Autonomy, mastery and purpose: The ‘motivation trifecta’ at the heart of a successful and fulfilling practice

One of the things that is most likely to catalyze people to call me is the appearance of an external pressure or demand on them to “build a practice.”

One of the things that is most likely to catalyze people to call me is the appearance of an external pressure or demand on them to “build a practice.” It may arise in the context of learning what they need to do to level up in their firms, or to support the amount of income that they want, or in some other context. But whatever the context, when this demand presents itself they generally feel that they have no choice but to satisfy it and they have no idea how to do it.

In most cases these lawyers have never before had to turn their minds to expressly identifying the things that they find satisfying about the practice or to envisioning what a fulfilling, satisfying practice would look like to them. They have gone about the work that they have been given, been successful at it, spent a lot of time at it and that is as far as they needed to go. 

Moreover, because they have always defined their value by the technical aspects of the work they do, they haven’t thought about who their clients might be — who they serve — beyond a vague sense that their clients could really be “anyone” within a certain geographic area that has a problem or need that falls within their general sphere of practice.

So, when they come to me, they often don’t feel themselves to be in the best position from which to start building a business. And they are right. It extremely difficult to build a business if you are going to market with a vague mindset and an overly broad definition of who you are targeting. Moreover, any practice that you do manage to build on that foundation is unlikely to be one that will be satisfying to you and sustain itself over the long term.

You improve your chances of success significantly if you start with a narrower and more specifically defined focus. You can expand from there as time goes on, but starting with more specificity makes taking the action that you need to take more manageable.

The question then becomes how does one narrow the focus?

It starts with figuring out what you WANT to build, instead of trying to figure out what you SHOULD build, MUST build or what is EASIEST to build.

The secret to figuring out what you WANT to build lies in figuring out what drives you — what motivates you intrinsically. Why did you go into law? What do you get out of it? What lights your fire about it and drives you forward?

Contrary to what many people might think, for lawyers and others in knowledge-based enterprises that require creativity, problem-solving, decision making and higher-order thinking, your intrinsic motivator likely isn’t money.

With that possible motivator off the table, you have to look farther and wider to uncover your intrinsic motivator(s). The framework that I use to help direct this inquiry with clients is rooted in the thesis of a book called Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel Pink.

Though presented in a different context than the one addressed in this column, Drive expounds on the proposition that when people are engaged in knowledge-based enterprises, like the practice of law, their performance is best and their satisfaction is highest when their work provides them with a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose — the motivation trifecta. If your work delivers those three things, you will feel more connection to what you do, and get more fulfillment from it.

Unpacking these terms, I think you will agree that a practice hallmarked by these elements would be satisfying indeed:

Autonomy — Independence; the ability to be self-directed in our enterprise.  Autonomy causes us to pursue our work with a sense of personal commitment and engagement to it, rather than just putting in the time and fulfilling our obligation with no spark or passion.

Mastery — The compulsion or desire to continually grow, stretch and advance our knowledge and skills in an area that matters to us. Continued growth is a human need that is fundamental to our feeling of fulfillment.

Purpose — The knowledge that our work serves something larger than ourselves — a greater good. “Finding meaning in one's work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment, and to decrease absenteeism and stress. []”

While they are all important, the last of these may have the greatest impact on business development success for lawyer. When we believe that our work is contributing to a purpose or cause that has significance and is greater than ourselves, we enjoy the highest levels of motivation and fulfillment, exhibit greater resilience and grit in the face of adversity and will overcome more or less any hurdle thrown our way in service of contributing to an outcome that we care about. 

The contrary is also true. It will be very difficult to maintain a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in your practice, and overcome the challenges that are inherent in the practice of law, over the long term if what you are doing doesn’t motivate you naturally and you instead have to rely on external motivators — fear, money, rewards, recognition, status etc. — to keep you going.

Start as you mean to go on. Factor these three elements in when you are cultivating your business development mindset and choosing the strategies and tactics you will use to build your practice. This will help you pursue relationships and opportunities that will be connected to the people and values that are important to you and set you on a path that will give you the best chance of coming out with a business that excites and ignites you, that you feel inspired and compelled to grow and build and that incorporates all of the things about the profession and the practice that have meaning for you.



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