What Makes Lawyers Tick?®

The Essence of Leadership for Lawyers

Posted in Leadership, People Skills, Resilience, Self-Management, Strengths

More advice has been written about leadership than just about any other topic in the social sciences. My clients often ask me if I can distill this leadership wisdom into a very short synopsis that’s tailored to lawyers in senior leadership roles. I’ve resisted doing this because there are so many good books on leadership (although very few of them address leadership in law firms). If you want to dig into that literature, start with The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, which in my view is the best and most well written evidence-based summary of the practical principles of how to successfully lead others. For those with less time on their hands, here is my attempt to reduce what we know to a “one-pager”.

First, let’s recall the important distinction between “management” and “leadership”—management is a system of behaviors designed to control complexity, create order and produce consistent execution of tasks and strategies that get the work done.[1] It’s internally focused. By contrast, leadership is a system of behaviors designed to respond to change, uncertainty and unpredictability, and is externally focused. Leaders do two things—they identify a goal or direction, and they mobilize others to voluntarily go in that direction.

You can manage documents, inventory, information, systems, products, people, time, and many other assets. You can only lead people. That’s it.

In the legal profession, we’ve had complexity since the late 1970’s, and accordingly, we’ve had managers since then, including managing partners and practice group leaders (they’re really practice group managers.) But the accelerating pace of change didn’t really start to move exponentially until around the mid-1990’s, so until then, leadership wasn’t much talked about in law firms.

Since then, the dramatic increase in change, uncertainty and unpredictability has fueled the demand for leaders. In most corporations, managers manage, leaders lead, and both execute these roles as full-time jobs. In a law firm, however, most managers are practicing lawyers first and managers in their spare time. Being a manager does not necessarily mean you are a leader, and for most management roles in today’s law firms, those in management roles are not also leading. But the opposite is not true—those in leadership roles in law firms almost always wear both hats—management and leadership. And yes, most law firm leaders devote their principal efforts to practicing law, and devote a smaller amount of time to leadership efforts. But increasingly we are seeing the “all-in” leader—the lawyer who all but stops practicing law in order to devote full time attention to the task of leading. Usually this is the top role, which may go under several names—managing partner (shouldn’t we call it “leading partner”?), Chair, CEO.

There are many forces at work driving the most senior law firm leaders towards an “all-in” role—the knowledge explosion, the growth in size and scope of law firms, the increasingly complex responsibilities of leaders, the competition from other providers of legal services, the decreasing loyalty of clients (and the increasingly important role of the top leader in maintaining client loyalty and satisfaction), and, perhaps most important, the aforementioned accelerating rate of change and uncertainty.

As uncertainty increases, leaders have less and less ability to gather all the necessary information needed to make good decisions. Hence, leaders are almost always in a position of having to make decisions on the basis of insufficient information. But if you’ll recall, the two responsibilities of leadership are (1) setting a direction, and (2) getting others to voluntarily move in that direction. This second task is inherently based on trust. When a leader doesn’t have complete information, s/he must, by necessity, ask his/her constituents to “trust me—this is the right direction for us, even though I don’t have complete information.” Trust is built through relationships, and that takes time. The busier your lawyers, the more geographically spread out is your firm (or your clients), and the fuzzier the information supporting the goal, the more you as a leader need to gain the psychological buy-in of your constituents. And there’s simply no substitute for face time in this effort.

Everything I’ve said so far applies to leaders in general. But in a law firm, we have the complicating factor that lawyers are atypically high in a personality trait called “Skepticism”[2]. This means that the process of building buy-in is harder to do and takes longer to achieve. Moreover, most lawyers are also very low in psychological “Resilience”, which means that they will be more thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism or rejection. You always have to factor this in by anticipating defensive responses from anyone whose opinion or behavior you seek to change. A simple request to “follow this new direction” can easily be interpreted by a low-Resilience lawyer as a criticism of their current direction, even if that’s not what was intended. And when you, the leader, are also low in Resilience (which is highly likely, based on the statistical distribution of this trait among lawyers, it can make your task even more challenging. Why? Because leaders get criticized more than other people do, and when a low-Resilience leader gets criticized, s/he is more likely to get defensive, wounded, hurt, or otherwise react ineffectively, and this further impedes the ability to get your constituents to buy in.

