Vision

Overall The most important element in a satisfying law practice

The act of defining 'vision' must be done with care. The meaning of the word 'vision' is in large part conveyed by the context in which it is used, and thus, standing alone, is ambiguous. The danger is that intellectualizing the definition and thus limiting the scope of the ambiguity, functions to diminish the importance of the concept. For example, a definition which intellectualizes a concept that is not entirely intellectual and thus makes it appear less important is found in political history. The concept is called Communism. As Marx and Engels originally defined this political and economic concept, it wasn't exactly overwhelming. When Lenin turned it into a vision it became something thousands were willing to die for. The fact that, in the long run, it was wrong and couldn't fulfill its promise didn't matter. While our situation isn't nearly so dramatic, this illustrates the point that there are things in life, that, when put into words, discussed and debated, seem diminished. The converse is true as well. There are concepts that, as part of our lives, are more than the sum of their words. Vision is one of these.

'Vision' is an articulated aspirational objective.

Including a mixed metaphor (articulated / vision) in a definition isn't such a hot idea. 'Articulated' means clearly spoken in words. 'Vision' refers both to our gift of sight and the conclusions we reach as a result. However, we don't 'see' in words. Equally important, we don't 'feel' in words. We feel in emotions that can be as powerfully controlling as they are difficult to explain.

Vision, is not limited to a sight analogy. Some of us 'see' ourselves arguing before the Supreme Court, some of us 'see' ourselves making a lot of money, some 'see' themselves making a difference in their clients' lives. These various aspects of vision come together when we express this vision in words.

For the members of a profession whose day to day activities are word driven intellectual exercises, our definition of vision carries within it a little discomfort if not risk.

The nature of vision is idiosyncratic.

Similar people can have incompatible visions. One of the fellows who recently escaped from prison in Tennessee was captured when his drinking buddies turned him in for the reward money. These gentlemen may have been compatible in many ways, but an incompatible vision on one element of their relationship had a watershed impact as well as an ironic twist. Compatible visions are key elements to a successful long-term relationship, whether between lawyer and client or between quarterback and receiver. Steve Young is supposed throw the ball, Jerry Rice is supposed to catch it. They both are to be totally focused, endure pain without complaint and share the glory of victory or the ignominy of defeat. Each needs the other for each to enjoy individual success. Their success is more a result of their compatible visions than it is a result of God given talent, hard work or luck. The same is true between a lawyer and client and between stakeholders within a law firm.

Expressing your firm's vision in words is important because until you do...
It really isn't clear to you, and
You can't share it with others through verbal means.

In a changing environment, clarity of vision is priceless asset. Think of anyone you know who you would describe as 'knowing what they are doing'. What you are describing is your perception that this person has clarity of vision. Clarity of vision is a necessary precursor to competence. Competence is, after all, just the ability to discipline chaos to a purpose. Practice development competence is just the ability to choose and reach a professional goal in an evolving environment and changing marketplace.

Most law firms already have a reasonable level of practice administration efficiency. While the day to day business activities of the office can usually be improved, vision goes beyond 'fungible' activities and considers both activities and status that are professionally satisfying. In other places we've described satisfaction as experience judged by expectation. Vision relates to the expectation component.

Vision is not a gift.

In the sense that some of us have a 'gift' for the piano or mastery of foreign languages, vision is not a gift. Everyone has vision to one degree or another. Vision is what encouraged many lawyers to do the work and incur the debt of law school. For some, their vision became clouded over time. For others, changes in their personal and professional circumstance caused the vision to lose focus. For many of us, changes in our practice environment and market make the vision seem unobtainable.

Vision can not be given, it must be discovered.

If one is not already expressed, the first step in the practice development process is articulation of the common professional vision of the stakeholders. Regardless of past success, senior leadership at a law firm can't effectively dictate the professional vision to the stakeholders. This is for two reasons. First, consider your vision, my vision and our vision. Your vision may be interesting but it is not inherently valuable to me. Perhaps it will help me understand you better, but it is still your vision. My vision is, likewise, not inherently valuable to you. The professional visions of others are only valuable to us to the extent that they are meaningfully predictive in actualizing our individual vision. (For example, from these pages you may come to feel that AMI's vision predicts that our engagement will help your firm actualize its vision. To this extent our vision is meaningful to you. Otherwise it is a curiosity.)

When people seek to join you because of your vision, it is not because you have given your vision to them, but because in the clarity with which you express your vision, they have discovered theirs.

The second reason senior leadership can't dictate vision to the firm is the universal recognition of perceptual differences. Not only does everyone perceive their individual situation as unique but they perceive interpersonal competition as well. Examples of this outside law firms abound. If you have teenage children it is likely that they have mentioned that 'you don't/can't understand' their friends, choices in music or whatever. While you are all one family and they may intellectualize your leadership, concern for their welfare and even wisdom, they steadfastly maintain that they have a different vision, even if they can't explain it, just because they aren't you. If you are leading a law firm of junior attorneys and non-attorney staff, having them think and feel that 'they aren't you' as you try to impose your vision is inefficient if not counterproductive.

