Resources Newsletter Archive The Value of Values (December 2011)

The Value of Values (December 2011)



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 The Value of Values

By Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

Issue 62
December, 2011


Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have,
and only you can determine how it will be spent.
Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.

~ Carl Sandburg

"Adding value" has become part of everyday parlance in the legal profession. These days we speak of value billing, value-based fees, value challenge and value initiatives. But what exactly do we mean by "value?"

Dictionaries define value as worth, merit, usefulness or importance. In today's competitive legal environment, clients are asking whether the service they received was worth the cost. Marketing gurus urge law firm lawyers to understand what their clients value. Surveys indicate that a common complaint among corporate clients is that their outside counsel don't understand what they truly value. We know value is about cost - but not just that.

As another year comes to a close, it might be useful to stop and reflect upon not just your clients' values, but on what matters most to you. How much of this past year did you spend on activities that were really worth your time and attention?

The end of a year is a reminder of the finiteness of everything. We sing "Auld Lang Syne," recall days gone by and feel a sense of loss. Yes, another year is gone, but a new one begins. Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that we "only have moments to live." (1) Our lives are filled with moments. We can't bank them. Once we've spent them, they're gone.

Would it surprise you to know that most Americans spend only 25-30 minutes per day doing what they love? For the vast majority of Americans, nearly 20% of every day is spent in unsatisfying activities. (2) So often we have settled into routines of circumstances and habits. We forget just how far from our values our lives have drifted.

As midnight on New Year's Eve approaches, we are reminded that we have a choice: we can approach our lives as if our purpose is just to get by until our time runs out, or we can work to make something valuable of every moment we have.

In order to live a valued, fulfilling life, we need to know what really matters to us. Our values influence why we do the things we do. When we engage in activities that are aligned with our values, we feel more interested, motivated, vital and rewarded. Values offer us a direction in which to travel. Knowing our values makes it less effortful to make decisions. It's easier to work in an organization that has values with which we identify and uncomfortable when our core values are disrespected in our workplace. If we allow ourselves to deviate from our core values, we suffer; a life spent living in a manner that is inconsistent with our most closely held values feels miserable. Just as you need to understand what your client values in order to be an effective advisor, you need to know what you value in order to make wise decisions for your own life.

What Do You Value?

Psychologists have developed a number of valid and reliable measures of values. One (3) asks you to consider how you would most want to be in a variety of life domains (family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, work/career, personal growth, leisure, spirituality, community and health/well-being). For example, within the career domain, does it matter most to you to be at the cutting edge of knowledge, to be the toughest litigator, to get the best results for your clients, to be the lawyer who most clearly understands their business goals, to be the most compassionate advocate, to collaborate with colleagues on challenging projects? Within the family domain, is it most important to you to be supportive, honest, generous, and attentive, to provide the widest array of opportunities?

Once you've identified your values in each domain, ask yourself how important each is to you and how committed you are to living this value. It's also important to consider whether you value this because you fear the disapproval of others. Ask yourself, do you hold this value because you would feel guilty if you did not? Consider whether living consistently with the value makes your life more meaningful and if living in a manner that is aligned with the value brings you joy.

It also may be helpful to write down what stands between you and living your life in a way that is consistent with each value. In this way, you can formulate an action plan to create a life that is aligned with your values.


Another way to determine your core values is provided in Todd Kashdan's wonderful book, Curious? (4) You can try Todd's approach as an alternative to the one above or use both tools. Todd suggests that you select your top ten values from a list that he provides. Here is a somewhat abridged version of his list:

Acceptance - to feel accepted for myself

Achievement - to set goals and accomplish them

Accuracy - to be accurate in my opinions and beliefs

Authenticity - to act in a manner that is true to who I am

Authority - to be in charge and lead, to be responsible for others

Autonomy - to be independent and in control of my thoughts and actions rather than being controlled by outside influences

Caring - to take care of others and be kind and generous

Challenge - to take on difficult and demanding tasks

Commitment - to make enduring, meaningful commitments

Contribution - to make a lasting impact on the world

Cooperation - to work collaboratively with others

Creativity - to have new and original ideas

Dependability - to be honest, reliable and responsible

Family - to create and sustain a happy, loving family

Growth - to continue learning and changing

Health - to be physically well and healthy

Inner peace - to seek out and experience tranquility and serenity

Knowledge - to learn and contribute valuable knowledge

Loving - to give love to others

Mastery - to be competent in my everyday activities

Order - to have a life that is well-ordered and organized

Popularity - to be well-liked by many people

Power - to gain social status and prestige

Purpose - to have meaning and direction in my life

Safety - to be safe and secure

Self-control - to be disciplined in my own actions

Self-sufficient - to take care of myself without being dependent on others

Spirituality - to feel connected to things larger than myself

Tolerance - to accept other people and opinions and beliefs that are different from my own

Wealth - to have plenty of money

Some of these values may be irrelevant to you while others quite important. You may hold values not included on this list -- feel free to add them. Certain values may be important in some life domains and not in others. Clarifying this may help you understand ways you may get stuck. For example, what if you value both authority and popularity? Or perhaps mastery is a core value for you and your biggest client values efficiency more? Many woman attorneys struggle with values conflicts. For them, achievement at work may seem to be in conflict with their core values related to family. These lawyers need to find ways to live up to what they view as most important in both domains.

Before jumping to the conclusion that you must make dramatic changes in your life, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.


  • Although there are some attorneys lucky enough to be doing work that feels meaningful most of the time, this is not the case for many. If doing meaningful work is what you most value and that's not currently the case for you, you'll need to consider that. But there are many things we do that are not intrinsically rewarding but that lead to something we value deeply. For example, I hate going to shopping malls. But my son is a shopper and going with him gives me special time to chat with him in the car, learn about what's interesting him these days, laugh together and just be in his presence - and these are things I value.

  • Small changes can make a big difference. Recently a client of mine noted that his formerly boring in-house job had become much more fulfilling since he'd been spending more time building teams and facilitating the success of others. He thought he was in need of a career change. Instead, a minor tweak to make his responsibilities in his current job more aligned with his values made all the difference.

Intuitively you know that understanding the values of others is empowering. You can't "herd cats" unless you understand what each of them values any more than you can be successful at business development without understanding what potential clients value both in their businesses and personally. If you want to effectively motivate people who work for you, you'll

need to understand what each of them values as well. In fact, you'll find it easier to add value to your clients if you approach your own work with your values in mind. Doing work you value makes you more motivated, interested and engaged.

As one year ends and another begins, reflect on your own values. You have a chance to make the moments of 2012 richer, more important and more valuable for you.



  1. Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living, 1990.
  2. Kashdan, T. Curious? 2010.
  3. Personal Values Questionnaire II, Blackledge, J.T., Chirrochi, J. & Baily, A. Available at
  4. Kashdan, T. lbid.


  Happy New Year!

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