Thus, law firm leaders need to do several things to become more effective:

  • Know yourself. Know your personality strengths and blind spots.
  • If you’re low in Resilience, luckily there are several very effective cognitive strategies that can help you boost it to a higher level
  • Understand Skepticism—your own, and how to deal with the Skepticism of your partners

In addition to these tasks, there are several other things that leaders need to pay attention to in order to become maximally effective.

The leadership literature makes it very clear that people, at a minimum, only follow leaders who consistently demonstrate character and competence.

Character includes a number of factors, but they all are related to one another, and they include trustworthiness, honesty, reliability (do you do what you say you’re going to do), authenticity, and fairness. To the extent that you are seen as deficient in any of these, you will have a harder time getting buy-in for your leadership initiatives. Note that this is entirely subjective—it matters little what you think of your character; what matters most is the subjective perception that your constituents have. This is one of the principal reasons that good leaders seek out lots of feedback and place a value on self-awareness.

Competence comes in two flavors. First, the research shows that people only like to follow leaders who are skilled at the things that their constituents value. Lawyers only follow leaders who are themselves good lawyers. A number of experiments have been tried in which very competent leaders who were not lawyers attempted to lead significant law firms. In all cases, the results were less than optimal.

Second, leaders need to also be good at certain leadership competencies. The best evidence suggests that leaders who are outstanding at three to five such competencies achieve the best followership, and those leaders who fail to achieve top performance on any of the competencies struggle to make any headway at all.

There are several models in the literature for what kinds of competencies you need to excel in. I’m going to summarize the research from Kouzes and Posner. If you want to take a deeper dive, the other evidence-based model can be found in The Extraordinary Leader by Zenger & Folkman.[3]

Kouzes and Posner

Character and competence

Kouzes & Posner have been empirically studying leaders for over 25 years, and their database is huge as well as very consistent—it shows that there are five core “practices” (competencies) that the best leaders do very well. (The somewhat jargon-y labels come from their writing.)

Model the Way: Effective leaders set an example for others to follow. Small example—no lawyer will turn in his/her timesheets on time if the leader asking for them doesn’t do so as well. But think bigger—it’s not just about timesheets—your character is on display, and the more you walk your talk, the more others are likely to follow your lead.

Inspire a Shared Vision: Leaders create a picture of how life could be different/better if/when we achieve our goals. They go about this in a way that’s likely to evoke an emotional response from their constituents. People do not follow leaders on good ideas alone—those ideas have to resonate at a deeply personal level in order to lead to action.

Challenge the Process: Leaders take risks. They experiment. They make strategic choices with less than 100% information. And they learn from their mistakes.

Enable Others to Act: Leaders foster collaboration among their constituents. They build a climate of trust. They cement relationships. And they help remove obstacles from others who want to move towards the goal.

Encourage the Heart: Leaders liberally recognize goal-directed behaviors by their constituents. They reward them intrinsically—with respect, with genuine heartfelt praise, with recognition. They keep hope alive. They foster mutual respect for individuals, and this, in turn, fuels many of the practices above.

Some of these practices seem foreign to the DNA of most law firms. And for years, we’ve tolerated a lot of lawyers scoffing at “that touchy-feely stuff”. But in the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of compelling scientific research in both psychology and neuroscience that shows the extraordinary power of these practices in driving enterprises towards consistently superior performance and record levels of profitability, not to mention employee engagement, longer tenure, and higher job satisfaction.

I haven’t even mentioned in this article the challenges of keeping and motivating Millennials, who now constitute nearly the entirety of your associate classes, but the good news is that the same principles and practices that foster outstanding leadership also produce the kind of climate that tends to increase Millennial engagement and job tenure.

As I mentioned at the outset, there are many other principles in the leadership literature about what you can do to become skilled at leading other lawyers, but the ones I have covered here represent the 80/20 rule—if you simply focus your attention on these few ideas, you will see extraordinary results.

