Category Archives: Law firms

Core Values vs Aspirational Values

Here is something I think is quite useful from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, on core values vs aspirational values:

“People frequently confuse timeless core values—what you truly believe and have always believed at a deep core level—with aspirations of what you’d like to see the organization become in the future. You may have such an aspiration, but if you are honest with yourself and it is not a core value for the people in your breakout group, the place to put it is in the vivid description aspect of the Envisioned Future. Do not mix future aspirations into your true and authentic core values, as this will create justifiable cynicism and destroy the power of your core values. For example, a group that has never held innovation as a core value should not put innovation into its list of core values, even if it sees innovation as a vital strategy for its future. Instead, it should make innovation part of its Envisioned Future a quality that it wants to stimulate progress toward.”

Jim Collins has some great exercises for organisations to determine their values which you can find on I can see that incorporating the methodology of Richard Barrett would take these exercises to a new level because it makes sense of the values. Barrett situates all values within a framework of individual and organisational consciousness. It is far more powerful to have context.

For example, using Barrett’s 7 Levels of Organisational Consciousness, the organisational value “trust” is a level 5 value, the level of internal cohesion – which is about building an internal community, with shared values and vision. “Professionalism” on the other hand is a level 3 value, the level of self-esteem. This level is about building performance, so it’s about systems and processes and best practices.

If a company has undertaken a Cultural Values Assessment (CVA) one of the primary Cultural Transformation Tools of the Barrett Values Centre, then it’s much easier to ensure relevant values are chosen. A CVA provides a clear picture of the employees’ individual values and of their desired values for the organisation. This can be used to ensure there’s alignment with who the people are and the type of organisation they want to work for, when the executives choose the values. This is essential for alignment. I will talk explain the 4 types of alignment necessary for a values-driven organisation, in another post.

For now, suffice to say, that the current trend of executives rushing off on a breakaway, and returning with a set of “new values for the company” is very old school and ineffective. At the very least, failing a company-wide survey (cost is of course a factor in these matters), the executives should each undertake an IVA – Individual Values Assessment – which can be used to ensure that these individuals, who will be responsible for espousing and living the values, are in fact capable of doing so.

If undertaking any sort of values journey, I highly recommend you read Richard Barrett’s Building a Values Driven Organisation. While Good to Great is on every list of “books every entrepreneur should have read”, Barrett’s book is just a little more exclusive.  Jim Collins for a business exec is like having Deepak Chopra on your bookshelf if you’re a self-help fan. (there’s no note of condescension here, we should ALL be helping ourselves, those who don’t are just painful). But if you want to learn about values the smart way, the way the cool kids are doing it, read Building a Values Driven Organisation. It’s not a laugh a minute but it’s profound. Or you can get a Barrett consultant, like me, to run you through the book’s contents in a few hours. Either way, two bits of advice:

1. don’t pay for a values session until you’ve looked into Barrett’s work

2. Do not try to inculcate the organisation’s values by chanting them in unison at company meetings. Ever.

“Here today no human heart was trampled”

I’m considering how to bring the work of Nancy Kline (author of Time to Think) to law firms in SA. Perhaps there are law firms somewhere embracing the Thinking Environment…please let me know.

Regardless of the industry you work in,   Time to Think is a beneficial read. It deals beautifully with the concept that our ability to listen to others has a direct affect on their ability to think.

I believe the methodology in Time to Think is very well suited to solving some of the issues that stifle the quality of lawyer’s thinking.  There are studies on the way that lawyers think (will definitely write more about this and cite sources)  which suggest that the fear of ever being wrong results in very little creative thinking. Creative thinking involves risk and lawyers are very risk-averse.  Another facet is that law so often works on a precedent based system. We have a precedent based judicial system which has been in operation for hundreds of years. Also we use “precedents” meaning previously drafted contracts whenever clients want  a contract.  Although there are various arguments in favour of these systems which I shan’t deal with here, we need to consider the downsides too.  One such downside is the constant shutting down of opportunities for creative solutions.

