The cultural cornerstone of your firm

Susan Letterman White, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Navel-gazing, dreaming, the soft stuff, and a waste of time. These and more have been used to describe retreats where the discussion concerns a firm's mission, values, principles or norms.

Discussing values, principles and norms - the cultural cornerstone of a firm - seems to some like an aspirational exploration and a yearning for a kumbaya moment. It's compared to talking about the heart of the organization. Reality is quite different. These elements actually compose the brain of the firm. Let me explain.

Key performance questions keep organizations moving forward profitably and effectively. They are the questions about where, what, with whom and how people should do the work needed to support the vision and goals of the business model. They are the questions about resource allocation to support the business model. They are the questions about which strategy a leader should employ.

Your firm's cultural cornerstone is what imposes the framework for developing your key performance questions. A solid framework leads to valuable questions and answers. A firm with an ambiguous or contradictory framework is like living in a cottage in the woods of New Hampshire, leaving the front door wide open, and then being surprised when a skunk or raccoon decides to visit. Next thing you know you have a woodland creature sitting on your couch, eating your popcorn, and watching Netflix on your TV.



Don't get sidetracked by debating the difference between a mission and purpose. What matters is clarity about your purpose: what you want to achieve vis-à-vis your clients, people internally and the larger world.

- What problems do you solve? What do you plan to offer and to whom?

- What do you intend for the people who will help you? Why would they want to help you?

- What impact do you want to have in the larger world?

An ambiguous purpose or mission sows the seeds of confusion for you, your prospective clients, and the people who want to help you succeed.



There is a difference between espoused values and values in action. Espoused values show up in a mission or purpose. Actual values show up in everyday choices and actions.

Values conflict with one another, so prioritize yours. For example, it's easy to say that you value punctuality and perfection equally. What happens when you have to choose?

Conflicting values are easy to see when choices are made about resource allocation. Where do you choose to spend your time and money? How do you allocate space and technology in your firm?

- What are your values relating to your mission or purpose?

- What are your values relating to your people?

- What are your values relating to your clients?

- What are your values relating to your other external stakeholders?

Contradictory values frustrate people and lead to arbitrariness and unpredictability in important decision-making.


A principle is a statement about the application of a value in a specific situation. When principles are written and referenced at key decision points, they maintain focus on what matters most to a person or organization.

- What is your highest priority?

- What is your attitude toward change?

- What is your primary measure of success?

- What else matters to your purpose and values?

Principles help maintain alignment between decisions, actions, purpose/mission and values.


Norms and culture

Norms are agreed-upon behaviors among the people in a group or organization. Since they are behavior-based, they may take intention and practice for a person to follow. Which behaviors can all people working together agree to express?

Culture is the combination of the expression of values and the principles adopted by most of the people in a group. It is the unstated rules of how to behave within a group to belong and be successful.


Alignment vs. misalignment

When aligned, the cultural cornerstone frames key performance questions about whether the firm is doing what its business model and strategy require. Instead of general purpose questions, you can craft specific questions.

For example, a law firm with a mission of being the low-cost provider of insurance defense cases with a high-touch client feel leverages technology and other tools for efficiency in working with clients. It prioritizes a value of efficiency and articulates a principle of simplicity, maximizing the amount of work not done. Key performance questions relating to technology would include:

- What part of our work process does the technology improve?

- How much more revenue are we generating as a result?

- Specific questions lead to specific solutions. Without a cultural cornerstone, key performance questions are never asked or are too general:

- What was our revenue last year?

- What is it this year?

- Why?

The focus of general questions tends to be on the cause of a problem instead of a solution.

When misaligned, confusion and conflict ensue. There is disagreement as to which values are most important and confusion as to what people should be doing.

And before you know it, instead of a robust stream of revenue created by a cohesive and healthy workforce with the right technology, you have a woodland creature sitting on your couch, eating your popcorn, and watching Netflix on your TV.


Susan Letterman White works with lawyers and law firms on leadership, performance, marketing and business development. She is a practice advisor at Massachusetts LCL/LOMAP and the principal consultant at Letterman White Consulting. She practiced employment law for more than 20 years.

Published: Tue, Mar 05, 2019