How to Define Your Firm’s Vision and Values

Shared vision and values are core elements of any business strategy, law firm or not. Your vision and values provide focus and clarity in your strategic thinking, but also in the day-to-day management of your law firm. When everyone in the firm shares a vision and core set of values, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

By way of analogy, think of an Olympic team, driven by a vision of themselves hoisting gold medals on the top step of the podium. As they train and compete, they follow the values of the Olympic Creed, which reads in part: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” And they come up with a training strategy consistent with their values—the Olympic Creed among them—that gives them the best chance of achieving their vision. Not every team has a winning strategy, but every team that wins has a strategy grounded in a shared vision and values, and they work hard to achieve that vision.

Similarly, law firms that succeed tend to have strong, shared vision and values. Their vision and values guide the firm’s strategy and focus so that the business can grow.

Here is how to craft a vision statement and a uncover and state your firm’s core values.

Craft your vision

Our vision and values are clear, documented, and shared by all.

The Small Firm Scorecard

Your vision should describe the end result—your firm in its final form, or the world as you intend to shape it to be.

For example, maybe you want to help lawyers who want to handle their own discipline proceedings, like Megan Zavieh does with her online portal, The Playbook. Or you want to build a client-centered workers compensation and personal injury practice, like Palace Law. Or a for-profit, sliding-fee firm, like Cooper Law.

If you are solo, your vision is entirely up to you. If you have a very small firm (about 2–5 people), you should invite everyone to help you craft a vision for the firm. If your firm is larger, then include your leadership team.

Regardless of your firm’s size, set aside at least a half day to think through different possibilities, weigh the options, and draft a vision statement for your firm. Here are some questions to ask as you get started:

  • How do you describe our firm to others?
  • Why does this firm exist?
  • What are we good at?
  • What aren’t we good at/what are our weaknesses?
  • What do we believe about the future of our clients (5 and 10 years out)?
  • What do we believe about the future of our firm (5 and 10 years out)?
  • What will be our biggest accomplishments over the next 5 and 10 years?

Your vision statement should:

  • Be short and clear. Think vision sentence, not vision paragraph. Avoid jargon.
  • Avoid vague terms. Words like success and better off function as moving targets. Be clear about the picture you’re trying to create.
  • Avoid being too specific. Specificity is for goals. For your vision statement, describe the big picture, not the details.
  • Align with your firm’s core values.

In constructing your vision you must (of course) take real-world constraints into account. Under current rules in most of the US, for example, you can’t bring on a co-owner unless they have a license to practice law. But you can probably work within the constraints of the rules and achieve a comparable result.

While you are exploring the possibilities with your staff or leadership team, you may find that not everyone is on the same page. This is normal. But if you find there are a few people who really cannot get on the same page as everyone else, it is a pretty good sign that they need to start making other plans.

So handle this carefully. First, take the time to make sure everyone understands one another, and seek common ground. If you need a cooling-off period or you need to continue your values session on another day, take that time. But if you do find that some people can’t get on the same page, it means you need to find a way for them to leave the firm. They aren’t wrong or bad for wanting other things, but they can’t be on the team if they aren’t going to go for the gold.

State your values

Your firm’s vision is your statement of what the firm is going to accomplish. Your firm’s values should reflect how you will go about achieving that vision. They are your firm’s version of the Olympic Creed.

Consider two different divorce firms, one that portrays its lawyers as fighters and bulldogs, the other as compassionate, supportive advocates. Each approach indicates a very different set of values. Each firm’s employees will have no problem understanding how they are expected to go about their jobs. Clients who hire those firms will have clear expectations.

Teams function better when they have a core set of shared values. In fact your firm probably has a set of core values already, and you should start the process by uncovering the values you already have (shared or not).

Uncover your shared values

To uncover your values, block off at least half a day for yourself, your small firm, or a cross-section of employees if your firm is larger than about 15 people. Use a whiteboard and encourage everyone to describe the actual behavior—positive and negative—they believe is emblematic at the firm. Keep the marker moving by prompting people with questions like these:

  • What makes you proud of the work we do here?
  • How do you know when you’ve done quality work?
  • Why do our clients come to us?
  • Why do people refer cases to us?
  • What messages do we use to tell people about our firm or our work?
  • What are some things we always do?
  • What are some things we never do?
  • What kind of behavior do we reward?
  • What kind of behavior do we discourage?
  • Etc.

