Create “Core Values” For Your Law Firm – Here’s Why

Create “Core Values” For Your Law Firm – Here’s Why

Does a law firm really need a set of “core values?” Most people’s reaction to the idea of setting up core values is resistance.

“This is cheesy!”

“Doesn’t work for law firms, we are different.”

“Everybody in the firm already knows, what’s the point?”

“We’ve gotten this far without doing it, how does this actually help?”

Resistance to change is resistance to growth. Plainly put, if you aren’t always looking at how you can do things better then you are getting worse. Businesses are organic beings. You are either constantly learning, improving, and growing, or you are falling behind and dying. Each day you spend thinking you have it all figured out is a day of allowing those ahead of you to build on their leads and those behind you to chip away at yours.

One of the simplest things you can do, is create a framework to help you make your hiring, marketing, and business decisions. The quickest and easiest way to make this happen is to generate a list of core values for your business.

Every business should create a set of core values for themselves and their company. It doesn’t matter if you are a law firm or an ice cream shop. It doesn’t matter if you are a solo practitioner or a national name with over a hundred lawyers. If you want to make decisions effectively and quickly, you need to create a list of 5-7 core principles that you, your company, and your employees will live by.

Your list of core values will help you make hiring and firing decisions, marketing moves, and will assist with the overall strategy for your law firm. It will determine how you grow, what people think about you, and how you decide what to do in tough situations. It will also give you the luxury of knowing the office is in good hands whenever you are not present.

How can something so simple do so much for you? It’s all in the execution.

For any of us who have worked in the corporate world, we know large companies preach “core values.” If you worked on the lower rung of these corporations, like I did, the only true core value they followed was hypocrisy. They would claim “do right by the customer” and then ignore complaints, not answer phone calls, and not allow any leeway on cancellations. Nobody *really* believed in these core values, they were just “corporate speak” — things that upper management or middle management said but duly ignored if it ever affected the bottom line. The top brass at large corporations would trumpet core values at all the annual meetings, then you’d never hear from them again and see corporate decisions that were a complete contradiction. That’s why everybody rolls their eyes anytime the higher-ups talk core values.

These types of experiences are universal and have jaded us to the idea of core values. I implore you to understand and accept that this was poor execution of a simple concept and be open to learning and adopting a new approach.

These corporations failed in two areas — execution and commitment. The top brass didn’t actually live their core values, nor were they committed to them. They didn’t even check in on middle management to ensure that they were following them. Many times, it’s just a matter of sheer size. The companies most likely abided at one time, but they grew fast, the founder split, and then the new founders/owners didn’t care as much. After all…they weren’t their core values.

I hope you can set aside your preconceived notions and past experiences enough to continue. It is my belief that when correctly executed, the creation and implementation of core values can change the way you run your practice and give you and your staff clarity into your decision making.

 

How do I create my core values?

In the book Traction, Gino Wickmann lays out a great process for how to arrive at your core values. He says to make a list of 5-10 people who you admire; 5-10 people who, if you could clone and fill your organization with them, you would dominate your market.

Once you’ve created that list, and yes, write them down on a sheet of paper (I know exercises like this are “cheesy” but trust me, it’s worth it.), think about what characteristics you appreciate the most about these folks. Then, jot those characteristics down next to their names; use multiple sheets of paper if you must. Take the time to do this right. This could be an hour to two-hour exercise and that is okay. If you’re lucky, you’ll be running your business for 40 years, so dedicate a little bit of time to set up the framework of the type of firm you want.

As you go through this exercise, what you will see is certain characteristics are common amongst these 10 people. You will notice, that even though, the 10 people on that list are very different from each other, the core characteristics YOU admire all fall into certain buckets. You can take those characteristics and put them into about 5-7 categories. Maybe one is “integrity,” and another is “hard worker,” etc. When you really break it down, you should end up with 5-7 groups.

Congratulations! Those 5-7 categories are your core values. These are the traits you really, truly, care about and that you want your employees to embody. You want your clients and the world to know that you respect your staff and the people you serve.

You’ve just found your core values.

Great! Now what? And who cares?

 

First Benefit – Transparency

Creating the core values is just the beginning. You need to talk about these with your staff, let them know what is important to you and what you expect from them. You need to let your team members know that when you make decisions in the firm, the thought process is driven by these core values.

If you decide on a new policy, procedure, or organizational structure, it will be based around these core values. If you hire someone, promote someone, let go of someone – those decisions will also be based on these core values and whether they as a team can buy in to them and personify them.

Now, everybody is on the same page. Everyone knows what you care about and what type of firm you are trying to build. If you actually commit to these values, then everyone will know where they stand and what is important to you.

