Shifting the Balance to Service From Servitude – With a Focus on Meaning

Service is meaningful. Service is motivating. Ask one hundred lawyers what they most enjoy about their work, and most will tell you it is helping clients.

What is meaningful to lawyers about their work is, in a word, service.

What is burning them out is servitude.

In article one of this series, I explored the factors that cause service to slip into servitude and the negative consequences of this. If you haven’t read that article, please start there.

In this article, I will continue to explore another powerful lever for rebalancing the scales back towards service – meaning.

The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. —Viktor E. Frankl (1959, p. 110)

Meaning can be found everywhere. From small momentary acts to more considerable achievements. It is experienced when advancing a goal or acting on a value.

Meaning gives us a sense of contribution and provides an emotional reward. A mediator recently told me about the satisfaction he experienced at the end of a tough day. The matter wasn’t resolved but had been measurably progressed towards resolution. The challenge of mediating this thorny dispute was highly engaging. The fact that he achieved tangible progress was a meaningful accomplishment and intrinsically rewarding.

When our work is meaningful to us, when we can see the positive impact of our actions on our clients, colleagues, our firm, or our community, this fuels us with energy and drive.

Notice your day and the momentary experiences of meaning. The conversation with a junior lawyer that helps them overcome a challenge. A call that goes well with a client as you share some impactful advice. Or the brief conversation you had with a legal assistant about her son’s recovery from an accident.

Service and meaning are inexorably connected. Lose the meaning and the balance tips to servitude.

In the legal profession today, many have lost the connection to meaning. Moving from transaction to transaction, file to file, the focus shifts to staying caught up, not dropping the ball, and desperately trying to catch up. With a focus entirely on what is urgent and the looming threat of negative consequences, it is easy to lose sight of the meaning and value of our work.

Law firm leadership also has a role to play in this loss of meaning. When the sole performance indicator measured and rewarded is the billable hour and dollars collected — meaning takes a hit. Yes, the numbers matter, and so do many other measures of contribution and performance.

This is why we coaches hear despair from associates about the fact that all that seems to matter is the money. Not long out of law school, they remember what they had hoped for from their legal careers and one part of that was helping and contributing to a greater purpose.

Money alone isn’t motivating. And when that is all there is, the focus becomes making as much as possible and then getting out.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is abundant meaning to be found in legal practice, and the lawyers I know who flourish are connected to this.

  • The entrepreneurial business law associate who loves helping his clients grow their companies.
  • The lawyers who enjoy mentoring and teaching or leading a practice group or deal team.
  • The real estate partner who greatly enjoys working with her team to serve her clients with this significant area of concern to their business. In her time off work, she is on the board of a not-for-profit housing association.
  • The criminal lawyer who relishes defending her clients and ensuring their rights are respected and protected.
  • The energy lawyer whose work helps support projects that are leading the green energy revolution.
  • The personal injury lawyer who cares so much about supporting his injured clients.

I could fill a book with stories about lawyers and the meaningful work they engage in.

It is time to grasp hold of the meaning of our daily lives.

You can begin by initiating a practice of noticing each day when you are experiencing moments of meaning. For one week, pause at noon and once more in the evening to ask, “what do I notice was meaningful for me this morning (or afternoon)? What can I learn from this? Is there any opportunity for experiencing more of this?”

For law firm leaders, here are some ideas for how to plug into the energy source meaning will provide for your firm.

  • Client facility tours – What is the company you are helping engaged with? What is the impact of that company’s work, and how are you helping them achieve this? How can you advise them and prepare yourself today to ensure you continue to be their partner in the future?
  • Historical retrospectives – pull out the old development projects for the juniors and tour the buildings your firm helped finance and develop. Or the industrial facilities or energy plants, and talk about the impact of these projects on the community, the city, and the country.
  • Financings – celebrate with the team how this funding helps the company. How will these funds broaden the company’s impact? Will this financing create new jobs? How did the legal team help make this possible?
  • Litigation – dig into what is meaningful for the client in this litigation or, more broadly, how it may contribute to jurisprudence. In cases where meaning may be hard to find, how do the billings for this matter contribute financial resources for the firm’s probono efforts?

Law firm partners, practice group leaders, and law firm leaders track the impact of your firm’s work and communicate this message at every opportunity so it is understood by all members of your team. That’s how you get to meaning.

I recommend quarterly meaning reports featuring different areas of the firm. If some lawyers struggle with finding meaning in their legal work, and it can be more difficult in some practice areas, hire a coach to help them uncover what is beneath the surface.

For in-house counsel, these same opportunities exist to track the meaning of your contributions to your organizations.

Rebalance the scales towards service in your legal workplace by bringing meaning back into focus.

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