Be honest with yourselves. If everyone works 60 hours a week in order to hit their billable hour targets, then the firm clearly values sacrifice in order to hit goals. If the weekly happy hour is well-attended, then the firm clearly values its internal relationships.

Fill a whiteboard or notebook with ideas, then organize them into 10 or fewer groups, and rank those groups in order of importance.

Identify your core values

Keep distilling the ideas in those groups to get at the essence of them, until you have 5–7 core values that everyone can agree on to define your firm. Don’t make this decision lightly. Take a few days to mull them over and run them by others before you finalize your list.

Don’t be afraid of an impasse

You are going to use your values to hire, manage, and fire, which means that if everyone can’t agree on a set of core values, you will need a plan to go your separate ways. “A house divided … cannot stand.” An impasse is not necessarily bad news. Chances are if you can’t agree on values, it isn’t the first conflict you’ve experienced. Now you know the reason why, and you can plan accordingly.

Look for ways to stand out

If you have trouble settling on values, look for opportunities to set your firm apart. For example, all law firms should be ethical and professional, but stating “we are ethical and professional” doesn’t actually help employees or clients understand what it will be like to work with you. Instead, describe how you will be ethical and professional. Will you innovate at the limits of the rules or play it safe? Will you be collegial litigators or unapologetic bulldogs?

Choose values you are passionate about

Don’t select meaningless goals. Your values should be deeply felt. Each should be a hill that everyone at the firm would die (metaphorically, of course) on.

Proceed with caution when trying to change ingrained values

If you are going to try to change a value, proceed carefully. For example, let’s say you realize during this exercise that your firm currently values 80-hour work weeks, but going forward you want to value work-life balance.

You can’t just say you value work-life balance and leave it at that—you have to live it. Everyone is going to have to stop working 80-hour weeks, just for starters, which is going to change your firm in fundamental ways.

State your shared, core values

How you state your values is important, because you will be referring to them often. Write them down in three parts:

  1. A simple phrase that describes the value in a few words.
  2. What the value means to your firm, in a few sentences.
  3. What the value doesn’t mean to your firm.

Here how we state one of Lawyerist’s values, as an example:

Do great work that supports a great life.

We believe in a version of work-life balance where people are excited about and proud of the work they do, and know it matters in the world. We also believe your job should be designed to support the life you are trying to build outside of work, including long-term career and learning goals, personal development, community engagement, and family life.

We aren’t a company that thinks work-life balance means work hard, play hard. We don’t think the work week should be more than 40 hours and we don’t want boring or negative people on our team.

Introduce & reinforce your vision and values

Once you’ve defined your vision and values, you’ll need to come up with a “launch plan” to introduce and reinforce them. This is important—if you don’t formalize your values and reinforce that they are important, all of your hard work will have been a waste of time.

For example, you may want to plan to formally introduce your vision and values at your next all-team meeting. You could also plan to hold a meeting for that specific purpose.

If you are a solo, consider planning an open house for your close friends, family, clients, and referral sources. Explain where the firm is going (vision) and how it is going to get there (values). Introduce any new initiatives or incentives you have come up with to recognize and rewards those who exemplify the firm’s values.

Once you have introduced your vision and values, don’t make the mistake of letting everyone forget about them. Coaches remind their team of the vision at every practice and game, so consider how you can reinforce your firm’s vision and values in your everyday communications with your team and clients.

For example, you could put up a poster outlining your values in the entrance to your office. At your weekly status meeting you could ask people to describe something they saw someone do to exemplify your values or move the firm towards its vision during the last week.

Be prepared to justify everyone’s day-to-day work as a way of moving the firm towards the vision. This is key to ensuring everyone at the firm sees how their work is important and valued, and will keep people engaged and motivated. If you can’t make that connection, change your strategy or tactics, re-scope your projects, or change your goals as necessary to get yourself moving towards it again. Use your values to settle disputes.

When everyone at your firm is bought into its vision and values, your firm will function like a team pushing towards the podium. Go for the gold!

About Sam

Sam is the founder of Lawyerist, the tribe of small-firm lawyers who are building the future of law practice. Lawyerist supports client-centered, future-oriented small firms with information, ideas, and community. Learn more and join your tribe at Lawyerist.com. You can find Lawyerist on Twitter at @lawyerist.

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