Know Thyself: Practice with Purpose to Thrive
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes…
… And earthly power doth then show likest to God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
This classic speech from the trial scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice must surely have inspired generations of students to become lawyers, as it did for me. I noticed that Portia’s role as a lawyer gave her the power to speak – and be heard – about something as strict as “justice” and as meaningful as “mercy”. Here I thought was a career that could excite mind, heart and soul, and so at age 15 on the strength of Portia’s speech, I decided I wanted to become a lawyer. A few years later, I felt incredibly lucky to be admitted to law school here.
In due course, I learned to think, speak, act and even look the way I thought a lawyer should. My mind revelled in this new world of legal principles, thought processes and the strange vocabulary of the law. My heart and soul, however, seemed to be relegated to another realm that could not compete with my idea that a successful lawyer is one who wins. As a young corporate lawyer, I enjoyed negotiating agreements and saw my job as being able to out-negotiate the “other side” as if it was a competition to be won, instead of as an opportunity to explore and reach mutual agreements capable of sustaining the commercial and human relationship of the parties. In one negotiation in the 1980s, I was surprised by the gentle remark of the other party’s lawyer to the effect that it was not necessary for negotiations to be adversarial. (I was to marry that lawyer some 25 years later, but that is another story). For many years, however, I was operating as if seeing others as human beings was somehow irrelevant to the serious practice of law and possibly even a sign of weakness.
“Know Thyself”1Quote attributed to Socrates.
Perhaps my younger self was not alone in holding that perspective. In his book The Soul of the Law, the author Benjamin Sells (a psychotherapist and former lawyer) suggests that the Law has its own discomfort with altruistic ideas which escape analytical definition, and that the Law’s discomfort is understandable given its predisposition for clarity, certainty and fact-based argument in respect of defined legal issues. “But over time, the Law’s reluctance to engage the grand ideas at its heart can limit and restrict the range of its imagination”. Sells points to the classical depiction of Justice blindfolded. The blindfold is usually taken to mean that to reach a just decision, we must close our eyes to bias, prejudice, and passion, so as to ensure fairness, impartiality and objectivity. And yet, when taken too far, “Objectivity can have an anesthetizing effect on the lawyer’s soul.”
Lawyers are not the only ones who grapple with engaging the heart and soul in our day-to-day lives – people in general are not equipped with knowledge about the complexity of our selves. It is a curious thing that we are formally educated on the principles of mathematics, science and geography, and of contract, tort and evidence, yet we are not taught the basic principles of what makes us tick as human beings – where our sense of fear, blame, courage and possibilities comes from.
Our psychological illiteracy gets in the way of our effectiveness as human beings and lawyers. When we look at our whole selves, we are endowed with tremendous personal energy in our Physical, Financial, Intellectual, Emotional and Purpose dimensions represented here in this simplified wheel of our human dimensions:
Lawyers are trained to operate in our Physical, Financial and Intellectual dimensions. And yet our Emotional dimension (the human need to feel connected, valued and safe to express ourselves so that we can be at our natural best) and our need for Purpose are also integral parts of our effectiveness as human beings. When we ignore our emotional dimension and need for Purpose, we limit the full range of human energy and ingenuity we can bring to solve life’s problems for ourselves and others. It’s like trying to play the game of Life with the rest of our best players left on the bench.
The good news is that when we do engage all and not just some of our dimensions, we ignite our full human potential in service of ourselves, our clients, and the evolution of the legal profession.
Of these dimensions, Purpose is the most powerful source2In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl describes the search for meaning as the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings. of human energy, motivation and perspective which comes from knowing why what we do actually matters3In their book on resilience, J.L. Patterson and P Kelleher refer to a quote from Loehr and Schwartz on the power of spiritual energy: “Fundamentally, spiritual energy is a unique source for action in all our lives. It is the most powerful source for our motivation, perseverance, and direction. We define spiritual … in … simple and elemental terms: the connection to a deeply held set of values and to a purpose beyond our self-interest. At the practical level, anything that ignites the human spirit serves to drive full engagement and to maximise performance in whatever mission we are on.” beyond simply making money. The catch is that like love, Purpose is not easy to describe precisely. Bear with me as I try to express here what Purpose is and why it is crucial to us as human beings and lawyers.
What is Purpose?
Purpose has been described as “our reason for being”,4Wikipedia, Ikigai, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikigai “our contribution to something bigger than ourselves”.5Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us.
Simon Sinek describes it as our “WHY”.6Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en He explains what Purpose is, and what it is not, using his Golden Circle model of three concentric circles with WHAT as the outer circle, HOW as the middle circle, and WHY at the core of the circle:
- WHAT – these are our products or services. Everyone knows their WHAT.
- HOW – these are our values and principles that guide how we bring our WHY to life.
- WHY – this is our Purpose, our cause, our belief. To be clear, our WHY is not about making money – money is the result of WHAT we do, money enables us to continue expressing our WHY. Sinek says very few people or organisations know their WHY.
