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Finding your why – a corporate counsel perspective

A great leader has purpose, they are driven by a genuine passion for what they do. Think Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill or Malala Yousafzai. Their determination and strength comes from the heart, in turn inspiring others. It is imperative for General Counsel to possess a ‘why’ if they are to lead effectively. This ‘why’ may not be about institutional change like King or Yousafazi’s ‘why’, who were fighting for human rights, but it must be enough to drive General Counsel to aim for constant business improvement. 


Simon Sinek’s 2009 TedTalk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” explains that while every leader may know what they do, very few know why they do it. Sinek states that leaders often rush to the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ but miss the fundamental step of ‘why.’ This step is crucial as it provides leaders with a reason to explain to others. People are much more likely to accept change or a call to action if they have a clear reason to do so.  


As humans, we seek meaning in our everyday lives. From religion to diets, to sport to art, we have always sought something greater than the mundane. If leaders can provide their employees with a ‘why’ it gives the team something to rally around and to aim for, together. This unison and shared goal creates a force of motivated individuals. And as a result, businesses do better


So, what drives a General Counsel? Some lawyers begin their careers driven by a desire to facilitate positive change in society, others by a desire to succeed, whilst many have personal reasons that drew them to law. As such, every General Counsel will have a unique ‘why’ that led them to practicing in the first place, however they share one thing in common - they chose to go in-house rather than staying in private practice. 


This transition to in-house can be crippling to a lawyer’s reason for practicing, especially if their move was instigated by a desire for better work life balance over the nature of the work itself. As many know, when climbing the corporate ladder, finding a ‘why’ can feel futile. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day chase of emails, meetings, and drafting and reviewing documents. But when we run on autopilot, we lose something fundamental: a compass. A ‘why’ is fundamental to giving ourselves greater meaning in our day to day work, providing goals and something to work towards.  It reminds us of our role in the bigger picture. When we believe our work is meaningful, it reaps profound rewards. We are more motivated and research shows that we experience an increase in empowerment, engagement, performance, personal fulfilment, and job satisfaction.

We can redefine our role in more meaningful ways through job crafting, a process that allows us to shape our roles into something more aligned with our ‘why.’ By identifying what makes us tick in our roles, we can craft our practice by choosing to spend more energy on work we are passionate about. Although we have job descriptions that we must fulfil, we also have autonomy in our careers as we do ultimately have a say on the projects we work on and clients we work with. A General Counsel may not need to want to change the world, but perhaps they want to use their responsibility to ensure their company is fair and equitable, providing a great work place for their employees. 

General Counsel have the tools, expertise and resources in their hands to drive real change. It’s easy for lawyers to overlook things like ‘job fit’ because it can be difficult to discern where their values fit in the legal world. Yet finding the thing that makes you different than any other General Counsel will lead to much better results. Perhaps it is your passion for your company, the industry you are in, the people you work with or the projects your company is involved in. 


Service based lawyers (those whose work includes defence and prosecution) report greater job satisfaction and overall well-being. This could be due to the meaningful nature of legally representing and providing direct service to others. For those working in other areas of law, such as corporate law, malpractice litigation or estate planning - this direct meaning is not so tangible. Being a part of a corporate machine does not provide the same level of individual accountability and as such the ‘why’ is not so obvious. 


Perspective is also important here. In the words of Christopher Wren, ‘one man may call himself a bricklayer, while another may identify as ‘building a House of God,’ - how we choose to view ourselves and the definition of our purpose is ultimately in our hands. Corporate Counsel already have a purpose, they are leaders. As stated earlier, what sets a great leader apart from the others is the ‘why’ that drives them. In looking to establish this ‘why’, General Counsel can find clues in their everyday work and ‘job craft’ their role to include more of these tasks. Perhaps it is strategy, negotiation, working with their team or wider organisation, mentoring, mitigating risk, or collaborating with other business units that makes them tick. Identifying even a small ‘why’ and using it as an overarching guide in everything General Counsel does will reap many rewards. As Simon Sinek said, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it and what you do simply proves what you believe.”  

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