Why Is More Than a Question: Understanding Your Firm’s Purpose

Why Is More Than a Question: Understanding Your Firm’s Purpose

At the start of this pandemic, many businesses had to close their doors. A few businesses were able to switch gears and continue employing their workers to do something else. For example, some distilleries and wineries started using their own alcohol to make hand sanitizer at a time when it was in short supply. A pizza shop in Chicago that could no longer serve pizza by the slice started using its ovens to make plastic face shields for frontline workers. Many other stories abound of companies that refuse to be defined by the products they make (wine, beer, pizzas) and are motivated by another purpose to do something else and stay in business.

Being defined by a purpose rather than by the actual service or product you sell is important to surviving and thriving in a time of change and uncertainty. Purpose allows a business to adapt to changes and reinvent itself to be responsive to the circumstances. A business’s purpose is usually stated somewhere on its website and is oftentimes captured in its vision and mission statements. Previously, I wrote a blog post on the importance of having vision and mission statements for your law office. Those statements are now more important than ever. Now is an opportunity to reexamine your vision and mission statements to see if they truly capture your firm’s purpose and the principles that you want to guide your firm. The purpose is something that many lawyers struggle to identify and articulate.

Many lawyers mistakenly believe that the purpose of being a lawyer or starting a law practice is to make money. Making money is the result of a greater purpose. Money should not, in and of itself, be a purpose. Others like to frame their purpose as “to help people.” This generic purpose applies to every other lawyer. That purpose is not unique to you as an individual lawyer. Having a purpose that is beyond the obvious, beyond the present, and beyond making money can be both an anchor and an inspiration for not only yourselves but also for those working for you and those who consume your services.

Start with Why

In a book titled Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek and his subsequent TED talk on the same topic, the author writes that great businesses know why they do what they are doing. A business should always be defined by its purpose, not its product or process. Sinek talks about something called the Golden Circle, which is comprised of three concentric circles as shown below.


Starting with the smallest and innermost circle labeled Why, we then move out to the How and the What circles. The Golden Circle is what differentiates businesses that inspire from those that don’t. According to Sinek, most businesses, including law firms, focus only on the What and the How. Every law firm and lawyer knows what they do. The What is the service you provide to clients (drafting their wills and contracts, representing them in court, etc.). Some lawyers know how they do it. The How is the process by which they operate their firm and deliver legal services. This is their competitive edge. Maybe they use innovative technology to automate systems to reduce overhead and pass the savings on to clients. They may have proprietary programs and processes to deliver legal services. But very few businesses know their Why. The Why is their purpose or their belief that drives them to do what they do. Why does your firm exist? What inspires you to get out of bed every morning and go to work?

In the business world, the Why breeds loyalty in both customers and employees, because they believe in the company’s purpose that has been clearly articulated and infused in everything the company does. The Why taps into our innate desire to belong. When we buy a product or service, we’re actually buying the company’s values, principles, and beliefs that make up its purpose. Sinek uses Apple as the prime example of a company that doesn’t advertise its products; instead, it advertises its belief—to think differently, to challenge the status quo. Consumers of Apple products feel like they belong to a group of people who are willing to challenge the status quo to think and act differently. Trust and loyalty emerge when people are surrounded by others who believe in what they believe.

Like many other business, law firms and lawyers traditionally talk about and market their practice from the outermost circle. They talk about what they do and how they do it—how they’re different from and better than their competitors. Rarely do they talk about why they do it. Firms that focus on the Why understand the power of purpose and the inspiration that it evokes.

A law firm that starts with What and How sounds like this:

[What] We are a leading law firm in A, B, and C areas of law. We are known in the legal industry for providing the highest level of client service and setting the standard for excellence. Our lawyers have unparalleled expertise and experience in providing an array of legal advice on X, Y, and Z. They graduated at the top of their class from M law school, clerked with N judge, interned at O firm, and won this and that award. [How] We pride ourselves on thinking outside the box and coming up with strategic and creative solutions for our diverse clients.   

A firm that starts with Why sounds like this:

[Why] We believe in empowering our clients so they can focus on what is most important to them and be able to live the life they dream of. [How] We actively listen to their concerns and needs and engage with them to tailor a strategic solution that meets their needs. [What] As a leading law firm in A, B, and C areas of law, we are known for providing the highest level of client service. Our team of lawyers has unparalleled expertise and experience in X, Y, and Z.

These two descriptions are essentially the same. But one starts with Why and the other starts with What. The Why description speaks to a desire to be understood and to feel like someone has our back.

Give It a Try

For lawyers who currently don’t have vision and mission statements, start here and incorporate your Why into those statements. For those who already have statements but lack a purpose, use the Golden Circle to define what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.

Be authentic. Do not make up a purpose that you do not personally believe in. A made-up purpose may sound profound or powerful to others, but you will know it’s not real, and you will not be inspired by it. In turn, others will not be inspired by it. Your purpose needs to be true to who you are and what you want to do for others. Since everything else (your What and How) will emanate from that purpose, it needs to be authentic.

. . . 

Many local businesses had to adapt to changes in order to survive. One is SP Provisions in Northeast Portland. For 140 years, this company has sold locally sourced meats to restaurants. When restaurants started closing due to the pandemic, SP Provisions had two choices: close its doors or change. It decided to expand its customer base to include retail customers, grocery stores, and the general public. Its motto “For Locals. By Locals” is the Why that allows SP Provisions to change its business model while staying true to its roots and be able to stay in business during hard times.

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