another way to draft your law firm mission statement is to fill in the blanks in the following:

We exist to help {Specific Population} to {Mitigate Certain Risks} and {Navigate Specific Complexity} by providing {Your Special Combination of Wisdom, Advice, & Consortium}.

Let’s try some possibilities on for size. A Tulsa-based family law practice might have mission statement something like this:

“It is our mission to help Oklahomans protect their rights and relationships through the complexities of the family court process. We provide expert counsel and personal support for people involved in divorce, separation, and custody disputes.”

Or take Agile Attorney Jess Birken’s real-life mission for her law firm that focuses on nonprofits:

“Our mission is to empower nonprofits to accomplish their mission by helping them do things right. We do this by helping you work with the right tools, the right connections, and with the right coaching.”

This one is a little further from the express structure I’ve proposed, but if you look closely you’ll see that all of the elements are there.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Now that we’ve gone over the what and why, it’s your turn to develop your purpose-driven mission statement. To recap:

  1. Start by reviewing the IDEO’s Purpose Wheel and article.
    Maybe even print it out and sit with it for a moment. Which of the items on the wheel resonate with you? Circle those. 
  2. Review the mission statement example (“We exist to ” or “It is our mission to ” ) and complete the sentence for your practice. If you’re having trouble, look at the examples above. Or, take a look at what past clients have said about the experience of working with you. Were they relieved? Were you trustworthy? Did they come to you because of clout? Try to capture whatever it was that made you stand out in their minds. 
  3. Marinade on it for a day or two and see how it feels and sounds to you, maybe bounce it off of some actual clients or people on your team. Change it until it really resonates for you and your tribe. It should be something you’d be proud to have on your wall and on your website, and you should be able to recite off the top of your head with almost no effort.

Once you’ve nailed your mission statement, look for my next post on how to tie it in to the Agile principles to boost the effectiveness of your practice.

If you’d like to go deeper on the why and how to capture your law practice’s purpose-driven purpose statement, then I’d like to help. I’m offering a live webinar, “Power your Practice with a Purpose-Driven Mission Statement” where we’ll explore this topic live on the call and I’ll answer questions you have. To learn more and reserve your spot, click here for the registration page or just fill out the form below.

Agile Attorney Learning

Upcoming Webinar

Power your Practice with a Purpose-Driven Mission Statement

Including Live Q&A with John Grant

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