[1] See John Kotter, What Leaders Really Do (Harvard Business School, 1999)

[2] See my article Herding Cats at http://www.lawyerbrain.com/sites/default/files/caliper_herding_cats.pdf .

[3] The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman (McGraw Hill, 2009)

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2016 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

The Well-Rounded Lawyer

Posted in Change Management, Millennials, People Skills, Selection, Talent

This blog post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on December 19, 2016  (http://tinyurl.com/futurelawyer):

We in the legal profession — especially those of us in Big Law — have always been very clear about our criteria for what kind of lawyer we’d like to hire. Indeed, there’s nearly universal agreement that we want someone who’s smart; and then we look for the indicia of a strong analytical ability, a bristling intelligence, a powerful intellect — all demonstrated by top grades, high LSAT scores, membership in a Law Review, Order of the Coif, graduate of a top law school, etc.

And there’s good reason to celebrate and chase after this cognitive smorgasbørd. These characteristics are at the heart of what makes lawyers successful as well as what gives most lawyers high levels of job satisfaction. So, I don’t think we’ll be abandoning this central criterion any time soon, nor should we.

However — and this is a big “however” — today’s climate of unprecedented change, increased competition, rapidly shortening time frames, globalization and heightened unpredictability all demand that we hire and develop lawyers with some additional skillsets.

For example, as law has become more complex, as knowledge has veritably exploded, and as transactions have grown more multinational and complex, in many practice areas it’s become harder for any one lawyer to possess the complete expertise needed to handle a client’s matter. To ably represent a client today, more often it takes a team of lawyers, each of whom brings a salient depth of expertise to the table. This, in turn, places a much greater premium on collaboration as a skill. And the truth is, some people are naturally better at collaborating than others.

This is a problem — at the very least, it’s a numbers problem. Law school enrollments have been on the decline for years, and fewer applicants reduce the richness of the talent pool. And yet, if we want lawyers who are smart and collaborative, we need a larger talent pool. There are far fewer lawyers who are “smart and collaborative” than there are lawyers who are just “smart”. Do the math.

This challenge increases exponentially when you consider all the other skills that the “lawyer of the future” will need. I recently spoke at the Law Firm Leaders Forum, sponsored by Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute, which attracts managing partners from many of the AmLaw 100 firms. After my presentation, I asked several of these firm leaders about their take on the lawyer of the future. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some of the qualities they believe will be required of the lawyer of the future:

  • technology skills
  • leadership skills
  • entrepreneurial skills
  • business acumen
  • presence or gravitas
  • collaboration skills
  • emotional intelligence and empathy
  • resilience skills
  • agility or adaptability
  • multiculturalism or bilingualism, and a global mindset
  • ability to synthesize
  • joint degree of one sort or another

This is almost certainly an incomplete list. But it should make us all fairly nervous, considering that most law schools are not systematically screening entrants for most of these skills.

My hope is that (i) law firms will become more conscientious about identifying the specific skillsets that their lawyers of the future will need in their own specific firms; and (ii) they will request that law schools do the same, then give those schools that do support and encouragement, so firms can increase the prevalence of these multi-skilled individuals in their talent pool.

In the meantime, here are some things you can do to broaden your own talent pool:

  • Read Daniel Pink’s excellent 2006 book A Whole New Mind.
  • Develop a competency model that identifies the specific skillsets that lead to excellence in your particular firm — and will lead to excellence in the future.
  • Ask yourself the question: Do our current hiring criteria scientifically predict success and excellence? In other words, challenge yourself to see if the criteria you use for hiring new lawyers actually results in the kind of future performance you are looking for. If not, then consider using a more scientific hiring process. This will certainly include reliance on a competency model as noted above, and may also lead you to consider the use of either pre-employment testing and/or the use of “structured interviewing” (a more rigorous, uniform and scientific approach to conducting selection interviews).
  • Consider training your lawyers in some of these criteria of the future. Some of these characteristics lend themselves to a training or development approach (g., resilience, leadership, technology), and some really depend on hiring the right person (e.g., ability to synthesize, presence or gravitas, etc.) You have to make the “build-or-buy” decision.

