Creating a values-based law firm

  • December 05, 2018
  • Gabrielle Battiste

Values are the building blocks of society and should form the foundation for every action of every individual and organization. Do you know your values as a firm? Have you defined them so that all staff knows what they mean to the firm and how to represent the firm using those values? Are your policies and practices reflective of those values?

Normally, when you review a firm’s website, you see terms such as “legal excellence,” “client service,” or “community leaders.” These are important goals, but they are not values. For example, achieving legal excellence by requiring lawyers and staff to work 90 hours a week with no vacation or down time, leading to family issues, early burnout and low morale, speaks poorly of a firm’s values.

Values that firms need to understand, incorporate and promote are concepts such as ethics, respect, collaboration, diversity, tenacity, dedication, inclusion – the list goes on. The firm needs to be clear on what these values mean in practical terms. The values should be promoted on the website and show clear links to the goals you’ve set for your firm, as well as to the needs of your clients. Stating your values up-front will help bring in the kind of client you want to serve – clients who see a firm with the same values they hold will be naturally attracted to that firm as a reflection of themselves and their companies. Clients may even be mandated nowadays to choose firms that reflect certain values such as diversity and inclusion.

So what does it mean to know what a value means in practical terms? Let’s look at the value of respect, and how it can be linked to the goal of client service.

Respect can be defined in a number of ways – how you treat one another within the firm (and that has many different aspects); how you treat your clients and stakeholders; how you treat your governing body; how you treat yourself and how you treat the firm as an organization. You need to determine, as a firm, what each of those four distinct paths of respect actually means.

For instance, respect for one another means actively listening to your colleagues’ ideas with an open and non-judgmental mind; treating one another in the manner that you want to be treated; ensuring each person feels valued for the role they play in the organization; providing timely and constructive feedback to others; engaging with others in a way that encourages collegial interaction; not objectifying any person for any reason (whether cultural, sexual, biological, physical, etc).

Respect for the firm means actively promoting a respectful work culture for all people in the firm; being a role model for values both within the firm and externally; ensuring the reputation of the firm is protected through bias-free interaction within and without; being an active participant in providing the firm with feedback; taking advantage of opportunities for involvement.

Respect for your client means actively listening to their concerns and carefully considering their feedback; providing your services to the best of your ability; carefully determining what the client needs and wants and then engaging the client in a discussion to determine the best way to achieve those ends; being open and honest; maintaining regular contact and returning calls on time; clearly documenting your work in case you are away and someone needs to step in for you; checking in with your client from time to time to ensure you still agree on the best path forward; remaining flexible to change at the direction of your client when possible.

Respect for your governing body means participating in related activities; actively providing feedback, answering surveys, providing timely responses to requests; being open to innovation in regulation and better ways of doing business; working to maintain good relationships; understanding that your regulatory authority is working for the betterment of the legal practice as a whole; promoting constructive discussion within the firm about proposed changes and then working to positively adopt requirements; seeking out more information and context for changes to enable understanding; working with the governing body to find solutions.

Once you’ve defined your values and what they mean to your firm, it’s important to then review your policies and practices in light of those values to determine whether they line up, or whether they’ll need to be changed in order to capture what you really mean in order to ensure that each individual, client, stakeholder and the firm itself is captured by them.

The words describing values may be simple, but defining what they mean in the context of the firm and its practices is not. Words have very deep meanings to each person and can be very powerful when used with collective purpose and agreement on meaning. Developing a values statement yourself can be tricky, so reach out to a third party who can provide objectivity and perspective if need be.

Taking the time to become a values-based law firm and a values-based lawyer is worth the introspection and the shared communications, even the constructive conflict. Not everyone may agree on the ultimate definitions and actions, but clarity is the first step. People are not free to choose and support the firm’s value-based path until they have clarity of meaning.

Gabrielle Battiste, BA, JD, has her own law firm, Battiste Law, and is a member-at-large of the Women Lawyers Forum