Our limit to growth  

Nishith Desai

Our limit to growth is where our happiness ends.” is our answer to the oft-asked question '‎How large do you plan to grow? What is your vision?'.

About a decade ago, we chose to chase growth as long as, as much as, and as far as, we could be happy. What is the use of growth, if it only brings stress and an unfulfilling career journey?

We decided, if growth led us to a point where it threatened our happiness and spirit of well-being, we would rein in growth. In other words, growth per se has not been our raison d’etre – doing ‘what makes us happy’ has!

Still, we have grown at over 20% year on year ‎barring rare exceptions.

More recently, we grew flatter ‎from 5 levels to just 3, and moved to 'networked leadership'. We also removed individual and team targets, and scrapped our leave policy. And we seem to be growing even faster! In the last quarter, our revenues grew by about 29%. In addition, we produced 41 thought leading writings and held 40 continuing education sessions.

It follows then, growth chases us if we are pursuing happiness.

What does 'happiness' mean to a professional? "The happiest and most successful professionals ‘think differently’" says Cathy Caprino, a leading career counselor. According to her, a happy professional believes "I want to (and I will) find ways that I can use myself in the service of others.” Such professionals aren't passive spectators in life - they actively work on themselves and hone their skills and thinking. On the other hand, unhappy, disillusioned professionals feel 'beaten up' and chewed up by their work, their colleagues, bosses and employers. They often feel that the world owes them something for their talents, and don't understand why they can't get paid more or earn more recognition and reward for what they do. They are stuck in a ‘victim’ mentality, which further perpetuates their experience of life being outside their control.

Why link growth – considered the essential hallmark of financial progress – with the intangible and abstract concept of happiness? In the current professional environment, we have been too obsessed with billable hours. The profession of law is now often being regarded as ‘Business of Law’ with primarily commercial considerations overtaking the ‘calling’ and the ‘intellectual quotient’.

This further led me to ponder on the subject of ‘Economics of Happiness’. Economics can be defined in a few different ways, but in simple words “It’s a study of scarcity, of how people use resources, or the study of decision-making.” 1 So to achieve happiness, what trade-offs do we make in life? Now, ‘happiness’ is a mental state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Therefore, economics of happiness can be interpreted as the study of decision making (choices) to be ‘happy’.

Coincidentally, as I perused the recently published United Nations’ sponsored ‘World Happiness Report 2017’, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu. Rather, an inspiring validation of our own vision 2 – to be a happy and joyous home for professionals.‎ Our philosophical focus on a ‘happiness’ creating organization culture was perhaps a game changer.

In the 2017 Happiness Report, the world’s happiest nations are largely not its high growth ones. Instead, it indicates that after a point of material fulfilment, the need for more diminishes. Happiness levels then do not increase with greater materiality. More ‘self actualising’ imperatives uplift the happiness quotient thereafter.

The top happy countries such as Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland “rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance,” the report says.

Drawing a parallel, a happy workplace is one that fosters and embodies all of the above. More, it is about sustaining a fine balance of several elements that contribute to an overall happy state.

At the root, we have thrived on three essentials for a happy existence as professionals.

First, extraordinary client centricity and quality of work. We took on complex, premium and specialist work to resolve the toughest client challenges. This has provided exceptional work satisfaction, meaning, challenge, professional growth and empowerment to our people.

Second, we made research, learning, thought leadership and innovation a ‘way of life’ for everyone. A creative existence, innovating, deep diving into or influencing the latest developments in law, sharing knowledge freely has continually nourished a higher intellectual need in our talent. As they grew into composite ‘visible experts’, most grew closer to their life’s purpose.

Finally, we also gave our people a platform to find even higher meaning through service to society. With our mission of finding the ‘joy of changing the world for the better’ – we generously promote pro bono work that impacts social change.

