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Struggling to craft a meaningful purpose statement? You’re not alone

Struggling to craft a meaningful purpose statement? You’re not alone

Leadership guru Simon Sinek argues that a clearly defined firm purpose, or a ‘why’ statement, gives everyone a compelling reason to come to work each day.

An authentic and inspiring purpose makes people care more and feel that their work is worthy and important. It also provides new recruits with a sense of their future employer’s moral compass and motives.

Law firm leaders such as Tessa van Duyn, CEO at Moores Legal, are strong advocates of purpose-driven leadership. Van Duyn states that Moores’ ‘Here for good’ purpose imbues every aspect of how the firm operates, including who they hire, how they interact with clients and even how they price.

In 2018, global law and consulting firm Pinsent Masons set about a process of answering three questions: [1] Why do we exist? [2] What value do we provide to the world? and [3] What does long-term success look like, for our clients, our people and for the communities we are part of? These questions were addressed by settling on a new purpose statement that reads” “Champion change, promote progress and enable everyone, to make business work better for people.”

Last year, Ashurst announced a new purpose statement to much fanfare. They stated that “after over 30 global meetings, and with more than half of our 3500 people involved, our purpose became clear: ‘Together, we create the extraordinary.’” Their website is filled with motivating stories of what ‘creating the extraordinary’ means to their partners and business and support staff.

Tony Macvean, Managing Partner of Australian law firm Hall & Wilcox, states that their firm’s purpose has a strong influence on the firm’s strategy and culture. Hall & Wilcox’s statement reads: “Our purpose is to enable our clients, our people and our communities to thrive.”

While defining purpose clearly has benefits, there are a few practical hurdles that you might need to overcome in crafting a meaningful purpose statement for your firm.

Challenge #1 – something distinctive

The first issue is that law firms have a narrow set of reasons for being. When push comes to shove, almost most firms exist to deliver fun, fame, fortune and fulfilment to internal stakeholders and to create enduring value for external stakeholders.

One can try to find more interesting words around those core reasons for being, but the reasons don’t differ that much. With these constraints, it’s hard to craft a statement that feels distinctive and compelling.

Trying to write an awe-inspiring ‘save the planet’ type purpose statement can come across as inauthentic, or just marketing spin. To illustrate the risks, Ashurst’s new aspirational statement of purpose received a mixed response from those outside the firm. The Australian Financial Review’s Aaron Patrick, stated: “Ashurst should accept its purpose is not extraordinary… The law firm’s CEO has produced a nonsense mission statement that ignores the main purpose of business.”

Challenge #2 – money matters

The second issue is whether to put money or profitability first, last or leave it off the list altogether.

Sinek argues that profit is an outcome or a result of a more profound expression of a firm’s raison d’être. Purpose statements should therefore be silent on profit and address more fundamental motives around things like prosperity, value, joy, justice and impact.

Some law firm partners agree with Sinek, but for different reasons. They feel that having profit growth as an explicit core objective sends a bad signal to clients and draws unwanted attention to the differential in earnings between equity partners and the rest.

But money really does matter!

Law firms have a producer-manager-owner business model. Every firm competes in the market for very scarce, talented and expensive lawyers. A successful practice team or partner with a loyal following of deep-pocketed clients will not stick around in a firm that consistently underpays them, or if the offers elsewhere are too good to refuse.

A firm that dials down the importance of being as profitable as its peers (or at least in the same ballpark) runs a big risk of becoming less competitive over time.

Challenge #3 – diverse motives

The third issue with purpose statements is that one is forced to condense a set of complex motives among a wide array of different people into one simple statement. Sometimes these differences of opinion are better left unsaid.

I am familiar with one firm that had two broad camps across the partnership – one that was focused on creating a great place to work, and the other on maximising profits. Over time, these differences were largely implicit and reconciled through the skilled leadership of the managing partner.

A new managing partner sought to create a unifying purpose statement as part of a strategic planning exercise. The process became extremely divisive and entrenched the differences between the two camps. The result was several partner departures and a weaker rather than a stronger firm.

Most law firms are not homogenous entities, and many are in fact actively championing diversity. Creating true alignment between the firm’s purpose and the motives of a diverse group of partners and staff is near impossible. Trying to force through this alignment may result in a massive brawl and/or a purpose statement that that sounds nice but lacks buy-in.

Two options

Given the challenges noted above, my advice to law firm leaders is to take one of two approaches:

Pragmatic – this option is about aiming a bit lower and crafting a simple, uncontroversial statement of purpose that is not necessarily truly distinctive. A vanilla purpose statement in the hands of a committed leader can still be a very powerful rallying call and useful point of reference for the things that matter most.
Principles – a second approach is to relax the rule of one. Rather than seeking to condense everything into a short pithy statement, it is quite liberating to define a list of the core principles that underpin why the firm exists, but also how the firm seeks to create value for internal and external stakeholders. One leading specialist class actions law firm decided not to have a single-purpose statement and a list of values, but rather to combine these two constructs into eight core principles. Each of the eight principles started with the words, “Here to…”. The firm’s managing partner stated that the longer list was a more realistic and comprehensive (therefore useful) reflection the firm’s reasons for being.

In conclusion

The process of discussing and agreeing on the firm’s purpose often has a side benefit of bringing everyone in the firm closer together. The shared experience is often empowering and creates greater alignment between firm and individual aspirations. The purpose process gives effect to the old expression, ‘getting everyone on the same page’. Well, this is the page.

While there are challenges, there is ample evidence of the benefits and power of purpose-led leadership. It’s time you get started on this journey or reinvigorate what you already have.

Go for it!

Joel Barolsky

is managing director of Barolsky Advisors, Senior Fellow of the University of Melbourne and creator of the Price High or Low smartphone app designed to help with pricing projects. He is a specialist adviser to managing partners, boards, executive teams and practice group leaders on issues of strategy, strategy implementation, culture, governance, organisation design, remuneration and capability development.