Do law firms have a purpose?

01 August 2022 By Paul McKeon

While it may be easy to poke holes in an organisation’s efforts to articulate its purpose, it is also short-sighted and a little commercially naïve, writes Paul McKeon.

Last week, a large Australian law firm was pilloried in the Financial Review for allegedly forgetting its purpose, while another stepped away from representing a long-term client, reportedly influenced by a rethink of its own raison d’être.

Both are examples of what can happen when a 21st-century desire to build a sense of purpose in the workplace comes into conflict with how an organisation earns its income — an issue to which law firms are arguably more exposed than most.

If you’re familiar with the work of author and speaker Simon Sinek, you’ll know his 2009 book, Start With Why, or, more likely, his 2010 TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, which has attracted more than 50 million views on YouTube.

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Sinek’s simple mantra is, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”. He cites Apple as an example of this principle in practice, arguing that people buy its products not just on their merits but also by why they are made; its famous “Think Different” advertising slogan.

Although he doesn’t use the word, he’s talking about purpose.

Over the last decade, the term “purpose” has made its way from marketing and advertising circles to the mahogany halls of management. Harvard Business Review seemingly publishes an article a week about the role of purpose in building successful organisations.

Sinek didn’t invent the concept, of course. Mission statements have been around for years; Peter Drucker was writing about them in the 1970s. Daniel Pink’s Drive, published in the same year as Sinek’s book, says purpose is one of the three key factors involved in motivating our actions (the others being autonomy and mastery). And asking “why” is a key tenet of many disciplines, from philosophy to physics, so it’s a natural extension to ask oneself, “what is the purpose of my effort?”

Which brings us to Ashurst.

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Last week, AFR senior correspondent Aaron Patrick argued the firm had “… produced a nonsense mission statement that ignores the main purpose of business”. He contrasted its modern effort with the 1978 words of the senior partner of one of its founding firms.

It’s part of the role of a newspaper, of course, to hold the powerful to account. Constructive feedback helps leaders be better.

And to be fair, Ashurst’s new statement of purpose is probably not the state of the art. “Together, we create the extraordinary” is rather anodyne and, as Patrick states, not particularly unique (the similarity to Bain & Co is perhaps aspirational).

He is also right that any statement of an organisation’s purpose must be credible.

But he’s wrong not to give Ashurst credit for asking itself the question. He’s also wrong to define the primary purpose of the firm as narrowly as simply making money. That is a reductive view that fails to recognise the practicalities of doing business in 2022.

Yes, most businesses are created to produce a return. But unless the business is a not-for-profit or involves printing actual dollar notes, most need both customers and employees to do that. Profits are an outcome of customers paying for products and services.

For a business like a law firm, those services are delivered by people, and not all of them are motivated solely by a pay cheque. After all, the concept of humans as simply “rational animals” was debunked by economists years ago. Our motivations are far more complex.

As the founder of General Foods, Clarence Francis, is reputed to have said: “You can buy a man’s time; you can buy a man’s physical presence at a certain place you can even buy a measured number of skilled muscular motions per hour or day. But you cannot buy enthusiasm, you cannot buy initiative, you cannot buy loyalty; you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, and souls. You have to earn these things.”

Even before the pandemic, organisations around the world were working hard to measure and increase employee engagement and unlock that discretionary effort Francis alludes to in an effort to improve productivity, reduce costs and build brand preference.

After more than two years of COVID-19, with unemployment at its lowest in almost 50 years and the effects of the “Great Resignation” driving up the cost of attracting and retaining talent, the importance of providing meaning to work is obvious to most business leaders.

It’s easy to poke holes in an organisation’s efforts to articulate its purpose. And it’s hard not to be cynical after hearing the 999th start-up founder talk about “changing the world”. But it’s also short-sighted and misses the commercial benefits that can accrue to firms.

Whether Ashurst’s statement describes the firm today is largely beside the point. Like any goal, it is aspirational; if not, it would be pointless. The fact it may have, at times, failed to meet its ideals, and might continue to, doesn’t invalidate the attempt.

No doubt the leadership at Ashurst are thick-skinned. They will likely have anticipated some pushback regarding the statement. It would be a shame for the organisation, or others, to be tempted to back off now and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Paul McKeon is a business communications leader who advises large private and public sector organisations. He led the communications team at a large law firm through the GFC and its merger with a large international legal practice.

Do law firms have a purpose?
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