The next decade will bring more changes in the legal profession, as well as in other industries, than the past three decades. The excellent practice of law has always depended on people as its primary resource — it’s our “stock in trade”, as they say. This will become even more prevalent in the years to come, and we need to think more strategically about how to get the right people on the bus.

To see my other blog posts at the Legal Executive Institute site, click here.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2016 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Podcasts: The Stress of Change . . . and What To Do About It

Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Millennials, Resilience

These two podcasts were originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site. Podcast #1 discusses why change is hard for lawyers, and Podcast #2 discusses what you can do about it.

I was recently interviewed by Gregg Wirth, the Content Manager for the LEI blog site. On July 18th, 2016, he interviewed me about the psychological consequences of incessant change on lawyers and their performance. Here is the introductory blurb from the LEI website for this interview:

“Change is never easy, especially the type of systemic and dramatic change the legal industry is experience in the current market. And lawyers — not known for being open to change to begin with — are sometimes having a very difficult time with how their profession is evolving and how to envision what the lawyer and law firm of the future may look like.

Dr. Larry Richard, Founder & Principal Consultant at LawyerBrain LLC, is an expert in lawyer personality, managing change and how to build up lawyers’ resilience to today’s legal environment.

Dr. Richard discusses with the Legal Executive Institute how this stress around change manifests itself in lawyers’ performance and how law firms and corporate legal departments can best deal with the outcome.” Click here to listen to this podcast.

Then, on September 27th, Gregg followed up and interviewed me on the subject of what law firm and law department leaders, as well as individual lawyers, can do to cope with these consequences. Here is the introductory blurb from the LEI website for this second interview:

“It’s little surprise that lawyers, even among other professionals, are not wholly accepting of change, especially when it comes in the form of a large wave. Reaction to the current level of dramatic change in the legal industry can manifest itself in higher levels of anxiety and, worse yet for lawyers, a consuming focus on threats rather than opportunities.

Dr. Larry Richard, Founder & Principal Consultant at LawyerBrain LLC, is an expert in lawyer personality, managing change and how to build up lawyers’ resilience to today’s legal environment.

In this second installment of his podcast interview with Legal Executive Institute, Dr. Richard analyzes how law firms and corporate legal departments can best deal with the outcome and ease the stress surrounding the systemic change occurring in the legal marketplace.” Click here to listen to this podcast.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2016 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Why Law Firms Need “Great Managers”

Posted in Change Management, Engagement, Millennials, Strengths

This blog post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on September 20, 2016:

Law firms are struggling these days to do a better job of retaining their Millennial lawyers. Millennials famously have less loyalty and a shorter time frame before jumping ship than any previous generation. Is this a baked-in problem, or can something be done about it?

According to research by the Gallup Organization and others, there are definitely steps you can take to increase the commitment, engagement and tenure of your Millennials. The key is to develop what Gallup calls “great managers” to supervise the Millennial workforce.

Before we talk about “great” managers, let’s take a moment to recall that managers are not the same as leaders. Managers are focused internally, while leaders are focused externally. The role of “manager” evolved to oversee internal complexity, while the “leader” role evolved to cope with external change and uncertainty.

The main tasks of a manager are to facilitate the efficient performance of the work in a consistent and high-quality way, and to develop subordinates. By contrast, the main tasks of a leader are to set a direction when there’s insufficient information to know what the right direction is, and then to get people on board so they follow in that direction.

If you want your Millennials to be more committed, more engaged, and to stick around longer, this has to change. Supervising lawyers should, at a minimum, understand and practice the precepts of great managers.

Average Managers vs. Great Managers

Average managers usually focus on control — making sure that everyone does what they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to. And their main approach to developing those they manage is to identify areas where they are deficient, and then coax their subordinates to work on their deficiencies to bring their performance up to speed.

Gallup has found that great managers, by contrast, set clear expectations about the outcomes but then allow ample leeway to their subordinates as to how they achieve those outcomes. (This increases the amount of autonomy accorded the subordinate. Research shows that this is one of the most highly motivating steps a manager can take.) And when it comes to developing people, great managers help their subordinates to identify their greatest strengths, and then help them to use these strengths in their work. They further work to cultivate those strengths, to make them even stronger. And when necessary, they try to adjust the work itself so that it plays to the employee’s strengths.