Our WHY already exists within us, we just have to unpack it.7While we can have epiphanies about what our Purpose is, our Purpose is often easier to unpack with guided facilitation. One resource to check out is Sinek’s book “Find your WHY”.
As lawyers, our WHAT is the practice of law – the cases we conduct, the agreements we draft, the advice we give. The Law Society of Singapore’s mission statement to sustain an independent bar “which upholds the rule of law and ensures access to justice” is a WHAT. Our Purpose as lawyers is the answer to the question “WHY is “upholding the rule of law and ensuring access to justice” meaningful to us?” (It’s not about making money, remember.)
The answer to our WHY will be unique to each of us as individuals, as teams, and for each firm, but what most Purpose statements have in common is two things: first, the contribution that we make through our life and work, and second, the impact of that contribution.
A simple Purpose statement which expresses our contribution and impact may be constructed along the following lines:
“To [state the contribution]
So that [state the impact of the contribution].”
According to Sinek, the best Purpose statements do not mention WHAT we do.
Here are some inspiring examples from our colleagues in the legal community who have generously consented to share their personal Purpose statements which express what matters most to each of them when they do what they do as lawyers:
- “To bring light to darkness, so that wholeness and healing is restored” – Senior partner doing disputes and restructuring and insolvency work.
- “To be the instrument that helps you find your true song of Life.” – Hanim Hamzah, Regional Managing Partner, ZICO Law Network.
- “… to let you take your emotional pulse, so that you can find your centre of gravity” – Valerie Wu, Head of Tax & Private Wealth Asia, Pinsent Masons LLP.
- “To bring peace of mind to clients who are stuck so that they are enabled to move on in their lives.” – Gregory Vijayendran SC, President, The Law Society of Singapore.
- “To recognise the whole person so that we inspire people to be the best version of themselves.” Bird & Bird Asia Pacific Employment team.
My Purpose is “to illuminate the possibility of possibilities for myself and others, so that we can bring the most and the best of ourselves to the world.”
These are the WHYs that have us get up in the morning feeling engaged and end the day feeling fulfilled.
We translate Purpose into action in our HOWs and WHATs by moving Purpose to the core of our decision-making – using Purpose as the organising principle, the filter, the discipline that guides and integrates our values, strategy, our everyday decisions and actions in all aspects of our Human Dimensions. As Sinek puts it, start with WHY.
Why Purpose Matters – For Our People and Clients
Purpose is the gift that keeps giving.
In addition to being a powerful source of energy and engagement for individuals and teams, Purpose benefits us in our other human dimensions:
- Physical: Purpose contributes to the health of our central nervous system, and minimises the risks of stroke, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases8The Neuroscience of your purpose and personal mission (2018) – Dr Trevor Blattner https://email@example.com/the-neuroscience-of-your-purpose-and-personal-mission-f903b2e4f6c1.
- Financial: Done authentically and consistently, Purpose-driven businesses outperform their peers financially.9Purpose-driven organisations achieved compound annual growth rate of 9.85% compared to their peers’ rate of 2.4% in S&P Consumer Sector (2011 to 2015); those with humanistic values outperformed the S&P 500 by 14 times over 15 years – https://www.kornferry.com/insights/articles/purpose-powered-success#:~:text=The%20study%2C%20called%20%E2%80%9CPeople%20on,cultures%2C%20and%20strong%20financial%20results. This makes sense when we think about the engagement that Purpose ignites in people, and how meaningful businesses resonate with customers. As Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
- Intellectual: More effective solutions are available when the broader context of Purpose in our right brain integrates with our left brain’s structured thinking to generate high quality logic, creativity and innovation.
- Emotional: Purpose helps us with mental wellbeing, especially in tough times. “Philosopher Sam Keen is right when he concludes that stress ‘is a product, not of an excess of fire, but a deficiency in passion’.”10The Soul of Law, pg 45
Why Purpose Matters – For the Future of the Legal Profession
The legal profession faces tremendous pressure – perhaps reaching the level of an existential crisis – caused by technological and social changes. Some factors cited are (1) new technology driving the commoditization of legal services, (2) challenge by the Big 4 consultancies which employ lawyers and are more naturally plugged into their clients’ business, (3) the mindset of lawyers for whom long hours in the hope of becoming a partner one day may not be the attraction it once was, contributing to lawyers leaving the profession and threatening the talent and succession pipeline11“Law firms must practice purpose to survive” https://thisiscaffeine.com/blog/in-the-news/law-firms-must-practice-purpose-to-survive/, and (4) sophisticated instructing clients, many of whom used to be in legal practice and are themselves in purpose-driven organisations, to whom law firms appear increasingly undifferentiated12“Is purpose before profit the new law for firms?” https://www.globallegalpost.com/blogs/commentary/is-purpose-before-profit-the-new-law-for-firms-91802876/.
