Articulating The Values of Your Professional Service Firm

By Nancy Blodgett

To come to consensus about what its stands for and where it's headed, one South Carolina-based professional service firm recently took the time required to produce an organizational mission statement.

Taking a key idea out of Stephen Covey's best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney, decided it was important to draft a mission statement for the law firm. Covey has suggested that to be truly effective, people must "Begin with the End in Mind." That is, think about how you want to be remembered when you die and then live in accordance with that vision. Organizations can use the same principle to increase their effectiveness.

R. Wayne Byrd, a trial lawyer with Turner, Padget, told members of the ABA's Quality Improvement Task Force at its October Law Practice Management meeting in Coronado, Calif., that his firm decided to draft a mission statement so that everyone is "singing off the same song sheet."

Turner, Padget, with 41 lawyers and offices in Columbia, Florence and Charleston, S.C., is one of ten firms set up by the American Bar Association's Law Practice Management Section (LPMS) in 1993 to be a model or "demonstration firm" on how to implement a quality improvement program in a law firm environment.

At the meeting, Byrd, a member of the firm's Management Committee, said that before the process of drafting a mission statement began, he sent a memo to everyone at the firm explaining their objective: "Our goal is to create a firm mission statement which serves as the supreme law of our firm--our constitution with which all other policies, systems, structures, strategies and management behavior are in aligned congruent harmony. It is hoped that it will serve as a source of motivation, inspiration, and decision-making guidance to management and all employees (i.e., shareholders, associates, paralegals and staff.)"
To help with the process, Byrd referred them to Chapter 29 ("Corporate Constitutions") and 30 ("Universal Mission Statement") of Covey's book Principle-Centered Leadership. Byrd also recommended that people read about Habit Two, "Begin With the End in Mind," from the Seven Habits book. To make the book readily available to everyone in the organization, the firm bought 40 copies, along with audiocassettes of both Covey books.

In preparation for the discussions, Byrd also asked each person to contribute his or her idea of a rule or principle that should govern the way we live our lives and conduct business. When he asked for this, Byrd said his e-mail beeper announcing messages was "going crazy." People were faxing him messages left and right, sharing such aphorisms as "To Thine Own Self Be True" and "Be the Best That You Can Be."

Mission Statement Drafting Process

To begin the drafting process, the firm divided into nine or ten focus groups of 12 to 15 people and then scheduled two-hour meetings for these groups. Each focus group was asked what they thought the firm's mission and vision were and what values and principles the firm stood for: "What is most important to the firm? What contribution can we make? What is the meaning of what we do? What are we about? What do we want to be? What do we want to do? What is best, highest, noblest?"

To emphasize the importance of the mission statement drafting process, two or three representatives of the firm's five member Management Committee attended each focus group meeting. "The focus groups were all saying the same things--that they valued honesty, integrity and client-service," Byrd told the audience.

The Management Committee later selected people from each focus group to form a Mission Statement Committee. Fourteen people--including partners, associates, paralegals, secretaries and a representative of the Management Committee--were selected. The Management Committee then compiled a list of words and phrases consistently used by the focus groups and gave it to the Mission Statement Committee to help it craft a mission statement.
Four months later, the proposed mission statement was given to all firm attorneys to discuss and consider at its retreat. At the retreat, 90 minutes had been set aside to discuss the draft. The firm's managing partner, Carl B. Epps III, thought the lawyers would quickly tire of the subject. But the discussion proved quite lively, with the lawyers debating at length about the proposed words to be included the document.

One lawyer asked, "What does Turner, Padget define as 'morals?'" Does that mean high morals, low morals, no morals? Then the lawyers spent 15 minutes talking about the word "faith" and what it really meant. For instance, were the firm's aspirations too high? Some lawyers were asking "Can we really have faith in the people we work with?"

One lawyer said, "If you don't have faith in the people you work with, then you should leave the firm." "That may have been when we turned around and said 'we have a mission statement,'" Byrd told the group attending the LPMS meeting. At the close of the retreat, the Mission Statement Committee was given a synopsis of the lawyers comments," which were used to help the group submit a final version to the Management Committee.