Vision is not for wimps

A simple, elegant statement of vision is a powerful organizational tool. It provides a fundamental unity of ultimate purpose that allows the group to function efficiently as a unit. It provides a means to unify individuals of widely divergent backgrounds, abilities and circumstances into an organization greater than the sum of its parts. No one mistakes the Marine Corps for anything other than a very focused, efficient, goal oriented organization. It starts with their vision, "Semper Fi".

In seeking to articulate a vision common to all the stakeholders in a firm, certain assumptions are a mistake.

It is a mistake to assume that 'vision' is a marketing tool.

It is a mistake to assume that determining the validity of a vision statement is a function of seniority. It's right when all agree it is right, not when the senior partner or management committee says so. It is a mistake to assume that the motivational effect of a clearly articulated vision is directly proportional to seniority. The young, who find personal value in a clearly articulated vision of what they can contribute, are more motivated by a clearly articulated vision than the old, who are more likely to value the status quo and whatever security it brings.

It is a mistake to assume that vision is more important to the highly compensated or the highly educated.

Vision is always positive.

Vision can be prosaic, it can be shared by many, it can even be mean spirited or just plain dumb. But it can't be negative. A vision in the negative is to see what can't be there. An attorney can have the vision of economic success, or even of making more money than a certain competitor. But if he or she says that their vision is 'not to go bankrupt' its not a vision, it is the prelude to an exit from the profession. Consider telling your travel agent that the articulated aspirational objective (vision) of your next vacation is "avoiding all resort hotels we won't like or can't afford". Vision must be positive in both form and substance.

Clarity of vision is the antidote to the poison of ambiguity.

Where is the legal profession going? Where do you think you and/or your firm will be professionally in ten years? Numerous other research based organizations and we have volumes of empirical data on the ennui infecting the legal profession. Analogize your firm to the three activities of an army. An army is either on a campaign, preparing for a campaign or losing. Or analogize to your individual professional life. You're either going someplace or you're just getting older.

Clarity of vision is a key element of trust.

In light of Core Concept #1 (90% of your clients judge you professionally by standards different from those you apply to yourself.) What is the basis on which clients trust their attorney? There are a number of elements that create the environment for trust, but don't themselves constitute the basis of the trust relationship. Caring, competency and integrity attributes together with good client manners create this environment. But core trust comes into being when the client perceives the attorney's vision to be aligned with the client's. They don't have to be the same, but they must be consistent. To demonstrate by analogy to another profession, if you're going to have heart bypass surgery, your trust in the physician is primarily based on your vision of having a successful surgery aligned with your perception of your physician's vision of performing another perfect surgery. Second hand reports on his or her competence, the warmth of the bedside manner, the candor of the pre-surgery conversations all take a back seat - in terms of your trust in your doctor - to the clarity of the doctor's vision. It's the same between attorney and client.

Vision together with communication is the essence of leadership.

Within a law firm - as opposed to a group of attorneys sharing office space - the essence of leadership is the ability to keep the common professional vision in the minds and hearts of all the stakeholders. This is different from training, it is different from supervision and it is different from mentoring. Training and supervision are administrative functions. Mentoring within a firm works best when the mentor and protégé share a vision, but is essentially a one to one relationship. Leadership goes beyond this and can exist in an individual who is lousy as a trainer, supervisor or mentor. A leader must possess both the vision and the ability to communicate it.

The expression of vision in words is important when a large part of the relationship is other than face to face.

Words are the principle way we share vision with others. Until we share our individual visions we can not develop a common vision for the law firm whose practice we wish to develop. This is why, for most successful law firms improvements in interstakeholder communications produce bottom line gains most efficiently. The ability to communicate vision is also very important in a practice development context. For firms that receive a large portion of their business by recommendation, reputation or referral, third parties will communicate something about the firm to prospective clients. The skill of the stakeholders to clearly and consistently articulate 'what the firm is all about' will help those recommending or commenting on the firm to present the firm in a way that is clear and accurate.

The importance of vision is not diminished if it is the preservation of the status quo.

There are two continuums to consider here. One is the vision continuum. At one end is an internal vision of absolute clarity and simplicity and at the other is externally imposed chaos.

The other is the continuum of the 'distance' between where we are and where we aspire to be. At one end of the continuum is radical change in substance and at the other end is preservation of the status quo. I have a long way to go before I achieve my svelte aspiration, while I have friends who only aspire to stay thin. This concept of aspirational distance is important in a planning process because progress in achieving vision is usually made in small increments.


    Please call, mail, or e-mail with your comments or for more information.



Advocates Management, Inc.
1332 South 26th Street
Manitowoc, WI 54220
Voice: (877) ADVOCATES (toll free)
Fax: (920) 684-4414
E-mail: info@advocatesnetwork.com


Home       Who We Are     Articles      Speakers