What makes this “strengths” approach better than the conventional approach? Results. Here are some documented findings from Gallup’s research which comes from studies of more than 80,000 managers:

  • Employees who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job;
  • Employees who receive strengths-based feedback have a 14.9% lower turnover rate; and
  • Teams that receive strengths feedback have 8.9% greater profitability.

And there’s one more astonishing but consistent statistic which requires a short explanation. Gallup regularly tracks the level of engagement of the workforce in many countries around the world. They publish monthly statistics about the level of engagement, and these statistics remain relatively constant. Gallup divides the responses to their engagement surveys into three categories. Here are the categories, with the typical percentage of the population that falls into each category. In any one individual business, these proportions can vary significantly, but across the general population, the proportional percentile distribution of these three groups remains fairly constant:

“Engaged” — These are workers who look forward to coming to work, give more than is expected of them, take the initiative instead of waiting for orders, “good-mouth” the organization to others, and are generally good corporate citizens. They represent about 30% of the workforce, and they’re the ones everyone wants in their organizations.

“Not engaged” — These are workers who do the minimum expected of them. They are generally dutiful, obedient and hard workers, but may have a “9 to 5” mindset about work. Many are working for a paycheck as opposed to seeing their work as a calling. They represent about 50% of the workforce.

“Actively Disengaged” — These are workers who actively resent their work in some way. Some of them want to sabotage the work; they may arrive late and leave early; they may bad-mouth the organization to others; they may feel unfairly treated; and they can be a liability for the organization. They represent about 20% of the workforce.

Here’s the amazing statistic: In workplaces where managers ignored their subordinates, there was a 40% chance of the workers being “actively disengaged.” In workplaces where managers paid attention to their subordinates, but they focused primarily on weaknesses or on “fixing your deficiencies”, there was a 22% chance of the subordinates being “actively disengaged”. But when a manager primarily focused on an employee’s strengths, the chance of that employee being “actively disengaged” on the job declined to less than 1%! This is why one of Gallup’s mantras is that “Great managers focus on strengths.”

These findings represent just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t have the space in this blog post to cover all the other important and actionable findings of the engagement research, but I can summarize it by saying that modern behavioral science has now evolved to the point that we now know to a fair degree of certainty how to genuinely boost and sustain the level of engagement of employees in any workplace.

More importantly, most of these strategies work just as well in a law firm as they do in other businesses, despite the fact that law firms, in many ways, are different than other businesses. It’s just a little harder, and takes a little longer, but the scientific principles still hold up strongly. As lawyers, we tend to look for problems and find it easier to notice deficiencies than strengths, and this training may partially blind us to the power of strengths.

But the bottom line is: Consider training all your lawyers who have any supervisory responsibilities in the science of becoming a “great manager”.

To see my other blog posts at the Legal Executive Institute site, click here.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2016 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Toward Better Leadership: Self-Development, Focusing on Strengths & Accepting Flaws

Posted in Leadership, Performance, Strengths

This article first appeared on Tuesday May 17, 2016, on the Legal Executive Institute blog site, which is curated by Thomson Reuters.

One of my favorite leadership books is The Extraordinary Leader by John Zenger and Joe Folkman. In this book, the authors offer a number of findings from their own empirical research about what makes leaders effective, i.e., what makes constituents actual follow leaders.

One of their principal conclusions is that constituents follow leaders who consistently demonstrate three to five strengths, particularly when their mastery of those strengths is so formidable that observers rate them in the top 10%. For example, a leader who is a really crisp decision-maker, who also is very patient even under stress, and who is also a superb listener, will gain a large following.

Their research reveals an important corollary as well: When a leader consistently demonstrates this kind of mastery of strengths, constituents will overlook a leader’s weaknesses.

Several inferences of use to lawyer-leaders can be drawn from these two research findings. First, it’s obvious that truly effective leadership is not just about knowing what to do. Leaders can’t simply have good ideas or even good policy prescriptions and expect others to follow them. They also have to pay attention to developing themselves. In fact, mastering strengths is just one of many findings about the importance of self-development for effective leadership.