The firm formally adopted the mission statement in June 1995. It reads: Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney is a client-focused law firm committed to providing efficient, exceptional legal services and offering responsible leadership in our community. Dedicated to the principles of excellence, integrity, loyalty and trustworthiness, we strive to enhance the economic well being and quality of life of all we serve. Building upon a tradition of high moral values, mutual respect and professionalism, we constantly endeavor to improve through innovation, shared vision and faith in one another."

"We will be managing our firm with this document," Byrd told demonstration firm representatives, members of the ABA's Quality Improvement Task Force--which sponsored the weekend workshop--and other LPMS members attending the presentation.

Since the mission statement was adopted, Byrd said the firm has been "making more progress than we've ever made before in big, big ways."

For instance, the firm has realigned its compensation system and billing methods to support its new vision. Firm lawyers are no longer rewarded based on the number of hours they bill. Rather, each stockholder is rewarded based on what he or she agreed to do at the start of the year in the areas of client service, marketing responsibilities, management responsibilities, mentoring of associates, level of responsibility in the firm's quality improvement effort and so on."

Having the lawyers' articulate their agreements at the front-end is the most important and valuable part of this new system," said Byrd.

At the end of year, any profits that remain are divided up equally among the 21 partners. "Doing this encourages teamwork and cross-selling," Byrd said. "This kind of system provides monetary compensation for people to work together. As Covey says, 'You have to water the flowers you want to grow.' You have to reward serving the client efficiently and effectively."

Turner, Padget is also attempting to eliminate the hourly billing system from everything it does as they view this widely-used method of billing as promoting inefficiency in producing work product. It recently made arrangements with several large insurance carriers to produce work on a flat-fee basis. And doing this has worked out to the financial benefit of both clients and firm.

The next step for Turner, Padget is to develop short- and long-term goals that are tied to its mission statement. "We need to organize the firm into practice group teams and have each group formulate their own goals on a 3-month, 6-month, 1-year and 5-year basis in keeping with our mission statement," said Byrd.

Strategic Planning Guided by Articulated Values

Another ABA demonstration firm that has articulated its values but is further down the road in terms of hammering out a long-term strategic plan guided by those values, is Mays & Valentine of Richmond, Va. Last May, the firm finalized its three-year strategic plan, which outlines the 130-lawyer firm's "values and goals that will guide its key decisions and the allocation of its resources for the next thirty-six months."

The firm's managing partner, Robert Seabolt, shared portions of the plan at the Quality Improvement Task Force weekend workshop. Stated values espoused by Mays & Valentine, according to the plan, include:

  1. Pride in the firm. "We are proud of the fact that as the third largest law firm in Virginia, we have competed successfully among the top tier of Virginia law firms for more than 75 years."
  2. Outstanding client service. "Determining and then exceeding client expectations are the key to our future prosperity."
  3. Positive image within the community and peers. "We have benefited over the years from an excellent reputation among lawyers and judges in the communities we serve."
  4. Community service. "Our lawyers are active and visible in the communities in which we live."
  5. Progressive Marketing. "Making clients aware of our capabilities is advantageous to both the clients and the firm and is the responsibility of every lawyer in the firm."
  6. Financial Strength and Responsibility. "We are very responsible in the handling of our internal financial affairs."
  7. Internal Culture. "We have a strong tradition of maintaining a proper balance between hard work and quality of life outside the office."

In terms of the firm's long-term goals and strategies, one example Seabolt shared with the group related to client service. Mays & Valentine's goal in this area is that "client service should be a point of significant differentiation between M&V and competing firms, both larger and smaller."

Examples of strategies that the firm is taking to improve client service are: to train all its lawyers in client service skills, such as listening, writing and cross selling. It has also assigned "client managers" to every client in the firm.

Seabolt told the group his firm "could not have effectively embarked on the strategic planning process without education first in the principles of Total Quality Management. The two go hand in hand."

As part of the firm's ongoing quality improvement program, Mays & Valentine measures key performance indicators. For instance, it keeps statistics on the speed at which it bills and collects for its work, the number of minutes between the time a fax is received and is delivered to the right recipient, the number of employee absences per month and the amount of time the computer system is down. "We have good trend lines in all these areas," Seabolt reported. He added that this information, and other internal benchmarking data, is regularly given to the firm's senior administrative staff to help them in the firm's drive for continuous improvement.

Copyright Nancy Blodgett, Performance Excellence

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