While I’m not suggesting we abandon the precedent system, I do believe we would do well to heed the words of Albert Einstein (he was pretty smart in his approach to things)

“You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”

Some of the reasons that innovative thinking is not cultivated or celebrated in law firms include:

  • The emphasis on always being right
  • Solutions must be found fast or alternately…
  • Billing by the hour means it’s not in the firm’s best interest to solve problems fast
  • Clients often have the best solution to their issue, sometimes subconsciously, but lawyers do not know how to listen to their clients and clients are often intimidated by lawyers and cannot express their thinking.

To better understand Nancy’s concept of a Thinking Environment, here are some extracts from an article she wrote called The Thinking Environment Organisation that I highly recommend (2 pages long)  that you can read in its entirety on the Time to Think site.

If you worked in a Thinking Environment Organization, you would know as you walked in the door each morning that people would be interested in what you really think on issues big and small…

You would know that as you spoke, you would not be interrupted, You would value that so much that you would take responsibility for being succinct so that everyone could have a full turn, too. You would know that the generative effect of these uninterrupted turns to think and speak would raise the energy of the group. You would look forward to the pleasure of a work day with so much positive, not frenetic, energy.

In organizations in which people truly value each other’s thinking and truly listen to each other, targets get met better, budgets get set better, products and services get delivered better, the quality of work increases. But, more importantly, other things increase: things like self-respect, inspiration, innovation, confidence.

This is because when we know our thinking is valued, we know our very core is, too.

And in such an organization, you would get to the end of your day, close the door behind you, and be able to say to yourself,

“On my watch, people thrived. Here today no human heart was trampled, and no human mind was wasted.”

Can you imagine a law firm like this? Personally I find it mind-blowing.

5 Problems with Law Firms in South Africa

  1. Their business models are ancient. Most firms still structure themselves the way law firms of centuries ago were structured.
  2. There is generally a lack of transformation in terms of making firms hospitable to women. This would mean finding solutions to issues such as childcare, working remotely, dawn meetings etc.
  3. There is generally a lack of understanding of how powerful it can be to have men and women understand the ways in which they think and act differently and harness these differences in the workplace.  Female attorneys will only get ahead when they are able to act like their male counterparts.
  4. Many law firms have embraced the trend of having values – yet like many companies, do not know the first thing about living their values.  They have no idea how to ensure all their policies and procedures from remuneration to billing clients, are aligned with their values. This means the values just make good wallpaper.
  5. Law firms are mostly oblivious to the fact that as a result of their restrictive and hierarchical cultures, only a certain type of person will be able to thrive in a law firm. This means that of the 10 graduates who join a firm, after a decade only those whose personality profile is very similar to all the attorneys higher up the chain, are likely to still be around. This makes for homogeneous attorneys and is not actually good for business or the profession.  The line up may look diverse – some men, some women, different races but in terms of personality profile, they’ll probably represent only 10% of the population. If that.

PS the photo I found on Google. It’s an Aussie firm I believe. I might be sued for using it without permission. It just seemed too perfect an illustration of point 5 to resist. I’m gobsmacked. Are those women in uniforms? Or did they get a memo saying “black skirt suit, 3 cm above the knee, white shirt, black peep toe heels”?. Notice only the woman on the far right is able to wear sexy boots. Because she’s been there for 20 years, she earned the right to show her individuality. Just the boots mind you. Frightening stuff.  This is just my personal opinion.

The Smorgasboard of Workplace Tools

How does one choose between the thousands of emotional/ social/ relationship/ multiple intelligence tools aimed at corporates? Many are trademarked and most are expensive.

I came across Relationship Systems Intelligence™ this week.  You can download an article on it here. It’s got me thinking about the proliferation of this stuff on the market and how one can assess it.

I’m still forming my thoughts about this but so far I think the effectiveness of any training will depend on:

  1.  the level of consciousness of the facilitator
  2. the participants’ willingness/ readiness to learn the tools being offered.