Set in a context of responsible freedom and fun at work, we sparked a happy climate of self-driven achievement. Underlying all of this is the tacit understanding that anyone who belongs to the firm will find joy and fulfilment in our unique work ethos. That the journey itself would be about happiness and not the destination.

We have thus been painstakingly cautious about who we hire. The attitudinal, intellectual and philosophical compatibility has been a crucial determinant of who comes on board to ‘be happy’ and fan our collective search for the happy state.

Nonetheless, this has not been simple to embed whether philosophically, culturally or even practically. The dominant market mindset is a partnership model, with predictable performance, reward and career progression outcomes. The larger universe of lawyers are groomed on this tenor. So, inspiring or sustaining a few inspired professionals of the highest quality with a different vision of success, and thereby to steer outside the herd, needed constant nurturing and affirmation.

Today, this counter-intuitive premise augurs well as our workplace is dominated by the Millennial talent born between 1981 and 1998. According to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, success and happiness at work goes well beyond the bottom line.

The most important drivers of employer choice (excluding salary) comprise work-life balance; opportunities to progress and be leaders; flexibility; sense of meaning from the work; and professional development. 7 in 10 millennials seek employers with values similar to their own, and 44% of the surveyed millennials had turned down jobs due to mismatch of values.

This is not too different from the portents of Maslow’s need hierarchy and other such psychology based constructs, which get to the nub of what the human spirit needs at different stages of existence or circumstances. Ultimately, these models assert, every human transcends various stages of need fulfilment on a journey to self-actualization - the ‘happiest’ state.

In a way, we chose to balance the predominant sway of ‘economic wealth’ with other equally significant forms of wealth like ‘knowledge’, ‘social’ and ‘spiritual’. And we have grown. Manifold, in terms of revenue, achievements, knowhow and reputation.

The quest for happiness does not forsake “performance-mindedness”. We are quite obsessive and driven about the performance we seek. However, we skirted the temptation of a primarily quantity or number-driven work ethic. We avoided a ‘dominant’ parameter of revenue score to sum up our performance. Revenue achievement continues to be just one among other measures of progress that we track.

Our contributions to creating new knowledge breakthroughs, extraordinary value for a client, thought-leading research and writing, education of others, disruptive innovations and ideas, management improvements, social impact as well as client happiness – all have a place in shaping a blended and holistic view of our accomplishment and success.

At every junction, we redirected our course towards an ideal of finding meaning and sources of enduring satisfaction through our work and togetherness.

Often people confuse between ‘sizing up’ and ‘scaling up’ and between 'headcount' and 'braincount'. In the name of scaling up they add more people and increase billable hours- in fact they, size up or to say, they grow fat.

We resisted the temptation of growing fat and persisted with our philosophy of staying ‘nano’ -like nano-technology ‘stay small, think big, do big’. We have constantly undertaken large projects with smallest possible teams using talent, technology and culture.

In a way, we have been on an individual ego-rescinding journey. A firm member could never reach the pinnacle of performance, if he or she failed to carry and lift others, show quality in the quantity, and add to greater good.

Our reward and incentives have not been tied to per se revenue achievement by the individual, team or practice – but to the firm’s success as a whole. This allowed us to break silos and foster collaboration, sharing and contributing to the success of others.‎

Over the last two quarters, several of our game-changing initiatives have been designed to take us closer to a fulfilled, happy existence with greater freedom to chart our professional journeys as we best want it.

Moving to the networked organization and leadership 3, doing away with individual or team targets 4, or scrapping our leave policy 5 were all efforts to foster self-inspired, self-directed actions that make our clients, our people and our society happier.

‎.......and therefore, our limit to growth is where our happiness ends.




As always, we would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Weekender is intended to be sent only on those weekends where we have something interesting to share.

For previous issues of Weekender please click here.

1 American Economic Association,

2 Our Vision (excerpt): ‘Be a distinctly different, role model, and a dream firm for professionals – globally…and to be a joyous and happy home for professionals’

3 4 5 Refer link to respective Weekender Issue