Now that the British are doing it, maybe even law firms should consider giving it a try.  Articulating an identity, that is.  According to an article in the New York Times last month, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s new government has announced an effort to formulate a British "statement of values" defining what it means to be British, much as the Declaration of Independence sets out what Americans stand for. But it is an undertaking that has produced exasperation in a number of corners. 

In a fitting tribute to British independence (or recalcitrance, depending on your point of view), the winning entry in a contest sponsored by The Times of London, inspired, if somewhat cynically, by the identity campaign, is:  "No Motto Please, We’re British."  Pity that so many law firms come to a similar conclusion.

While the British are looking to articulate their Britishness, law firms should consider figuring out who they are as well.  Establishing an identity has long been implicit (though often short-changed) in the process of strategic planning.  Strategic planning involves the projection of a firm forward into new (hopefully better) circumstances based on assumptions about existing and future conditions.

While the vagaries of accurately assessing current and (certainly) future conditions are evident, the ingredient that law firms often neglect is the "who."  Who is this firm?  What is the firm like that is moving through these assumed conditions?  What are its values and goals?  Whom would it like to become?  Because the "who" will be in many cases the determining factor in the outcome of strategic planning.  Is the firm a nimble, highly technological, thinly leveraged outfit that offers its attorneys immediate responsibility or one that enjoys great depth of expertise, long-standing client connections and is a well-respected resume-builder?  Does the firm pride itself on collaboration or aggressiveness?  Does it offer its lawyers a premier training ground or a sustainable life style?

Lawyers often look askance at these types of evaluations.  As a million websites point out, firms aim to be "responsive to our clients’ need" and "highly experienced in …" and be done with it.  But those are not the things that young applicants in the competitive recruiting and retention bullpen are saying about firms.  They are finding ways to distinguish firms, whether we like it or not.

A recent entry referred to an unauthorized Skadden blog that was terrorizing the firm with its "most attractive associate" contests.  Management made it clear that "the ‘contests’ on one of these blogs is (sic) inappropriate and does not reflect our values and standards of behavior."  It is the "insider" response that seems to us fairly shocking: "We’re not quite sure what Skadden’s ‘values’ are (or, for that matter, the Firm’s ‘standards of behavior’)."  It’s the "we’re not quite sure…" part that should send chills down management’s spine.  Not just because of the likelihood of errant contests in poor taste, but because of the wide spectrum of activities– ill-considered to illegal–that a lack of common values invites.

In an increasingly stratified marketplace, it is more and more important for each law firm to make sure it knows what it stands for and why, and to thoroughly communicate those values from top to bottom.  There are few forces as powerful as smart, ambitious Type A personalities committed to a cause.  And the only way your law firm can become your lawyers’ cause, particularly for your Gen Xers and Yers, is for the firm to stake out itself in the law firm firmament.

A law firm’s values, evident in how it functions on a daily basis, not only in what it talks about, are what associates and laterals will come for and what they will stay for.  Those values are what will keep your partners from being plundered and your staff loyal.  And they are what will make your firm most productive. 

One of the reasons this British identity search is necessary, according to Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford, is that "Britain was something that just happened.  No one’s ever sat down and thought about what it means to be British." He points out that having an identity bespeaks a confidence that there is a place in the global realm for the British.  Without a common identity that links its members into a community, he says, the country becomes a hotel, where individuals check in and out but don’t have a common connection.  Sound familiar?

From the historically great gray uniformity of law firms has blossomed a broad range of attitudes and actualities on many subjects– gender and minority diversity, life-balance, training, client service, management involvement, even whether the practice of law is done from dedicated real estate or virtually. 

No longer is the slogan "We’re Lawyers" sufficient.