Of course “consciousness” is a complex term. I’m trying to find some way to capture the concept of multiple intelligences here, rather than using the word “intelligence” because I’m not referring to cognitive ability. There are plenty of smart people useless at facilitating or teaching. My old maths teacher was one of them. Clearly she understood the maths, but most classes she looked at us in bafflement and said “what do you mean you DON’T understand?”.

On the one hand I applaud the multiplicity of new products!  Rather than roll our eyes at another seminar or tool that develops emotional intelligence, we should celebrate the fact that a term like “emotional intelligence” has become mass market. Yes, it is a GOOD thing. Yay for Daniel Goleman! Sure he may have got rich in the process, but his books (bless the publishers) are on the shelves of some of the most neanderthal managers and headmasters out there!   Emotional intelligence is being ever-increasingly recognised  as a vital aspect of successful relationships, and of corporate life, even of government decision making and this is wonderful.

I suppose my “distaste” is the capitalist aspect of trade-marking various products for commercial gain. Billions of leadership courses, values courses, psychometric testing tools – all with clever names and acronyms and the little TM sign…the cynic in me says the sign stands for “we want money for this, even though we’ve kind of just taken a lot of thinking out there and re-packaged it”. But the cynic in me is tempered by the idealist who is aware that many of these tools create leaps in consciousness for many people personally and for the organisations in which they work. This is good for us all – it is good for humanity, it is good for our planet.

So what am I saying? Perhaps we have to examine the integrity with which these products are created.  But integrity is a nebulous concept,  so hard to measure or define – how can you look at a new product or programme and evaluate its integrity? I think as a civilization we haven’t evolved to that point yet – so I would probably use good old common sense and intellect to determine whether I believe a product has integrity (very subjective, yes) and then maybe use kinesiology to calibrate the product’s consciousness.

Whoa, yes, I lost some people there. Applied Kinesiology is considered way out or “new age” now, but could quite possibly be in common use in 100 years time. Only once humanity stops thinking we can figure everything out through our senses. But I don’t want to get lost in a discussion of that now.

I’ve spent some time looking at different organisational development consultancies and each has their own products though many are very similar. Perhaps it’s just an aspect of how this industry functions within the legal constraints of today’s business environment. You’re not allowed to use others ideas so everyone is forced to re-package and make a “new” product.  It’s all about marketing.

I admit that my thinking today is influenced by the wonderful lecture I attended recently by Prof Henry Mintzberg, and also by the week-long facilitation course I’ve just completed. The course included a 200 page manual, repeating stuff from a bunch of books on facilitation. Both have, in different ways, inspired me to eschew mediocrity and continue to question whatever is put before me.

So my advice, if faced with a smorgasboard of tools that will enhance employee engagement and develop leadership potential is this:

  1. read it, learn it, absorb it. Reflect.
  2. See what else is being offered that is similar.
  3. Don’t believe the hype “our product has been proven 78% more effective than all our competitors”. Mostly it’s bollocks.  This stuff is highly subjective.
  4. Choose the smartest, most switched on, conscious facilitators for any programme you do decide to offer – you cannot solve a problem using the same level of thinking as that which created the problem.
  5. Have a look into Spiral Dynamics – it may help you meet your employees where they are. There are many boardrooms where any mention of meditation or kinesiology will have eye balls rolling so far back you’ll think you’re in a roomful of Zombies.  Assess the culture and worldview of your employees and pick a product that’s aligned.

PS when I try to sell your company my DEEP (Deeply Engaged Employees Programme*) next month, don’t laugh. Just go back to the 5 points and decide for yourself!

*real name withheld to protect programme’s identity.

** this is a joke. I don’t have a programme…YET.

7 Reasons why Developing Leaders in Law Firms is Difficult

This is a blog post by Pennington Hennessy which you can find here:

Alan Hodgart recently spoke to a group of Law Firm Learning & Development Professionals about the challenges facing law firms – particularly leadership.  His analysis was sound but he offered few practical ways for addressing them.

I can think of 7 reasons why developing leaders in law firms is more difficult than in many other fields.