Other research shows that, to be effective, leaders must:

  • be authentic;
  • demonstrate character and integrity; and
  • have self-awareness.

Research continually shows that leadership can be learned, and that the kind of learning must be experiential. To learn these skills, you can’t expect to passively sit in a room and listen to a lecturer present a series of Power Points about good leadership. That approach may work really well for CLE programs where the goal is to learn about the latest changes in the law, but it absolutely does not work in learning leadership skills. Would-be leaders need a more involving immersion experience to learn to be leaders.

The second inference from Zenger and Folkman’s findings is that flawed leaders can nevertheless be very effective leaders. As lawyers, we are more risk-averse than most other people. We also suffer from what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” — that is, we believe that who we are was set in stone during our growing up years, and can’t really be changed today. This “fixed mindset” leads us as adults to avoid risk, which often means avoiding learning and self-development. This is antithetical to learning to be a good leader. Luckily, this is just a “mindset”, and it can be changed. Shifting from a “fixed” to a “growth” mindset has profound beneficial effects, based on Dweck’s many years of research on the subject.

The third inference is one that may surprise you — Donald Trump’s ascension to front-runner status in the Republican primary race demonstrates the Zenger/Folkman principles fairly clearly. Whether you agree with his approach or not (I don’t), he has clearly gained followers by demonstrating several strengths even though he also has some glaring weaknesses. Seen through the Zenger/Folkman findings, his success is not surprising (even if it is an extreme example.)

Taking the Self-Development Pathway

Of these inferences, the one that we can do the most about is the first one — effective leaders pay attention to self-development. By extension, that also means that effective leaders must first increase their self-awareness. Ample research reveals the importance of both self-awareness and self-development to effective leadership. Here are some suggestions to law firm leaders to help you in your development efforts:

  1. Consider taking one or more tests that measure qualities important to leadership — personality, values, strengths and leadership style. Getting feedback from these types of tools is indispensable. Each test not only helps you understand your own traits, values, strengths or style (as well as blind spots) better, it also gives you a useful model for understanding others who think differently than you do.
  2. Resist the “fix your deficiencies” mindset that is so common in the legal profession. I’m not saying you can ignore your own performance problems — if you’ve got a glaring one, you do need to fix it. What I am saying is that your time is better spent figuring out what you do exceptionally well and putting more energy into getting even better at those one or two things.
  3. Consider hiring a coach if you haven’t already. A well-trained executive coach can make a dramatic difference in your quest to develop your strengths.
  4. Work on only one strength at a time. Many lawyers I’ve worked with try to “boil the ocean” — they make an exhaustive list of all the areas they want to improve and then make it their mission to improve all of them at once. This is a formula for failure. There’s strong evidence that people who focus on just one self-improvement goal at a time have the most success.
  5. Set a clear and realistic goal. Your goal should be concrete, specific and capable of measurement so you can visibly see your progress. An independent third party to whom you describe your goal should be able to observe your behavior and easily discern whether you’ve reached a particular milestone or not.
  6. Figure out a way to obtain feedback about your progress along the way towards your goal. Teresa Amabile’s The Progress Principle, for example, shows how powerful such ongoing feedback can be.
  7. Link your development goal to a more important outcome — something that matters personally to you. When goals are connected to personally meaningful outcomes, individuals are more likely to attain them.
  8. Finally, be willing to have your leadership performance measured regularly by a 360-degree survey, e., have multiple parties (partners, associates, etc.) complete evaluation ratings about your performance.

You may have natural strengths that led you into your leadership role in the first place, but if you leverage those strengths so that they are even more formidable, you will most certainly increase your effectiveness as a leader.

– XXX –

Dr. Larry Richard:  Dr. Richard is the founder and principal consultant at LawyerBrain LLC, a consultancy specializing in improving the practice of law using personality science. Dr. Richard practiced law for ten years before earning a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. For the past 20+ years, he has helped the leaders of AmLaw 100 firms improve leadership, manage change, build collaboration and employee engagement, and select and develop talent. He is widely regarded as the leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior. For more information, visit www.lawyerbrain.com. To contact the author, write to drlarryrichard@lawyerbrain.com.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2016 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

What Can Social Science Tell Us About Ethics?

