The Blueprint: Designing the Purpose of Your Legal Business

Chapter 1: Answering the Question “Why Do We Do What We Do?”

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”  – Simon Sinek

“But why?” says the annoying kid in response to your fifth attempt to answer that same simple question. My wife’s solution to curtailing this endless loop of questioning from our children is to ask: “why do you think?” One of my undergraduate teachers, Professor Brown, used to say that philosophy beings with asking the question “why?” Building a legal practice designed to last begins with having a rock solid answer to this simple philosophical question that is the mantra of toddlers everywhere.

You need a foundational core value system that will help others understand why you practice law. These core values will be communicated to your employees, clients, colleagues, and other professionals you interact with. This core value system for your law firm is what gives your business entity life; it’s what makes an organization into an organism. If your organization is not living, then your practice is dead meat.

How many times have you been asked “what do you do?” The inquirer is asking you to divulge your occupation. For those of us in the legal field, the normal response to this frequently asked question is “I’m an attorney.” It’s a good thing that this introductory small talk is not followed by the million-dollar question “why do you do what you do?” For anyone who has not spent time thinking about the “why” of his legal practice this question is uncomfortable at best and terrifying at worst. I expect that the following are not likely your answer to the question of why you entered the legal profession:

  • “Stressful situations are where I thrive.”
  • “I sold my soul to become rich and Satan said that there was a plethora of openings for attorneys.”
  • “Conflict is the best so I knew the adversarial system was for me.”
  • “I got a B.A. in philosophy in undergrad, and sitting on a rock gets uncomfortable after a while.”
  • “I like a challenge, so I thought the bar exam would be fun.”

While none of these answers are likely to be top of the mind in terms of your response to the “why” question, the truthful answer might be “I don’t know.”

If you have not considered “why” you do what you do for a lengthy period of time, you may sense a real emptiness that dissuades you from any similar philosophical reflections in the future. If you don’t know “why” you do what you do, or “why” your law firm exists, your business lacks the necessary purpose to thrive and exist.

The vast majority of law students head into law school well intentioned. By well intentioned, I mean that college seniors have typically grappled with and answered the “why” question of becoming a lawyer. They wanted to become lawyers in order to help people, to serve the underserved, to fight for people’s rights, to make a difference in the world. They see the law as the vehicle that will allow them to achieve a greater purpose with their lives.

Law school has a certain way of suffocating these good intentions out of us. Living in fear of the Socratic Method during the 1L year, fighting for class rank, trying to juggle studies with work while taking on extra-curricular activities, being swallowed by law school loans, and finally the glorious entry into the practice of law that is the bar exam. Once actually practicing law, there is an immediate pressure to take whatever work becomes available. As you realize that attorneys are not necessarily in high demand and that your law loans (i.e. second mortgage) is not going to pay itself, the philanthropic reasons that made you want to go to law school begin to take a back seat (or get kicked out of the car altogether) and the need for immediate income takes the wheel.

Under these mounting financial pressures, the answer to “why do you do what you do?” might morph from high ideals to survival instinct: “because I have to.”

The bottom line is that if you have not recently asked yourself “why am I a lawyer” then this is the first and most essential question that needs to be answered. Think about:

  • What made you go to law school in the first place?
  • What is your favorite aspect of practicing law?
  • How are you helping your clients now? Related: How would you like to help and serve your clients?
  • Without considering the finances, if you could do anything (including hanging up the dress shoes), what would that look like?

Your reflection on these questions will help you begin answering the “why” question. This search for the “why” will result in the identification of the core values of your firm. Human beings need to have a reason for doing what we do. Our drive, the energy with which we do things is directly proportional to the purpose for which we are doing it. If your law firm has no (worthwhile) purpose, then you and your team will have no energy at work. Your firm cannot survive and certainly cannot thrive without identifying the purpose of your business.

Ultimately answering the question “why you do what you do” will give meaning to your work, will give a reason for walking into the office every day, and bring joy to the practice of law.

Identifying, and then implementing your core values into your legal business is what makes you different from the sea of attorneys. If your team is practicing the core values of your law firm, your clients, colleagues and community will notice. Clients, in fact all consumers, want to hire professionals that care about what they do. In the service industry, you are selling yourself or your team.

A client who can identify why you do what you do:

  • Sees you and your team as genuine;
  • Can differentiate you and your team from other attorneys and law firms; and
  • Feels good about the buying experience.

Most potential clients expect to get the best legal advice possible when they come to speak to an attorney, whether that is you or anyone else. Most people think that because you have a law degree you should know all of the subtle nuances of your practices areas. The client expects that if you are a lawyer then you are an expert; to the client being an expert in your practice area is a given, not a bonus. In fact, as we have all experienced, if you have a law degree then family members and friends expect that you have inside legal knowledge of every aspect of the law, from trademark to eviction to divorce to corporations. To the extent that you are chosen by a client simply because you know some aspect of the law you have gotten lucky as one out of the many nearby attorneys that has the same practice areas listed on their website.

As Simon Sinek’s sentiment at the beginning of this chapter goes, clients “don’t buy what you do.” You separate and differentiate yourself from the competition by explaining explicitly or implicitly to the client “why you do it.”