HBR on Your Firm’s Purpose

When I ask law firm leaders about their mission, they often try to shake me off with something like “Oh, we already wrote up a mission statement as part of our marketing work.” News flash: If you think your mission is something that is only supposed to attract customers then (1) it probably isn’t working and (2) you’re missing the point.

A recent Harvard Business Review Article sums it up nicely:

As much as you may try to motivate employees with slogans or extrinsic rewards, you won’t achieve excellence if your people don’t know why they are coming to work every day at your firm. The clearer you can be about what value your company creates and for whom, the greater your ability to inspire your workers. And the more you align the right talent, operating model, and financial resources to support your purpose, the better able employees will be to deliver on it.

Why Are We Here?, Sally Blount & Paul Leinwand, Harvard Business Review

Yet how many law firms’ mission statements (if they have one at all), is some version of the generic “We are really old/important, we do law, and we exist be our client’s professional & innovative quality/value partner.”

Seriously, look at a couple. These are actual law firm mission statements with identifying characteristics removed. Annotations in Brackets:

Founded in 1968 [we are really old/important] by four attorneys, <Lawyer, Lawyer, & Lawyer> is based in <city, state>. They [they!] cater to big and small businesses, as well as to individuals [we’ll work for pretty much everyone who wants to pay us]. Their areas of law practice include Acquisitions and Divestitures, Aviation, Corporate, Criminal Law, E-Commerce, Electronic Banking/Card Processing, Employee Benefits, Employment and Labor, Environmental Law, and many more [we do law].

Mission Statement
The firm’s mission is to provide a high quality, creative, and result–oriented legal team to individuals and businesses, and serve as a primary resource and partner in all aspects of clients’ business growth and development [professional & innovative quality/value partnership].

Or how about this one:

<Lawyer, Lawyer, & Lawyer> is a legal firm that offers its services to clients from individuals to businesses [we’ll work for pretty much everyone who wants to pay us]. Being one of the most prestigious law firms [we are really old/important] in <geography>, we handle legal issues in terms of Personal Injuries and Wrongful Death, Estate Planning and Successions, Real Estate Transactions and Litigation, and many more [we do law].

Mission Statement
The mission of <Lawyer, Lawyer, & Lawyer> is to aggressively represent our clients through quality counsel and advocacy, and to reach these goals through uncompromising dedication and ethical standards, while maintaining a stable and profitable business enterprise with the highest reputation [professional & innovative quality/value partnership].

As the HBR article laments, such statements “miss the heart” of what drives a successful law firm. By focusing on “high-minded but vague aspirations,” they “fail to answer the questions What is your reason for existing? What value are you giving your customers? and Why is your firm uniquely capable of providing it?

A truly powerful purpose statement is one that achieves two objectives: clearly articulating strategic goals and motivating your workforce. These objectives are important individually and synergistically. When your employees understand and embrace your organization’s purpose, they’re inspired to do work that not only is good—and sometimes great—but also delivers on your stated aims.

Why Are We Here?, Sally Blount & Paul Leinwand, Harvard Business Review

I wrote pretty extensively about law firm mission statements in this post, so I won’t rehash it here. My point, and that of the HBR Article, is that your Mission (or statement of Purpose) is the key to so much of what drives your organization and holds it together. A good one can give you a strong competitive advantage in the markets for customers and talent, and will be the thing that drives your goals and strategic direction.

John E. Grant

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