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How to Define Your Law Firm’s Core Values: The Difference between Aspirational Values v. Actual Values

Most elite law firms recognize the importance of having a basic set of 5-10 core values that dictate how the firm and its employees behave.  A law firm’s core values are akin to its Constitution—bedrock principles that will be around to the end of time and continually be top of mind for the firm’s employees.  When questions are raised, the firm’s employees can refer to the firm’s core values for answers and with core values, they have guidance and a better sense of right and wrong.

But most law firms make the mistake of creating core values that are aspirational, i.e., “We do the right thing”, that could be copied and used as the core values for any law firm or business.  Aspirational values are what you want the values of the law firm to be, such as integrity, compassion and service.  But your staff will know if your core values aren’t real and they’ll become cynical if you’re not living what you preach.  Aspirational core values can actually hurt your law firm.

“Some values are desirable, but not true.  We call these ‘aspirational values’ because they are worthy of our aspirations.”

Patrick Lencioni, The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family

The problem is that when lawyers sit down to agree upon their core values they ask, “What should our core values be?” rather than asking, “What are our core values?” And what they come up with is a list of aspirational values that bear little resemblance to the actual values of the law firm.

How to Create Your Law Firm’s Core Values

You should begin creating your law firm’s core values by focusing on your law firm’s current ACTUAL values.  Right now, what are the values that guide your law firm?  These values should be completely unique to your law firm, so that you cannot imagine any other law firm having the same values.  It doesn’t really matter what your values are, just that you have them and that you are living by them at this present moment.

“Those are traits or qualities that are fundamental parts of an organization’s culture. You don’t make them up, you just look around and describe what’s already true.

Patrick Lencioni, The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family

You begin by looking at the traits of your best secretary, paralegal, or lawyer.  What values do they actually live by?  If a Martian came to your office, what would he think are the basic values of your law firm?  Write them down and ask your staff if the values are real for your law firm. If so, write them down and now, you’re on the road to creating your law firm’s core values.

How Our Team Created Our Core Values

We made the same mistake made by most businesses by creating aspiration values that bore little resemblance to reality.  Our core values began as:

Our 10 Core Values (THEN)

#1: We limit our practice to catastrophic injury law for injury victims,

#2: We do not accept cases that have questionable merit,

#3: We accept very few cases,

#4: We always put our clients’ interests first,

#5: We treat our clients like family,

#6: We do the right thing,

#7: We do what we say we’ll do,

#8: We practice open, real communication,

#9: We check our egos at the door, and

#10: We invest in continuous improvement.

These core values are aspirational, forgettable and for the most part, NOT REAL.  Sure they sound good and we could impress our friends and family with them, but they’re not real. I sensed that our team was not completely committed to these values, but more importantly, we weren’t living by them.

“No culture book is worth much unless it reflects cultures and values that are already in place.”

Tony Hsieh, Delivering Happiness

We focused on the core values that we are actually living by the present time, and here’s what we came up with:

Our 6 Core Values (NOW)

#1:  We only handle catastrophic injury cases,

#2:  We never agree to confidential settlements,

#3:  We do not accept cases having questionable merit,

#4:  We are not afraid of making mistakes,

#5:  We strive for continuous improvement, and

#6:  We are transparent and brutally honest with our clients.

The simple, basic set of 6 core values is simple, basic and REAL.  Yes, if faced with a lie detector test, any member of our team could truthfully answer that we are currently living by these basic values.  And here’s the nice thing: the core values are so simple and basic that they’re easy to remember.  Check out, www.deliveringhappiness/core-values, and Jim Collins’s classic book, Good to Great, for more about creating a set of core values for your law firm.

How to Instill Your Core Values in Your Team

Once you have core values for your law firm, you must instill them your team members.  Some businesses ask their employees to sign a document that recites their core values and some post their core values throughout the walls of their office. Perhaps you put the core values in your email signature or email newsletter or on a large infographic at the front entrance of your office.

At Zappos, when new employees join the company, they are required to sign a document (“The Gestalt of Zappos”) stating that they have read the core values document and understand that living up to the core values is part of their job expectation.

“When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.”

Beatrice Berry

But whatever you do, you don’t just want to have a set of core values, you want to make sure your team knows what they are and have daily reminders of them that make them impossible to ignore.  Once you have a set of core values, you will have a shared belief system that will guide every-day decisions of your team as long as you’re in business.





photo credit: Scales Of Justice via photopin (license)

Leave a comment below telling me what surprised, inspired or taught you the most (I personally respond to every comment). And if you disagree with my take on running a personal injury law firm, or have a specific, actionable tip, I’d love to hear from you.