Focus: Values statements

The top UK firms spend time and money poring over their ‘principles’. But isn’t it obvious what these values should be? And does having them in writing really make any difference to a firm’s culture?


Focus: Values statementsEvery month Clifford Chance programs a new screensaver on to the desk of every staff member. One month it might read “Exceeding clients’ expectations.” The next it might say “Strength through diversity” or “Local excellence, ­global standards”.

These slogans might appear ­faintly menacing were it not for the fact that fee-earners tend not to recall which one is on their computer from one month to the next. But these ­apparently random phrases have a meaning. They are taken from the firm’s eight principles, which it unveiled last year. So what is this ­corporate propaganda for? And whom does it benefit?

The numbers
Statements of values or principles are very modish. Some firms have a vision, others do not. And how many values can a firm have? Allen & Overy (A&O) has six, Addleshaw Goddard has five and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has four.

There are further calibrations. Clifford Chance used to have four values: ambition, community, commitment and quality. That has now mutated into eight principles. Norton Rose has five values ­followed by eight conveniently alliterative attributes (see below).

Values, visions, principles: why does any firm need them? Perhaps it is a function of size. As organisations become larger, culture becomes ­harder to steer – and certainly ­harder to ­articulate.

“In smaller firms you can do it by walking the corridors and living it,” says Clifford Chance senior partner Stuart Popham. “But when you’re ­trying to move a mass of people in the right direction and make people accountable, then you need this approach. It makes it easier for a firm to identify as one firm, notwithstanding the fact it has offices all around the globe.”

Discussion of a firm’s values can be useful internally. The process itself, which often relies on focus groups of individuals across a firm, can open up communication. Lovells’ recent ­values exercise brought in staff from across the firm, fee-earner and non-fee-earner alike.

As a result, in stating what a firm expects from its people, a values programme can be a covert ­behavioural tool – or not so covert in ­Norton Rose’s case. The top 10 firm is one of the few to make the connection explicitly, saying: “Our people are ­chosen because they exhibit ­attributes that underpin our values.” London managing partner Deirdre Walker echoes this. “You need to have a ­common understanding and ­baseline,” she says. “With new recruits this is the first thing I talk about.”

Shared values
So is there really any difference at all between firms? Almost all of the top UK firms have these values and have conceived them independently. The values statements of Addleshaws, A&O, Clifford Chance, Clyde & Co, DLA Piper, Eversheds, Freshfields, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Norton Rose and Pinsent Masons make a feast of abstract adjectives.

Yet for an exercise designed to show law firms’ individuality, these statements of values are curiously interchangeable. Again and again firms talk about commitment to clients; excellence; teamwork; ­dedication; respect; inclusivity – the list goes on. Slaughter and May does not have a values statement on its website, but does have a few short paragraphs describing its culture. It amounts to the same thing, but is without the sense of a centralised management initiative.

Most firms’ values statements read as a manifesto of the obvious. Treat colleagues with respect? Check. Be good at the technical part of the job? Check. Be client-focused? Check. Addleshaws managing ­partner Mark Jones defends it, saying: “Yes, it’s common sense. But the trouble with common sense is that it’s not ­actually very common. What the ‘AG Way’ is intended to do is to get people to understand that’s how we want all of our people to behave.”

Still, a spot of textual analysis does show up some interesting differences. Of the big four, A&O (six values) and Clifford Chance (eight principles) are most similar to each other: their first three are actually identical, centering on excellence, client focus and ­nurturing talent. Of the two sets of statements, A&O’s is more prolix: each of its six values has a further five or six bullet points glossing the original meaning.

Meanwhile, Freshfields (four ­values) and Linklaters (three values, six principles) adopt more succinct approaches. Linklaters’ statement, although slightly longer, is almost conversational (“Get things done – if there’s a way, we’ll find it.”).

Three firms tie their strategic ­positioning to their values: Clifford Chance, Lovells and DLA Piper. ­Clifford Chance talks of “local ­excellence, global standards”, while Lovells ;says: ;“[Our] ;superb ­international network and our breadth and depth of capabilities are among the firm’s greatest strength and are at the heart of our ­relationship with our clients […] Mutual respect and consideration support a collegiate and ­collaborative working style across ­different ­practices, jurisdictions and ­departments.”

DLA Piper’s vision and values statement is an object lesson in ­clarity; it moves from the statement of the vision to what it means in ­practice for the firm and describes the point at which it will have achieved that vision – a four-part concrete description that, for ­example, includes the aim: “No ­tender list for a client seeking ­multiple-jurisdiction legal services would be complete without us.”

Other firms show different quirks. Eversheds, which like DLA Piper goes into some detail on what its ­values mean in a practical way for client service, is the only firm to ­mention work-life balance. It states: “We will recognise the need to ­balance personal and business lives.”

Elsewhere, A&O and Clydes are “entrepreneurial”, while A&O is also “innovative”. Bizarrely, Herbert Smith is only “innovative when required”, but wins points for being the only one of these firms to find a new word to play with – in this case “stewardship”.

And only two firms mention “fun”: A&O and Slaughters – clearly an addition by Slaughters senior partner Chris Saul on his elevation to the role this year.

Lost in translation
Although most of the big UK law firms have avoided David Brent-style excesses, there is a fundamental ­oddity about their values statements. And there is a lingering question of what on earth these manifestos sound like when translated. Law firms may operate internally in ­English, but global firms operate in a multiplicity of languages. The Brits have been used to the uneasy mix of quasi-emotional language of values with bland managerialism, but pity the translator faced with the task.

Also, like the bad fairy at the ­christening, there is a glaring absence witin these statements. What is the one thing that has really driven UK law firms to succeed over the past decade? Competition with each other to be the most financially successful: in other words, the profit motive. The values, vision and principles all depict ­idealised and laudable working practices. But don’t look inside them for law firms’ real business motivations.

VISIONS

Eversheds
To be a great place to work and the most client-centred international law firm.

Norton Rose
To be recognised as one of the ­global elite practices.

Herbert Smith
To be recognised as a leading ­international, commercial law
firm capable of meeting the
needs of clients for legal ­services
in the ­principal economies of the world.

DLA Piper
To be the leading global business law firm.

VALUES

Most handy with a ­thesaurus: Norton Rose’s, which actually explains its epithets for the hard of thinking. The alliterative attributes are: “Pragmatic (realistic, ­efficient and ­commercial); ­pioneering ­(creative and ­original); ­passionate (confident, ­enthusiastic, positive and ­driven); people-orientated (team workers and players, interested in others, supportive, fair, collaborative, command respect); proactive (get down to business, take the initiative); persistent (unrelenting, ­dedicated and determined); principled (honourable and ­ethical, take responsibility, exercise judgement); and ­productive (efficient and time-conscious).”

Worst management-speak: Freshfields’, for putting the word ‘behaviour’ in the plural.

Most inadvertently Maoist: Addleshaw Goddard’s, for ‘The AG Way’.

Most discursive: Slaughter and May’s, which talks about its culture in a brief text with full sentences and no bullet points.

Most informal: Linklaters’, which has a relatively conversational style.