London bikes

As regular readers of my blog will know, there are a variety of issues which, not to put too fine a point on it, really grind my gears. I have enough hobby horses to stock a small cavalry regiment.

The subject of Values – or rather, I should say, corporate values, those statements of something-or-other that law firms feel they should have on their website – is in the vanguard of that little regiment of little horses.

My colleague Jamie White – creative director of Blackbridge Communications, and, for my money, the market-expert on law firm branding – and I once put various sets of these values in front of HR and marketing directors at a seminar, inviting the participants to guess which Magic Circle law firms they pertained to. We were unsurprised when nobody could guess. We were slightly surprised that some of those people failed to pin the values to their own firms.

This does not, in my view, impugn the professionalism of those individuals. But it does demonstrate that the ‘values’ in question were so generic that they were, indeed, and ironically, valueless.

ValuesI would love to see a firm have the cojones to put a statement on its website, in the Values section, along the lines of: “we were going to pay a consultant £40,000 to help us work out our values, but we decided to save the money and just say that we’re really, really good lawyers who care about your business”.

Actually, that would be just as pointless, not least because that statement still exposes what I think is a fundamental gap in values-based thinking: the difference between truth and aspiration.

The cleverest value-statements recognise this. They talk about striving for excellence, rather than being it, encouraginginnovation rather than demonstrating it, pursuing commercial solutions rather than always delivering them.

This is clever because it recognises that the law firm is a living, breathing thing that develops organically, and is rarely, if ever, 100% anything at anything. However, it also underlines that the values-statements are just that, statements. They correspond to the service a client will get from the law firm only insofar as every member of the firm – partner, associate, manager, assistant, secretary etc – believes it and lives it in every interaction.

The reality is that this is far from the case.

For instance, one major firm – I won’t say which one for reasons which will become obvious – has ‘innovation’ as one of its values, as many do. I recall talking to a client at a major investment bank whose experience of the firm was quite the opposite. He related having to repeatedly give the firm’s tax team documents provided by his accountants in order to prod them into developing the kind of innovative thinking they claim is embedded in their DNA. This is not an isolated example. It does not mean the firm is not innovative – it might or might not be – but this client scoffed openly at the idea as a result of his direct experience.

Managing this kind of reaction over dozens of practice areas and hundreds of partners is clearly impossible, but this is a firm which, while it has a reputation for excellence, never really struck me as being that innovative. Its website, for instance, is not particularly innovative, it does not seem to offer any particularly innovative services or interesting resources. If it wasn’t for the firm telling me it is innovative, I wouldn’t leave with that impression. Certainly, numerous conversations with its clients over the years have not convinced me of the validity of the claim. I can only surmise that the firm either thinks it is innovative – in which case I would ask against what benchmark, and how is this tested and retested – or, more likely, it wants to be regarded as innovative.

I would say that the firm’s feedback-response system was lacking in this case. The first time a client prods you when you have fallen down on one of your values is the time for self-examination, discussion, must-do-better. You don’t let it happen time after time.

In the maelstrom of corporate values, most of the useful signifiers – quality, excellence, commercial – have been so devalued by contrary experiences that I would doubt any client or prospective client of any law firm believes any of it. At £300, or £400 or £800 an hour – substantially above what pretty much any other tradesman charges for their time – most clients would expect quality and excellence, or striving for either, as a given. Commercial? What does that mean? As opposed to ‘uncommercial’, I guess, which is, bizarrely, the term most often applied to lawyers in my hundreds upon hundreds of conversations with clients over the years.

So, if that is the problem, what is the solution?

Well, before I say anything else, I’m quite happy to take £40,000 of your money to give you my in-depth thoughts on values! But on the basis you might want something a little more digestible, here goes…

First off, work out what it is you are FOR. What is the purpose of your organisation?

Most law firms I know do not have a ready answer for this. In fact, at a dinner with one client recently, I asked a group of partners what their purpose was. “To make money,” said one. “Profit,” said another, nodding. They all felt likewise. Similarly, in conversation with a law firm managing partner at a Top 30 firm last year, I asked what his strategy was. “To make more money,” he said. That would be an aim, not a strategy, by the way.

I contrast this with business outside the bubble that is law.

IHG, the hotels group, used to make most of its money through buying and selling hotels. Then, it took a long, hard look at itself and asked itself whether it really wanted to be a property company. No, it decided, it wanted to ‘Create Great Hotels Guests Love’. For IHG, profit became about delighting the customer, rather than making a turn on buying and selling bits of real estate. And so it sold virtually all of its nearly 5,000 hotels and now manages or franchises them, with a view to creating absolutely the best customer experience.

Or take Apple. Or Google. Or Pixar. Or Ferrari.

All of these companies simply ooze purpose. Yes, they want to achieve great shareholder returns but they inspire in their customers a loyalty, a faith, in fact, which goes beyond lining their pockets.

Ah yes, you might say, but these are not professional services organisations. It’s easy with products, more difficult with services.

To which I say, take professional services giant EY, one of the ‘Big Four’. Its purpose is defined as ‘Building a Better Working World’, rather than ‘Making As Much Money As Possible’.

You may say, “what on earth does that mean?”, but frankly any fool can see that it can mean any number of things. What is very clever about it, for me, is that it inspires thinking about what it might mean, ideas about how its people might put this into practice. It gives EY a banner to march under, a direction, a vision, a purpose.

I don’t think many law firms have this. I think they have become sunk in a never-ending game of relativistic PEP-comparison – “mine’s bigger than yours” – and in the process reduced a short-term business to a mayfly one. Talking to a managing partner friend of mine the other day, he opined that it is “impossible” in the law to invest for the medium-term, never mind the longer-term. “Oh, you can have the best intentions, to put aside a few million to invest in this or that, but when it comes to the crunch, if PEP looks as if it’s going to be a little bit off, you come under the most enormous pressure to manage to that year’s draw”. It is not the first time I have heard this, nor will it be the last, and it illuminates perfectly the strategy of the Top 30 managing partner I mentioned earlier – to make more money.

I guess there is nothing wrong with ‘Making More Money’ as a value. It is concrete, measurable, can be very specific. And it’s brutally honest.

But as Henry Ford said, “a business that makes nothing but money is a poor business”.

The poverty Ford spoke of is a poverty of the soul. It is something that many companies have already made the shift away from, whether they make soap powder or sell consulting services and they see business-sustainability in that shift; because the younger generation simply do not want to work for companies which do nothing but make money.

The law, as with many things, seems late to grasp this idea. But the more conversations I have with 40-something and 50-something lawyers who seem to want something more out of life, the more convinced I am that if law firms did more work on Purpose, and less on Values, the more of a future they would have.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Marked fields are required.