Why do you exist?

Few lawyers have a ready answer to my favourite question, but they should.

I have a favourite question at the moment that I like to ask lawyers. I mean it to apply to their firms, but it can equally apply to them personally. You can ask yourself it in a minute, see how you get on.

I love it because the reactions to it range from bafflement to the look one would give a lunatic to that of a fish gasping for breath. Often, my respondents launch immediately into a spirited answer, only to stop after about 30 seconds and start to retrench as their words sink in and they question themselves.

It is a simple question but fiendishly difficult to answer, and it has been at the forefront of management thinking for a few years now in the corporate world.

Management consultants tend to frame the question in a mannered way that suits the product-answer they are about to deliver, but it strikes to the heart not only of what lawyers do but also what they are and so, for me, is much more

Think for a second

OK, I’ve kept you in suspense for long enough. The question is this: why do you exist?

Now, you’re allowed to stop and think for a second. There may only be three letters in that word, but it is as deep as the Mariana Trench.

Yes, I mean, why? What is the purpose of your existence? What are you for? If you want to be more prosaic about it: why, in a market full of similar-looking versions of you, should I choose you? Because you’re the best, I hope, but the best what?

There are many ways of answering the ‘why’ question, so let’s just deal with one of the more instinctive responses.

One of my clients answered: “To make money.” I probed deeper.

“We exist to create a profit – more profit every year.”

“Was that really it?” I asked.

No response.

At an elemental level, of course, “to make profit” is a perfectly good answer. It underpins business but is it really all you care about? Is profit-generation the reason you exist?

To look at the legal press over the past 20 years is to understand that the only real yardstick for judgement, when the chips are down, is profit. We have, gradually, moved the needle over time from the blunt instrument of profit per equity partner (PEP) to encompass other measures of just how much money is being squeezed out of the production resource; revenue per lawyer, profit per lawyer, profit across all partners; but essentially it’s all about that equation. How much more can you get out of your clients than you have to pay out the other end?

But peel back the veneer and the profession is, in many quarters, quite troubled. Associates are no longer as enamoured with the idea of partnership, partners in their 40s and 50s are often miserable and burned-out, while those ‘post-career’ are often baffled as to what their decades of sacrifice amounted to, or are simply relieved to be out of a profession that somehow turned into an industry on their watch and lost its soul in the process.

Reading interviews with managing partners and future leaders reveals, I fear, precious little to inspire us about the future of legal services. There are lots of bland expositions of how this or that measure has been tweaked, profits are up, equity reshaped, costs controlled and how the future will be more of the same only better, faster and more efficient. Clients, insofar as they come into the picture, receive blandishments to the effect that their providers will listen better and focus on quality, speed of response, innovation blah blah blah…

Identity shift

Few managing partners seem able to articulate a distinctive vision. Few law firms seem, to my sceptical eye, to burn with purpose. And yet, out there in the real world, purpose beyond profit is what it’s all about strattera capsule 40 mg. According to one source in a big four accountancy firm, a review they did of the world’s top 50
companies revealed that 47 of the 50 were either engaged on, had just completed or were about to commence an investigation into ‘purpose-driven identity shift’.

That, to you and me, translates as ‘working out why we exist and living it’.

There is mounting evidence that companies that get this right outperform their competitors significantly (up to 15 times, one piece of research found).

These are sometimes known as Vanguard Companies (a term coined by Rosabeth Moss Kanter) – companies that are going beyond profit to “use their unique strengths to provide innovative solutions to societal challenges”, in Kanter’s words.

In other words, my favourite question is not an idle question. It is far from an idle question. It is the question not just of the moment, but of the future. It is a question to which few law firms have a ready answer.

But you’d better get thinking, because the future winners will be the ones that figure it out.