Go fetch a sense of purpose

January 7, 2011

I was taking a walk in one of London’s many beautiful squares; It was through Lincoln’s Inn at 730am a week or so ago. A thin mist was clinging to the grass, not a cloud in the sky and with the early morning sunshine lighting the scene, but not yet warming the air.

As I turned a corner in the square a small dog ran past me at full tilt in hot pursuit of a stick thrown by his master. The dog was mighty pleased with himself and trotted back past me in the opposite direction, bouncing on his paws, stick clenched between his teeth.

As I walked on I reflected a little on what I had just seen. Obviously I had seen a man throw a stick that his dog then ran after to collect….but what I had actually seen was something more important. You see it’s not about the stick and it’s not about the dog – it’s about being the dog that is asked to fetch the stick.

We all need a purpose to feel fulfilled; the absence of purpose leaves us feeling a little lost, a little vulnerable and potentially undone…a dog without a stick to chase.

And what you may ask is the purpose of this little meander? It is that lawyers need a purpose too; but not the purpose of just making money – as important as that is; or of behaving ethically (ditto). I think lawyers work best when they feel an empathy with their client, a commitment beyond the instruction and a sense of belonging with the client as part of the client’s team. In other words lawyers should be trying to create a purpose for their work that goes beyond the activity.

I do not think this is a surprising view, I do find it surprising however how few lawyers embrace this idea as wholeheartedly as they should.

Asserting purpose and commitment is not enough. If this is to happen than actions and changes to behaviour are needed too. In the next few sentences I share some ideas that I think can help lawyers deliver their service with purpose and in doing so to be more fulfilled.

Ten ideas:

  1. Understanding the client’s true interests to align the service not just to the issues, but to the client’s tolerance to risk, their sense of what is an acceptable outcome, the broader context (commercial, reputational etc) and in a proportionate and cost effective way.
  2. Always to see issues in the context of future risk management and/or competitive advantage. In other words, learning the lessons from all activity so that processes are improved, risks mitigated and opportunities exploited.
  3. Never missing an opportunity to inform, educate and train the client to show how their actions can avoid subsequent lawyer intervention or at least keep it to a minimum.
  4. Exploiting your networks to the commercial advantage of the client and leveraging know-how without having to be asked.
  5. Being articulate and passionate about the client’s products and services, using the vocabulary of the client, understanding their ambitions, plans and objectives. Never ever giving the impression that for the lawyer this is “just another gig”.
  6. Looking out for the people in the client teams so that you are aware of key moments for them too (promotions, new projects, recruitment drives, cost cutting initiatives etc). Not to do this in a quasi manipulative way, but just to take a normal human interest.
  7. Always being able to articulate value. Most lawyers can say what something costs (after the event at least), but are less adept and translating that number into either a comparator – “so we saved £xyz relative to abc”; or as making a real terms cost reduction or profit improvement. There is no need for lawyers to become accountants, but lawyers must be able to translate their activity into a business literate vocabulary.
  8. 8. Being proactive – not for its own sake, but with the purpose of seeking to be constructively influential with key people at important moments; in effect to be strategic in a proportionate and not self-serving way. Seek access to influence, but once there do not dwell. It is about seizing an opportune moment to make a difference, not a right to occupy.
  9. Challenge the client to be better too. Let us all be the best we can be and relish the opportunity for improvement in effectiveness and efficiency. Then be determined to deliver; you want to be a player so act like one; gentlemanly indifference or studied patience will not endear you to a client that might need you to take the initiative sometimes.
  10. Celebrate with the client when things go well and commiserate with the client when they don’t . To share the joy of success and the burden of failure is to be part of the team, not a spectator of it.

Going back to where I began and my walk in Lincoln’s Inn, the dog who was asked to fetch the stick had a genuine purpose. The ten ideas outlined here are designed to create a similar sense of belonging and to recognise the power derived from a strong relationship.

In the end it will not be the technical quality of your work that will enable you to create a sense of purpose. It will be whether you have done enough beyond the legal work for the client to want to invest in building the relationship with you.

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