Posted in Influence, Leadership, Organizational Behavior


This article originally appeared in the March 2016 Ethics Corner column of the ABA online publication Business Law Today:

Can ethical behavior be taught? Most definitely. The social sciences have yielded several principles and practices that can aid law firm leaders in shaping desired ethical behaviors.

Following are seven suggestions, based on this research, that can help:

  1. Teach what to do, rather than what not to do: The first step is to stop teaching ethics the wrong way. The most common approach used in teaching ethics today is to present a series of appellate case decisions in which some lawyer did something egregious enough to cause disciplinary action. One way or another, this led to a lawsuit, and ultimately an appellate court weighed in and rendered an opinion on the behavior.

The “students”—whether it’s lawyers in a firm or law students still in school—are admonished to not do what the wayward lawyer in the case did, e.g., “Don’t commingle your funds with the client’s trust funds”; or “When there’s a possible conflict of interest, don’t assume that the client will be aware of it.”

Here’s the problem—adult learning theory tells us that adults learn appropriate behaviors better by seeing examples of what to do, as opposed to being told what not to do.

Showing a person the prohibited behavior actually stores the behavior in their brain as a potential repertoire in their brain’s behavioral menu, which increases the possibility of its occurring in the future.

To teach ethics most effectively, you need to show examples in which a lawyer comes to a choicepoint, and then makes the right decision.[1]

  1. Use respected role models: It’s not enough just to show any lawyer doing the right thing. The teaching moment is more powerful when the protagonist is a highly respected role model—either a respected firm leader, or a highly regarded “thought leader” in a successful practice—who regularly and naturally embodies the ethical character qualities you’re seeking to teach.[2]
  2. Use “Social Proof” to build compliance: One of the well-established principles of social psychology is that most people respond to “social proof” (also known as “the bandwagon effect” or “peer pressure”)—that is, they look around them to see what others are doing in a particular situation, and are often unconsciously guided by the flow of the crowd. The more people that are behaving in a particular way, the more likely it is that any given individual will go along and behave in the same way. People are even more likely to rely on social proof when (a) the situation contains some ambiguity about what the right way to behave is; and (b) when the individual perceives the “crowd” as similar to him/herself in some way.[3]

So one implication for teaching ethics is to find examples of widespread ethical behavior that already exist in the firm, and concentrate on letting everyone know about them. (See comment #5 below about “stories” and “culture”.)

  1. Teach ethics in an experiential way, not just a didactic way: If your goal were to teach your lawyers about updates to the tax code, or about new developments in hostile takeover litigation, then the pedagogical device of choice would be the didactic lecture. (A CLE course is a good example.) But if your goal is to foster a particular behavior, or to reinforce a mindset (the teaching of ethics requires both), then didactic lectures alone are insufficient, and may even be ineffective.

A quick example: If I’m about to board a plane, and I discover that the pilot got his or her training by attending a CLE lecture entitled “How to fly”, I’m not getting on that plane. I want to know that the pilot “flew” in a simulator, received extensive feedback, and had a powerful learning experience that “burned in” the lessons for good. So how does this translate to the teaching of ethics?

When we use a CLE approach and lecture to lawyers about what ethical behavior is appropriate, we are mainly playing to their intellect. By contrast, if we invite lawyers to participate in a simulation in which they actually have to make real choices about how to behave, the learning is much deeper and more memorable.[4]

Behavioral simulations are not only more memorable than didactic teaching, but they offer an added benefit—they may even shape the identity of the individual in the right direction. Psychologists have shown that one way that we determine who we are is by observing ourselves and noticing how we actually behave.[5] When you see yourself behaving ethically, this increases the likelihood of your telling yourself that “I’m the kind of person who does the right thing.” It shapes your identity.

