Seriously. Why? I don’t mean in a “because I couldn’t get a BigLaw job” way. I mean, “Why are you practicing law in a small firm?” And if you’re looking for work in a small firm, why? In fact, I really want to know why you’re a lawyer in the first place.
More importantly, your clients want to know. They might not realize it, and they probably will never ask you, but deep down, they want to know why. Why do they want to know? Because why you do what you do is what attracts clients; it’s what makes them want to work with you.
I can already hear you scoffing: “My clients work with me because I’m a good lawyer, or because they like me, or because they have a history with my firm, or because I’m so freakin’ good-looking.” Maybe so. Maybe that’s why they started working with you. But that’s not why they’ll stay with you. They’ll stay with you because of why you do what you do. So you need to figure out your why.
But how do you find your why? This guy can help you….
His name is Simon Sinek, and he runs a marketing firm in New York called SinekPartners. Last May, he gave an 18-minute presentation at the acclaimed TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) series of talks. Yes, that’s right: just 18 minutes. That’s a point-three to you folks still using with timesheets. Since then, his video has gone almost as viral as Rebecca Black’s, without the annoying seat-choice issues.
His message can be summed up in the mantra he repeats several times:
People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.
Sinek says that most businesses focus on what they do or how they do it. In our field, law firms are apt to tell clients all about the kinds of cases and matters they specialize in — the what. They’ll puff and posture about how they do it: how their lawyers are all Super Lawyers (and all the Lean Six Sigma and project-management tools they use), how they staff their work with dedicated teams of specialists with decades of experience, and even how they price their work. (I’ve long been guilty of selling the what and the how.)
But the best companies sell the why. First and foremost, they know their why. In his talk, Sinek uses Apple as a prime example. Apple doesn’t sell their what, or even their how. Apple sells its why. What Apple is all about is freeing the individual from convention. It’s the ungrammatical “Think Different” campaign from the nineties. It’s the famous “1984” Super Bowl commercial showing Apple breaking down the IBM hegemony.
Because Apple knows itself and its why, it’s able to sell pretty much whatever it wants. Who could have imagined 20 years ago that a then-niche computer company would be reinventing music, phones, and computers in general and grow to become the second-largest company in the world? As Sinek puts it, you would never buy a music player from Dell, because Dell is a computer company. But we don’t hesitate to buy a music player, or songs, or a phone, or a TV-content device from Apple, because we don’t think of Apple as a computer company. We think of Apple in terms of what it says about us: Early adopter. Hip. Design-oriented. Geek chic. Individual.
Scoffers, again: “Sure, it’s easy to do with a consumer-products company like Apple, but not so easy with a necessary evil like legal services.” But I disagree, and so does Sinek. Apple works as an example because most people know about Apple and understand it. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work for law firms. All they have to do is find their why.
In his book, Start With Why, Sinek explains that most whys begin as a statement of belief. In fact, it’s often best to express them with a statement that begins, “I believe …” So what do you believe? What does your firm believe? (This is easier to arrive at for a small firm than for BigLaw.) Maybe your firm believes that the elderly deserve more respect in society. So you can practice elder law, or family law, or tax law, or real-estate law, or Medicare law, or health law. Doesn’t matter what you do. It matters why you do it.
Maybe your firm believes that American companies pay more than their fair share of taxes. If you believe that passionately, and build your practice around that belief, clients will gravitate to you because they will feel that passion.
The more you can refine and simplify the statement of your belief, the better it works. I’ve been trying since last May to figure out my why (and thus my firm’s why), with many false starts along the way. I finally think I have it figured out: “I believe that everyone is different, and that everyone brings his or her unique knowledge and experience to the table. And any system that tries to treat us all as exactly the same is flawed and demeaning.” How does this belief manifest itself in my practice? As a management employment lawyer, I loathe inflexible employee policies that treat every employee as identical. I can’t stand unions, which value time of service over individual achievement. I detest hourly billing, which only values the time I spend on a matter, and not the individual knowledge that I’m delivering for the client.
If you find your why, you will find it much easier to attract clients who share your beliefs. To get started, take the 18 minutes and watch Sinek’s TED talk. It’s only 0.3 hours — you can make it up somewhere else. And if you like the video, check out his book Start With Why. You can read it on a long plane trip, or a week of bus commutes.
Then ask yourself, why are you a lawyer?
Simon Sinek, Start With Why [YouTube]
Jay Shepherd has run the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group for the past 13 years. Jay also runs Prefix, LLC, which helps lawyers and clients value and price legal services. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at email@example.com.