Whether 'Mission' or 'Vision' Create Consensus About Goals

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In corporate America, mission statements have long been in vogue — and decidedly vague. Most such documents promise to "do the right thing" for customers, employees and society.

In the legal profession, of course, firms have a vastly more complex definition of their mission, codified in the American Bar Association's Rules of Professional Conduct, which are equally applicable as a vision — of competent representation, of ethical conduct and of public service.

Bring this distinction down to the level of the individual law firm. Is there an organizational distinction between mission and vision? Some theorists and legal consultants who have considered the issue propose that a firm's mission is what it is doing now, while a vision is what it wants to do in the future.

Getting hung up on such semantic distinctions may be practically irrelevant. Instead, the real question on this distinction is: "What does your firm want to be when it ‘grows up,' and what tactics do you need to achieve that future?" Worrying about the semantics keeps people from creating what needs to be done.

To answer those questions, a firm must answer one more: "What business are you in?"

In other words, you should decide if you and your firm are in the business of providing general legal services across a wide range of disciplines, or specialized services to answer specific client needs. That in itself raises a full range of other questions:

  • Who are my clients?

  • Why do I want them and what challenges do they present that I find most satisfying?

  • What is my value to them: the reason why they pick up the phone and call me instead of another lawyer?

Surprisingly few firms, large or small, go through this exercise. Deciding what you want the firm to be requires a forward-looking set of goals and objectives, with the proper tactics to implement and achieve them.

Identify the most important and desired business outcomes within a given time period, define what is necessary to achieve those outcomes, and work toward them consistently.

That can only be effective within the context of the firm's decision about what it wants to be — a decision to which all members of the firm must commit and for which they all need to be accountable.

And all of the key players must agree on the firm's direction. If the partners are not clear about the overall goals and the specific objectives and strategies to achieve them, the firm will never get where it wants to be. Partners should "buy in" to the idea, although all members of the firm, including associates, paralegals and staff, need to have input into the decision.

For solo practitioners, the buy-in requirement can encompass a spouse, significant other or an entire family.

No matter how and from whom the relevant information is gathered, don't worry about whether it supports a "mission" or a "vision." The objective is to set professional and personal objectives and stick to them unless and until you consciously change them.

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