When a young partner comes to me wanting to change law firms, among other things, I ask:

  • What is the most important thing you want to accomplish in your career?
  • Why is accomplishing it important to you?

Years ago, a lawyer I was coaching was struggling with developing specific actions in his plan. He asked me to help him.

I told him he was going at it backwards. You and he will have a difficult time figuring out how if you haven’t figured out what and why.

I know I am not the first person to use these words, but I have always found them incredibly powerful and inspirational. If you can figure out the WHAT, and you know the WHY you will creatively figure out the HOW.
Have you figured out WHAT you want to become both as a lawyer and in your personal life? Do you know WHY it is important to you? If so, let your creative mind come up with HOW to achieve it.
Want more thoughts on this subject? Check out the Fast Company post: 5 Career Questions To Ask Yourself Instead Of, “What’s My Passion?”

My old law firm held a retreat one year. The theme was “one-firm.” We even had tee shirts with the slogan on the back and firm name on the front. There was only one slight problem-The tee shirts told a lie. Our firm was a bunch of very talented lawyers operating independently from one another.

I was always fond of saying just suppose as a way of prompting thought of what we could become as attorneys, individuals and in terms of firm development. Here is the just suppose I thought we could become in my old law firm that would make it more like the slogan on the tee shirts.

Just suppose, your law firm’s purpose was: 

To enable our clients to achieve their business objectives and to provide maximum opportunities for our lawyers and staff to achieve their career dreams and goals.

Just suppose your standards (core values) included:

  • Our firm put clients and the firm ahead of our own personal interests.
  • Each lawyer is expected to invest a minimum of 2500 hours in billable and non-billable (investment) activities unless he or she is a part of the firm’s flex-time policy.
  • We will recruit lawyers and staff who have a burning desire to be the best they can be and we will invest in, energize and inspire them and provide them with the tools to be successful.
  • We will seek clients who have interesting work, significant needs for outside legal services and who can afford to pay for the services of our firm.
  • We will provide extraordinary service to our clients, working together as a team and supporting each other whenever possible.
  • We will seek to be the most innovative law firm to more effectively serve our clients.
  • Finally, if we are able to accomplish the above, in doing so we will build economic stability and profitability.

Just suppose your firm made decisions and judged conduct and performance on the basis of the purpose and standards/core values. In other words, just suppose these were not just hollow words and your lawyers and staff walked the walk each and every day and when it came time to make decisions on compensation, bonuses, and promotion.

I believe the key to success in any organization is to have a clearly stated purpose and set of core values and expectations that then become the basis for decisions and actions.

I read some time ago:

When clarity exists, everyone knows the guiding principles and the core competencies that most directly contribute to organizational and individual vitality and success.

You could build a strong firm around the concepts, have a heck of a lot of fun working together and build a sense of community that I feel is lacking in many firms now.

A lawyer I coached recently reached out to me and asked that I help her make a change. One of the first questions I asked her took her by surprise. My question:

Why are you practicing law?

Have you ever heard of Simon Sinek? He created a simple model of the Golden Circles and the idea to: Start with Why. If you get a chance watch the Ted video on his page.

He actually mentions lawyers and law firms in his presentation and shares that successful enterprises, like Apple start with why. He says:

Most computer companies start by telling you they make great products. Apple does the opposite. It starts by telling you why it makes computers.

Substitute law firms for computer companies and provide outstanding legal services to make great products and you have what most law firms are selling.  His idea is consistent with what I have taught for lawyers, except he adds one more point, which I paraphrase:

Clients don’t buy what you do. Clients buy why you do it.

When I practiced construction law, there came a time I changed my focus from what I was doing to how what I was doing benefitted my contractor clients. My purpose practicing law was to enable my clients to build magnificent projects safely and profitably.

Later, when I worked with associates in my firm, I suggested they answer these questions:

  • Why did you decide you wanted to become a lawyer?
  • Why do you want to be a lawyer now?
  • Who is the lawyer you admire most and why do you admire that lawyer?
  • How would you define your own career success and when will you know you have achieved it?
  • What values are most important to you?
  • What do you want to be working on and for whom five years from now?

In a presentation I gave to the Texas Young Lawyers Association (TYLA) members, I talked about finding your purpose. Take a look at this video clip.

If you know what your purpose is being a lawyer, you will be a greater value to your clients. Like Apple, you will also do a better job marketing yourself.

Each year law is near the top of most unhappy jobs in America. Last year there was an Atlantic Article: The Only Job With an Industry Devoted to Helping People Quit.

Isn’t that sad? So many lawyers want to quit that there is a calling for coaches to show them how.

I recently read another Atlantic Monthly article:  There’s More to Life Than Being Happy. Is it really important to be happy? I don’t think so. Here are two quotes:

Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania.

There are several references in the article to Viktor Frankel.

Viktor Frankel died the same day as Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. He was a holocaust survivor who wrote a short book titled: Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. It is one of my favorite books. The essence is the importance of not measuring success by external measures, but rather focusing on internal measures.

I particularly like this Viktor Frankel quote:

Again and again I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

Many people (including my wife Nancy) have asked me why I gave up my law practice after having my best year. I did because while I felt great joy helping my construction clients, I felt even more joy helping young lawyers.

What’s the point? Put simply, don’t aim at getting your hours or increasing your book of business.

Instead focus on helping your clients achieve their goals. When you focus on your clients rather than yourself, you are actually more likely to achieve the success you desire.

Want even more meaning in your career? Help someone who will never be able to pay you. When was the last time you did pro-bono work?

