The imperative to be strategic applies as much to our personal lives as to our businesses

Caring emojiLooking at what makes a firm resilient, in last month’s column, I quoted David Maister’s statement of values. The first is: “We will make all decisions based on putting the clients’ interest first, the firm’s second and individuals’ last. We do not accept people who fail to operate in this way.” I went on to say that one of the hallmarks of resilient firms is that they go out of their way to look after their people. “Are these two statements consistent with one another?” asked ever-perceptive Mr Editor.

The answer is yes. I think what Maister means is that no business is sustainable if its people do not routinely put what is best for clients and the firm before their personal interest. Take a simple example: let’s say, in a litigation, there is an early opportunity to settle. Settlement will net a hefty fee, and the firm could do with the cash, but it’s clear that the offer falls short of what might be achieved with more time and effort. To recommend settlement in these circumstances would on one measure be in the firm’s and individual solicitor’s interest, but it would also be negligence and misconduct.

Or let’s say it makes sense for the business as a whole to move valuable work from team A to team B. In these circumstances, everyone in team A is obliged ethically to cooperate, even though it causes them personal pain.

This rule is not quite universal: for example, nobody should be asked to sacrifice their health or their most precious relationships to the firm. There may be moments when we have to put our bodies on the line, but if they are a recurring feature, not the exception, it is time to move on, and for the firm to look hard at its culture.

Listen to your heart

This is not an academic scenario. Many join the profession full of hope, ambition and desire to do good, but end up disillusioned and burnt out. The usual suspects are long, unpredictable hours, dealing constantly with complex situations, and difficult people – whether adversaries intent on giving you a hard time, clients to whom you are at best indifferent, or colleagues with the collegiality and empathy of a brick. While all of these play a part, I think often there are subtle factors at play, which are more important.

Over the years in this column, I’ve emphasised the need to be strategic about how and where firms practise, to make thoughtful decisions about what kind of business they want to be and the clients they aspire to serve. It’s equally important to take this approach to our careers. As a wise practitioner once said to me, “The firm has its agenda, one has one’s own agenda, and the two are not necessarily the same”. In the same way that it’s folly for firms to do work just because “it keeps the lights on”, it’s vital that we make decisions about what we do and where, based on a thoughtful, honest appraisal of our personal strengths and weaknesses, what we want from our careers, and how we want to live our lives.

Of course, we need to pay the bills, but our needs are also spiritual. We must feel that our lives have purpose, and that what we do has a value beyond the essentials of providing food and shelter. Indeed, it’s never a bad idea to ask occasionally, “Do I want to be a lawyer at all?” The more we invest in our careers, the more we want to feel vindicated in our choices, and so we become resistant to the possibility of change. But the skills acquired practising law: analysis, research, exercising judgment, coping with complexity, negotiation, working under pressure and as part of a team, apply to countless other roles. “Always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”, counselled Hilaire Belloc. We should never be afraid to let go and grasp new things, if that’s what our heart tells us.

Thank you, and goodbye

This is the last Word of Gold. After almost nine years, I think the Society and its members deserve to hear a new voice. It’s been a fantastic privilege to have this platform, and though I think it’s the right time to exit, I will miss it. I’m sincerely thankful to the many people who have been so supportive of my meanderings.

In particular, I want to express my deep gratitude to editor Peter Nicholson for all his support and friendship over the years, which I’ve appreciated probably more than he knows. He is an immensely accomplished professional, but more than that, a person of warmth, kindness and decency. The Journal is safe in his hands, and I wish both it and him, the highly successful future they both deserve.

The Journal is, in turn, grateful to Stephen for his loyal service, and his insights which we know have been appreciated by many. – Editor

The Author

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. t: 07968 484232; w: www.stephengold.co.uk; Twitter: @thewordofgold

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