Great companies share one thing: a set of core values that they live by. Core values are just a few basic principles that will guide their conduct for as long as they exist, a/k/a their Bible. Whenever a difficult question arises, they turn to their core values. And their employees know what to do because they are constantly reinforcing their core values through their words and actions.
98% of lawyers don’t have core values for their law firm. Lawyers run around doing the busy “lawyer work”, while their secretaries and paralegals constantly turn to the “boss” when confronted with problems. Problems are ignored and everyone just prays for the weekend to arrive. Not exactly the law firm of your dreams.
The 10 Commandments for Your Law Firm
Think of core values as the Ten Commandments for your law firm—basic values that are set in stone and will guide the actions of you and your staff as long as you’re open for business. When you’re not around to answer their questions, your staff will know what to do because they know and live by your core values.
Let’s put this in a real-world setting. Following a settlement, the defense lawyer calls your paralegal to request confidentiality of the terms and amount of the settlement. Your paralegal doesn’t ask you what to do because she already knows one of your core values is, “We never agree to confidentiality.” Your paralegal tells the defense lawyer that there is no settlement if confidentiality is a condition of the settlement and the defense lawyer quickly backs off. Problem solved and you didn’t have to do a damn thing!
This is the beauty of having a set of core values—your staff knows what to do when you’re not in the office. You’re not confronted with a barrage of questions from your staff because they already know what to do. Your core values are constantly reinforced at daily and weekly meetings and you post a framed picture of your core values in your conference room. Core values are meaningless if your staff doesn’t know what they are.
The Biggest Mistake Made by Lawyers
Most lawyers (and companies) dream up lofty, aspirational values, i.e., “We always do the right thing.” What crap! Aspirational core values sound great and you take pride in such wonderful values, but they mean nothing. You are better off having no core values.
You want core values that are real and reflect the present-day reality of your law firm. Begin by thinking: What are the values that you currently live by? Okay, for starters, hopefully you oppose confidential settlements and will never agree to confidentiality—you’ve got a core value: “We never agree to confidentiality.”
Just by way of example, our law firm’s core values are:
- We only handle catastrophic injury cases.
- We never agree to confidential settlements.
- We do not accept cases having questionable merit.
- We strive for continuous improvement.
- We are transparent and brutally honest with our clients.
Perfect? Maybe not, but these core values are simple, unique and reflect the actual reality of our law firm—yes, we live by these values. When questions arise, our staff looks to the core values for answers and most of the time (not always) they find answers to the questions.
How to Create Your Core Values
Sit down with a pad and paper and write down the core values that reflect the current reality of your law firm. It’s easy to come up with 8-10 core values for your law firm, but when it comes to core values, LESS IS MORE. Your staff won’t remember 10 core values and they will become aspirational, poster-board fluff that will not guide the actions of your staff. Try to keep your core values to 3-5 simple, basic principles that everyone agrees upon.
But you’re just getting started. Share your core values with your staff and ask them to slice and dice the values—No Fluff Allowed! You want your staff to assault your core values, i.e., “That’s crap, we don’t actually do that!” By letting your staff help create your core values, they will buy into your values and become invested in them—now you’re getting somewhere.
Okay, you’ve got a set of core values that everyone in your firm agrees upon, but you’re not done yet. Your core values should be assessed and re-assessed for a year by you and your staff. Put your core values under assault by constantly asking, “Are we really living these values?” If not, scrap them. Even if you have just 2-3 core values, that’s fine—they will be easier to remember and your staff won’t have to scratch their heads when you ask what they are.
Reinforcing Your Core Values
It means nothing just to have core values—you have to make them a part of your everyday world. Begin by posting your core values everywhere! Frame a picture of your core values or better yet, paint them on the walls of your conference room, copy room and front reception area. Let the world know about your core values in newsletters, on the back of Shock & Awe packages for new clients, and in friendly chit-chat with lawyer friends.
Talk about a specific core value at weekly and daily meetings with your staff and celebrate moments of progress when a staff member applies a core value to a real-world problem. Every day I tell our prospective clients that, even with the best case in the world, there is a 50/50 chance they can lose their malpractice case. Why do I do this? One of our core values is complete transparency and brutal honesty with our clients. Almost without fail, our clients appreciate our brutal honesty and this makes our relationship stronger.
Before long your secretary and paralegal will share examples of how they applied one of your core values. During a daily team meeting, your paralegal will share that she was “brutally honest” in telling a prospective client that she doesn’t have a case. This is when you know your core values are a living, breathing document that is actually being used for guidance. When this happens, politely excuse yourself from the room, go outside and shout, “Hell yeah!”
The Greatest Core Values Ever Created
The greatest set of core values ever created was our country’s Constitution– the embodiment of a living, breathing set of values that has guided our country for 200+ years (it’s worked out pretty well, wouldn’t you say?).
Whenever a thorny issue arises, our legislators look to the Constitution for guidance. Basic core values that were created over 200 years ago are still guiding our conduct and referred to constantly for resolving our country’s most difficult issues. If a set of simple core values can work for the greatest country in the world, shouldn’t you have core values for your law firm?
A Bold Challenge for You
Create core values for your law firm and let me know how it works out. There is one way that you’ll know if your core values will work: your core values must be TOTALLY UNIQUE for your law firm. Do not copy someone else’s core values or make the fatal mistake of using aspirational, feel-good values. And don’t worry if your core values aren’t perfect—it will take time to get it right.
Creating core values is a collaborative process that must be shared with your team members and takes time and won’t be easy. But when you’re done, you’ll have a set of values that will guide the actions of your you and your team members for the life of your law firm.