Important to note there is no “right” set of core values. It’s what makes sense for you and your business. Every firm is different, you cannot copy another firm’s core values or care about what another company is doing. Just searching online for a list and slapping them on your office wall does nothing for you. You might as well not even have them.

If you really want to change your firm in a positive way, invest the time it takes to get through the Gino Wickmann exercise. And do it right.

 

Second Benefit – Decision Making

Now that everyone knows what you care about, others can make decisions within the firm as well.

If the staff, whether attorneys or non-attorneys, need to make a decision in a case, and you’re not around, they can do so — as long as it’s based on the core values. If your team members need to make a judgment call, in court, or on the phone with a client, they can do it if they run the checklist of core values through their head before pulling the trigger. When you ask for the justification of their decision, they must be able to identify the core values that led them to make that call.

 

Caveat – You Must Live Them

Most importantly, you, the partner, need to live these core values. The minute you become a hypocrite and stray from these core values, you lose all credibility. If one of your core values is “integrity,” then you better act with integrity with your employees, your clients, and your referral sources. If you list “integrity” and then try to stiff a referral source on a fee or argue your way out of a bonus you promised an employee, then you are done. Your employees are going to ignore anything you say because they know you don’t actually believe in these values.

It’s ok to not have “integrity” as a core value, if you prefer “win at all costs” then go with that and let your team know that this is a “win at all costs” type of firm. Nobody is here to judge you or your core values. It’s not about what your friends and family think your core values should be, it’s about who you are and who you are trying to become.

If you’ve made mistakes in the past but now you want to be focused on integrity, then it is fine to have integrity as a core value, but you must live it from here on out. Be true to yourself because there is no point in having a core value you don’t believe in. Don’t include “work hard” if you are not going to log on and be available until 10 AM every morning. Your team will see right through you, and that’s the kind of transparency you do NOT want.

If they don’t buy in to the core values, then it’s just a big waste of time and you’re doing exactly what those other corporations did.

 

Third Benefit – Hiring and Firing Decisions

Everybody always says, “it’s hard to find good help,” yet some firms seem to always have good help. Why is that? Are they just lucky?

No.

It’s because they know what they are looking for in a candidate. They have a list of guidelines they follow. The entire interview and application process is based around those characteristics and trying to figure out if this person is the right fit.

I’ll keep using integrity as an example. If one of the core values is “act with integrity” – then don’t hire someone who lies on their resume. It doesn’t matter if they have 15 years of experience, they are not living your core values and they won’t be a good fit. It’s that simple.

Since you know the characteristics you care about and what is truly important to you, you already know what you want! Just create an interview and application process that seeks out the people who represent them the best. Any characteristic that is not on your list is not something you focus on; you only look for people who check every single box. Most people look for things like “experience” or “legal knowledge” and truthfully that stuff doesn’t really matter. You can teach them how to e-file, how to create a proof of service, etc. There are great classes out there to give them all the technical tools. All you care about now is whether or not your potential hire embodies your core values.

The traditional way of hiring someone is broken. It’s why most firms can’t find good help. Think about it this way – if you’ve been using the old methods for the past few years, the ones that are all over the internet and in books, and yet you still can’t find the right fit, then it’s time to try something new. If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you will continue to get what you’ve always gotten. If you are using Google to search good interview questions, bear in mind that all those sources probably have counterpart webpages that explain “how to answer good interview questions.” Quite frankly, they are useless.

The candidates are smart. They know the traditional questions and they know how to answer them effectively. You need to be creative and unique; come up with your own style. Personally, I just want to have a conversation with them. Bring up different scenarios and ask them how they would handle them. Based on those responses, I’ll know if they fit my core values or not. Find the style that works best for you.

A person who lives with honesty and integrity cannot blossom in a place that wants to win at all costs, and vice versa, an individual who wants to win at all costs will be stifled by a place that cares about doing things the “right” way. The puzzle piece must fit and the only way to figure that out is to make sure you hit on all the same characteristics.

The opposite end of this is true as well – if you need to let someone go, it’s because they did something outside of your core values. People make mistakes, but you can’t fire someone every time they make one because you’ll lose good people. It’s the decision-making process you need to worry about. If that person’s decision-making process is not based on the core values you’ve created and live by, then they need to work somewhere that is better aligned with their personality.

 

Conclusion

Take the time to determine what your core values are and what kind of firm you want to create. Write them down, showcase them to your team, and most importantly, live them every day.

As you can see, you’ve now created a framework for each and every individual at your firm to move the company forward and make the right decisions. People want to work for a company they believe in and identify with. If you can’t explain who you are and what you stand for, then you can’t attract the best talent. You might be able to entice them with money and material benefits, but you’ll never know if they’re truly happy and giving you their best work.

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