  1. A typical partner’s psychometric profile is very different to that of a senior corporate executive.
  2. Lawyers are atypical leaders, for whom traditional models require adaption.
  3. Lawyers rarely want to lead.  Most law firm leaders would be happy if they reverted to client-facing work.
  4. There are few role models, and leadership is “caught” as much as “taught”.
  5. Leadership development is left late (30 years +) compared to the corporate model.
  6. The rewards for leadership in a law firm are not always obvious.
  7. Few lawyers have corporate experience outside the legal function, so they haven’t experienced people who just want to lead.

The solutions are harder to find, but possible.  Key aspects are:

  1. Developing leaders, not training them.
  2. Leaders are grown, not made, so it requires a joined-up, firm-wide effort to develop leaders.
  3. New leaders learn by leading.


At the Edge with Gerry Riskin

I came across the consultancy called Edge International that fixes law firms around the globe in a previous incarnation as a highly strung young candidate attorney. I found some copies of Edge the magazine they publish somewhere in my law firm and thought it had some great ideas. Never one to be a wallflower, I promptly emailed the senior partner of the firm with my suggestions for improving various systems in the firm, based on what I’d been reading. Surprisingly, and to his credit, the senior partner was pretty receptive. (Most senior partners would have swatted an upstart like me away without a further thought!) It turned out that he had worked with Gerry Riskin, the creator of Edge International, somewhere along the line and had a lot of respect for him.

Once I’d made the decision to leave the law firm after completing articles, I started desperately wondering what I’d do next. As I had noticed what a significant proportion of my time in the firm was spent figuring out how to change things, I wrote to Gerry Riskin about possibly joining Edge International.   And he wrote a kind response. When I again contacted him at the end of 2011 and referred to this exchange of emails in 2005 –I was impressed he still had them and knew what I was on about.  It’s not clear how this will unfold but I would like to work Gerry someday.  I want to work with him because he is a man of whom someone said:

“When Gerry speaks, he reaches parts of your mind that have never been used before.”
–Sue Stapely, Solicitor and Media Professional; London, England

If you’d like to find out more about Gerry, he has his own blog called Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices. The website for Edge International is also a wonderful resource. There is much I could say but for now I just want to mention what it says under their “values” section.

Our guiding philosophy is “to provide clients with more than they are paying for, more than they expect and more than anyone else would provide under the same circumstances.” We live that philosophy by extending to you our “satisfaction guarantee” that allows you to always measure whether our fees match the results being achieved, and by our very serious undertaking to provide ongoing support even after the formal assignment has concluded.

Edge International’s work is unconditionally guaranteed to the complete satisfaction of the client. If the client is not completely satisfied with the services provided by Edge International at any stage of this engagement, we will, at the client’s option, either completely waive our professional fees or accept a portion of those fees that reflects the level of satisfaction.


Imagine if more law firms had values like this? What a different sort of place the world might be. I think it’s possible.  I want to work with lawyers and law firms that believe it is possible.

Whatsoever Things Are True, Pure, Noble

I’ve come across a site called Attorneys at Work that delivers a Daily Dispatch –  posts on a variety of topics. It interests me as I’d like to create a Conscious Law Daily Dispatch. One of the posts deals with opening a new practice and creating a mailing address. You can find it here. What concerned me deeply is this:

There are various options for attorneys who are trying to keep costs low and don’t have smart offices in which to see clients.  “There are virtual offices located in large office buildings that will give the impression that you work in a big fancy building downtown near the large law firms in your community. They provide you a mailing address and fancy conference rooms where you can meet with clients.”

The author explains that she personally chose not to use this option “after all, part of my image is that I keep my overhead low and pass the savings on to my clients. I want to work with entrepreneurs and innovators who will appreciate that I will meet them in a co-working space where they’re comfortable. I don’t need a fancy office or a receptionist to prove to myself or my clients that I’m a good lawyer. The quality of my work will do that.”  

