REUTERS | Molly Riley

What’s your purpose?

My work in recent years and my book, Business Thinking in Practice for In-House Counsel, focuses on human-centred skills for business and how these are needed and can be developed by lawyers. That’s not just my predilection, but also the direction of travel in which skills needed by business leaders and, by extension, legal leaders are headed.

While my focus is mostly on legal departments and general counsel (GC), this trajectory is not only reserved for in-house lawyers. Law firm lawyers will increasingly need to focus on human-centred business skills, alongside their technical expertise. As digitisation increases in both business and law, bringing more human-centred skills to the fore will be what sets human talent apart. Even the most advanced artificial intelligence is still some way off developing skills like creativity, empathy and leadership.

Identifying human-centred skills in business

I have to say that my process was not hugely scientific. Instead it was reacting to the ideas that I heard in-house lawyers speaking about and, sometimes, agonising over. For example:

  • How to best approach leadership without formal leadership training.
  • Motivating their team and recalibrating the legal department’s standing in the organisation via an exploration of purpose.
  • Working on the culture of the legal team and of the organisation.
  • Ways to practically ensure more internal and external collaboration.
  • How to best approach innovation in time and resource poor legal teams.

The one exception to that was creativity which, I think, lawyers have not focused on sufficiently. However, I’m now finding more lawyers receptive to having conversations about it as it’s a necessary component of innovation.

Defining your purpose

Some years ago, I was having dinner with a law firm chair and a GC. The GC and I were enthusiastically talking about purpose; the law firm lawyer seemed somewhat bemused.
Fast-forward a few years, and now an increasing number of law firms are looking for their purpose and issuing purpose statements. Purposeful companies are also generally able to attract better talent as younger generations are looking for metrics beyond money and titles to measure their professional success.

To work effectively, purpose must grow organically and be something that everyone in an organisation can understand, not just leadership or marketing. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning to go to work beyond the need to pay the bills. It has a special resonance for lawyers. Ask yourself why you still practice and think back to a younger, more starry-eyed version of yourself! Your purpose in becoming a lawyer might have been to fight injustice or to make the world a better place.

For in-house lawyers, it’s why you originally became a lawyer, why you have stuck with it and why you work for your company. An in-house lawyer’s remit has expanded over the years to cover many more issues than simply whether “it is legal”. They must now consider their organisation’s activities in the context of social responsibility, including areas such as ethics, the environment, diversity and human rights.

The operational aspect of purpose

For many legal teams I have worked with, just asking the question, “why are we here?” is the first step on the road to bringing transformational thinking to both what they do, how they do it and who does it. (This is in the sense of “why does an internal legal department exist and is not outsourced”, as opposed to the general meaning of life!)

These human-centred business skills are like dominoes, and when one falls, you start thinking about others. The Crown Estate’s legal team, who form my case study for purpose in the book, decided that they existed “to create a sustainable advantage”. Every legal team should consider the cultural framework in which it operates. This includes thinking about:

  • How the team is led.
  • Who the talent is that will create the framework.
  • What creative ideas will drive its purpose.
  • How to work together to create those ideas.
  • How to practically realise talent, creativity and collaboration via innovation.

So, back to my original question, what’s your purpose?

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