How do we take charge of shaping the future of the legal profession? Dr. Rachel Remen, a physician-author who writes about the power of healing, and not just curing, offers some wisdom: “It has become common understanding that most problems cannot be solved by approaching them with the same consciousness that created them in the first place … . Our very survival may require that we do something new, something simpler and human. That we become open beyond our expertise.”13Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., My Grandfather’s Blessings – Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. Bringing Purpose into legal practice could be the innovation-catalyst for building a coherent and meaningful connection between the expertise of the law and deepening the felt human experience of our clients. Because Purpose points our attention to our contribution to others, it gives us a unique perspective of empathy and imagination to connect with what our clients yearn for from us as a legal profession, to fulfil even their unarticulated needs and wishes while also fulfilling our own.
When asked to imagine the most fulfilling experience an imaginary client might have with their lawyers, the lawyers I spoke with spontaneously expressed what such a client might wish of their lawyers, along these lines:
- “To be facilitators who listen and help the parties in dispute to understand what their true interests are, and help them plot a direction towards creating value in the parties’ best interests; to show the parties that there are ways to solve disputes other than ways which destroy value.” -Senior partner doing disputes and restructuring and insolvency work.
- “To have lawyers see the human dimension, and bring empathy in solving the problem.” – Simon Chesterman, Dean, Faculty of Law, NUS.
- “To be compassionate legal front-liners who help resuscitate our clients’ businesses which may be in distress.” – Hanim Hamzah, Regional Managing Partner, ZICO Law Network.
- “To create the space for the client to think and also to feel (about their succession planning), in the midst of all the noise and information.” – Valerie Wu, Head of Tax & Private Wealth Asia, Pinsent Masons LLP.
- “To hold space for the client’s vulnerability so that the client can become more courageous.” Gregory Vijayendran SC, President, The Law Society of Singapore.
Interestingly, every one of these perspectives regarding the client’s fulfilling experience is about lawyers who seek to understand their client’s interests in a holistic way and bring value to the client by being empathetic, human lawyers. I am reminded of the ideas of Therapeutic Justice which “focuses our attention on … humanising the law and concerning itself with the human, emotional, psychological side of law and the legal process” and which asks us to see whether the law can be applied in a more therapeutic way14David B. Wexler, Therapeutic Jurisprudence: An Overview https://ssrn.com/abstract=256658#:~:text=Therapeutic%20jurisprudence%20is%20an%20interdisciplinary,as%20a%20potential%20therapeutic%20agent.&text=One%20thrust%20of%20therapeutic%20jurisprudence,may%20be%20more%20therapeutically%20applied.. Perhaps our response to the question of our future as a legal profession is to be open to “something new, something simpler and human” by learning about our own human, emotional and psychological selves, so that we can truly humanise the experience of law for ourselves and all whom we serve.
|Quote attributed to Socrates.
|In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl describes the search for meaning as the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings.
|In their book on resilience, J.L. Patterson and P Kelleher refer to a quote from Loehr and Schwartz on the power of spiritual energy: “Fundamentally, spiritual energy is a unique source for action in all our lives. It is the most powerful source for our motivation, perseverance, and direction. We define spiritual … in … simple and elemental terms: the connection to a deeply held set of values and to a purpose beyond our self-interest. At the practical level, anything that ignites the human spirit serves to drive full engagement and to maximise performance in whatever mission we are on.”
|Wikipedia, Ikigai, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikigai
|Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us.
|Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en
|While we can have epiphanies about what our Purpose is, our Purpose is often easier to unpack with guided facilitation. One resource to check out is Sinek’s book “Find your WHY”.
|The Neuroscience of your purpose and personal mission (2018) – Dr Trevor Blattner https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-neuroscience-of-your-purpose-and-personal-mission-f903b2e4f6c1
|Purpose-driven organisations achieved compound annual growth rate of 9.85% compared to their peers’ rate of 2.4% in S&P Consumer Sector (2011 to 2015); those with humanistic values outperformed the S&P 500 by 14 times over 15 years – https://www.kornferry.com/insights/articles/purpose-powered-success#:~:text=The%20study%2C%20called%20%E2%80%9CPeople%20on,cultures%2C%20and%20strong%20financial%20results.
|The Soul of Law, pg 45
|“Law firms must practice purpose to survive” https://thisiscaffeine.com/blog/in-the-news/law-firms-must-practice-purpose-to-survive/
|“Is purpose before profit the new law for firms?” https://www.globallegalpost.com/blogs/commentary/is-purpose-before-profit-the-new-law-for-firms-91802876/
|Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., My Grandfather’s Blessings – Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging.
|David B. Wexler, Therapeutic Jurisprudence: An Overview https://ssrn.com/abstract=256658#:~:text=Therapeutic%20jurisprudence%20is%20an%20interdisciplinary,as%20a%20potential%20therapeutic%20agent.&text=One%20thrust%20of%20therapeutic%20jurisprudence,may%20be%20more%20therapeutically%20applied.