Her name is Ruth Carter, apparently she was a therapist before she became a lawyer which intrigues me. I’m not trying to challenge Ruth herself, what troubles me that there are enough lawyers out there pretending they work in fancy offices at fake addresses, to create a demand for websites and books and services helping them to do this. Where is the integrity in that? Creating a virtual address so people think you work in a fancy law office or think you work at an office every day when actually you work from home – is this really necessary?  Maybe I’m old fashioned but I believe law is a noble profession. I believe lawyers have a duty and responsibility to build a practice based on honesty and integrity – and if you can’t even tell clients the truth about where your office is, you’re off to a poor start.

As for the title of this post? I was thinking about this issue of law firms being based on integrity when my old school prayer popped into my head.  We used to recite this at the beginning of every term – it was an Anglican school.

“We pray, O Lord, that Thou wilt make this school as a field which the Lord hath blessed; that whatsoever things are true, pure, noble, and of good report may here forever flourish and abound.
Preserve in it an unblemished name, enlarge it with a wider usefulness…”

I’m not advocating that law firms start reciting prayers or bring the Lord into it (I’m not really a proponent of organised religion, I take an Integral view, but I digress…). What I do want to say is that having some sort of fundamental set of values underpinning a legal enterprise is a good idea. Striving for an unblemished name and asking that it may serve a wider usefulness, that’s the way forward.

I wish that included in the curriculum requirements for all attorneys were modules such as Servant Leadership, as developed by Robert Greenleaf.  Servant Leadership can be:

defined as a management philosophy which implies a comprehensive view of the quality of people, work and community spirit. It requires a spiritual understanding of identity, mission, vision and environment. A servant leader is someone who is servant first, who has responsibility to be in the world, and so he contributes to the well-being of people and community. A servant leader looks to the needs of the people and asks himself how he can help them to solve problems and promote personal development.

Maybe instead of just thinking about this, I should go to my old law school and start teaching this course myself? Mmm.

Why it’s time for law firms to shift their thinking

There are many factors pointing to the increased need for lawyers and law firms to consciously start shifting from a rigid, hierarchical, right-brain, win/lose mindset to a more intuitive, inclusive, inter-connected world view.

Some of these include:

  1. introduction of new legislation regarding the structure and regulation of the way legal services are offered – such as the Legal Services Act in the UK and the Legal Practice Bill in South Africa
  2. the changing economic climate
  3. in South Africa, the pressures of BBBEE legislation coupled with fact that graduates are entering the workplace without the requisite skills
  4. a new generation that approaches work in a very different way to that of the Baby Boomer generation – Generation Y (born in the ‘80’s and also known as Millenials) are willing to trade high pay for fewer billable hours, flexible schedules and a better work/life balance. Generation Y is confident, ambitious and achievement-oriented. They have high expectations of their employers, seek out new challenges and are not afraid to question authority.
  5. The increased amount of legislation  – in our attempts to regulate society there are more and more laws every month affecting ordinary people. There is a proliferation of articles on the internet, yet dependable legal advice is still only available from lawyers and therefore financially out of most people’s reach. Lawyers are therefore in a powerful position – but as the saying goes “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. There  is an increased need for a high standard of moral and ethical behaviour in the legal profession.

The world is changing.  Law firms are being forced to innovate – which is uncomfortable for a profession that is generally regarded as extremely traditional and rigid. Many law firms today resemble law firms of 100 years ago. But as one of the greatest consultants to law firms, Gerry Riskin of Edge International says, “clients have tasted some power in the lawyer/client relationship and they are not going to give it up”.

There are many ways that law firms can meet some of these challenges such as introducing new and more effective systems and processes to keep up with the pace of technological developments. Or by changing the way they bill clients or remunerate their employees. Some of the innovations demonstrated by European law firms are described and analysed in a major annual study by RSG, published in October 2011 as a supplement to the Financial Times (UK). I will touch on some of these in further posts.

Right now, the subjects that are holding my attention are the culture of law firms and the mindset or worldview of lawyers.  I want to explore these and related ideas in the form of interviews with lawyers and lawyers who run law firms; research into organisational dynamics and various theories of personal and organisational transformation; initiatives both in South Africa and globally towards an Integral Law, and exploration of what this means.