 

I know many lawyers who want to become successful at client development. I know far fewer who actually do what it takes to become successful. How can you increase your chances of doing client development activities?

  1. Clarify what you want in your career
  2. Have a good answer to why what you want is important to you
  3. Identify the specific actions you want to want to take
  4. Break those actions into smaller components
  5. Share your plan with a friend or colleague
  6. Develop a plan for each week. Estimate the time you will spend and put it on your calendar.

There are still several months left in 2012. Are you making this your best year ever as a lawyer? You get to define what “best” means for you. As I will share with you below, my definition changed over my career.

I was perusing blog posts the other day and found Scott Ginsberg’s How to Matter. Scott  begins by saying: “The human need to feel needed by (and valuable to) the world is about as deep as they come” and then lists 9 specific ideas. If you get a chance to read it, I think you will see how the ideas apply to you, not only as a lawyer helping clients, but also as a mentor for younger lawyers in your firm.

I went through three stages developing my sense of purpose. Early in my career I did not give much thought to why I was practicing law. I just got out of bed every day and did it. I enjoyed what I was doing, but there was nothing special about it.

I then went through a stage where it was all about me. I focused on generating a lot of business and building my reputation. I wanted to be the best in my narrow niche. This was a good strategy for learning and developing business, but there was something missing.

When I stopped focusing on myself and instead concentrated on how to help my construction clients become successful, I actually became infinitely more successful. I know it is because my mission changed from me to helping my clients.

I was recently interviewed for a legal publication. The writer asked me why I gave up a successful law practice at the peak of my career. Scott Ginsberg’s blog includes a quote from Seth Godin that pretty much answers the question. He said:

Life is like skiing: The goal is not to get to the bottom of the hill, the goal is to have a lot of great runs before sunset.

What stage are you in? For whom are you making a difference that really matters?

 

I believe to be successful, you must be willing to look inward and figure out what is important to you. So, at the risk of being too touchy-feely, I want to share some thoughts on that.

Six years ago, March 3, 2006 (it seems like yesterday) I spoke to the Texas Young Lawyers Association (TYLA) as part of a program titled: Crossroads: Mapping Out the Rest of Your Career. My presentation was titled: Strategy for Your Career and Life. I also wrote an article Strategy for Career and Life that was published in the Texas State Bar magazine.

You can actually watch the presentation in several video clips I have posted to YouTube.

Your vision is what you want to accomplish in your career and life. Your purpose is why you want to accomplish it. Your core values are how you want to live. Mapping out the rest of your career requires you to know:

  • Where you are now
  • Where you want to go
  • What route (based on your values) will be the best one to get you there

What does discovering your values have to do with becoming a successful lawyer? Simply stated, you can be outwardly successful without focusing on your values, but you cannot be inwardly fulfilled. The key is to dig deep and discover what matters most to you. Doing so will enable you to make the commitment and maintain the discipline you need to achieve your life and career purposes.

How can you discover your values? Think about what you want others to say about you, including your family, best clients, colleagues, support staff, and adversaries. How do you want to be remembered? What qualities do you admire in others that you want to cultivate in yourself? What brings meaning to your life? If someone were to take something or someone away from you, what would you grieve for the most? Think about the times when you’re in the zone. What do you do for its own sake? Your answers will help you to determine what you value most in your life.

Sir Laurens van der Post, a naturalist and author, may have said it best:

There is nothing wrong in searching for happiness, but we use the term as if it were the ultimate in human striving. What gives far more comfort to the soul … is something greater than happiness or unhappiness and that is meaning. Meaning transfigures all.

P.S. You likely noticed there was a stage with a podium in the background. I was one of several speakers that day. Each of the other speakers stood behind the podium and put PowerPoint slides on a screen. I stood on the floor and presented with no slides or notes. That was actually a scary experience. In order to feel more secure, I gave my outline to a couple of participants and told them that if I missed something on it to raise their hand and ask a question.

 

 

Recently I wrote: For Lawyers: Questions to Help You Figure Out Your Purpose. As I was writing I was thinking about Nashville construction lawyer Matthew DeVries. I got to know Matt first on Twitter. Last September Matt traveled to Dallas to give a presentation and joined me for dinner. He had read my book Prepare to Win on the flight to Dallas. So, we spent some time at dinner talking about the journey each of us had taken to find our purpose.
devries_family.jpgMatt has a construction law blog, but he also has a blog on family life. Shortly after our dinner, Matt sent me a post he did How to Draft a Family Plan and Prepare for Rain! Matt quotes from my book on how I found my passion and purpose as a lawyer.
I was checking out blog posts the other day and found Scott Ginsberg’s How to Matter. Scott begins by saying: “The human need to feel needed by (and valuable to) the world is about as deep as they come” and then lists 9 specific ideas. If you get a chance to read it, I think you will see how the ideas apply to you, not only as a lawyer helping clients, but also as a mentor helping younger lawyers in your firm.
I went through three stages developing my sense of purpose. Early in my career I did not give much thought to why I was practicing law. I just got out of bed every day and did it. I enjoyed what I was doing, but there was nothing special about it.
I then went through a stage where it was all about me. By that point I had discovered that lawyers with business were respected. So, I focused on generating a lot of business and building my reputation. I wanted to be the best in my narrow niche. This was a good strategy for learning and developing business, but there was still something missing.
When I stopped focusing on myself and instead concentrated on how to help my construction clients become successful, I actually became infinitely more successful and had a heck of a lot more fun. I know it is because my mission changed from me to helping my clients.
What’s the bottom line? When we feel we are contributing to someone else’s success, we become more fulfilled and more successful ourselves.
Why are you practicing law and why does it matter?