  1. Tell a story: We are wired to pay attention to stories.[6] Find examples of respected lawyers in your firm who did the right thing when they came to a critical choicepoint. Tell these stories at firm retreats, meetings, common meals—anywhere that lawyers gather together informally and talk. Stories have enormous power to transmit culture—“the way we do things around here.”[7]
  2. Use environmental prompts: Research has shown that people respond to cues in their environment which shape their honesty behavior. For example, psychologist Dan Ariely has reported on a series of experiments showing that when people are in a room with a poster of a person whose eyes are looking straight at you, people in the presence of such an image behave more ethically.[8] There are many ways to structure your office environment to provide subtle reminders to your lawyers about the appropriate ways to behave.
  3. Provide elevating experiences periodically for your lawyers: For years, psychologists have studied “prosocial behavior”—what makes people behave well with others. Prosocial behavior includes things like helping others, collaborating, volunteering, being cooperative, being kind, sharing with others—and behaving ethically. Wouldn’t it be great if we could encourage the partners in our firms to behave a bit more in a pro-social direction. It turns out that we can. A more recent body of research involves the study of emotions of “elevation” – that is, emotions that uplift people, usually in response to beauty, grand aspects of nature, or acts of moral goodness. Examples of such emotions include awe, transcendence, majesty, wonder, reverence and inspiration. When human beings, for example, spend quiet time in a spot of either transcendent natural beauty or awesome wonders of nature (e.g., the Aurora Borealis, the Grand Canyon, etc.), they exhibit more pro-social behavior. When human beings witness one person helping someone else, it also engenders pro-social behavior. When people volunteer, they act more pro-socially, and when people act more pro-socially, they are more apt to volunteer.

Some law firms already employ this principle: think of offices with  sweeping panoramic views; retreats held in a beautiful spot in nature; ongoing programs in which the firm’s lawyers help some group—either pro bono representation, involvement with charities, or sponsoring groups of disadvantaged individuals. All of these acts actually help to shape ethical behavior.[9]

If you are in a leadership role in a law firm, the principles and practices outlined here can help you to begin building a culture of ethical behavior.

 –  XXX –

Dr. Larry Richard is an organizational psychologist and former practicing lawyer, and the founder of LawyerBrain LLC, a consulting firm specializing in improving lawyer performance through personality science. He is a leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior. He can be reached at drlarryrichard@lawyerbrain.com or go to www.lawyerbrain.com.

[1]   Bandura, A. (1985). Observational learning. In S. Sukemune (Ed.), Advances in social learning theory. Tokyo: Kaneko-shoho

[2]   Bandura, A. (1985). ibid.

[3]   Cialdini, R. (2006). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition. (New York: Harper Business), especially the chapter on “social proof”

[4]   Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall); McCarthy, P. R., & McCarthy, H. M. (2006). “When Case Studies Are Not Enough: Integrating Experiential Learning Into Business Curricula”. Journal Of Education For Business, 81(4), 201-204

[5]   See Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, (Vol. 6, pp. 1-62). New York: Academic Press

[6]   Cron, L. (2012). Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA)

[7]   Simmons, A. (2009). The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling. (Basic Books, New York)

[8]   Ariely, D. (2012). The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves. (HarperCollins, New York)

[9]   See psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s website for numerous publications and other resources on elevation.

Leading Like a Psychologist

Posted in Change Management, Engagement, Leadership, Organizational Behavior, People Skills, Performance, Positive Psychology, Uncategorized

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on September 16, 2015:


In my conversations with law firm leaders, I am hearing more and more concern expressed about their partners failing to meet expectations. Here are some examples:

  • “They’ve retired at their desks.”
  • “Everyone’s focused on their own work—no one’s reaching out and collaborating across offices or practices.”
  • “People are more irritable and less cooperative.”
  • “I need them to step up more to do the non-billable activities that will lead to our success.”
  • “Some partners are behaving badly.”
  • “They’re acting like knuckleheads!”

None of this is surprising. Organizational psychology literature is full of findings about the negative psychological consequences of rapid, exponential change. Because we’re trained to spot problems, lawyers actually are primed to suffer these known consequences more severely than people in other occupations.

Law firm leaders need to understand that these symptoms are not unique to your firm but are rather a widespread and well-known phenomena. More importantly, the same body of research has identified a number of simple solutions that can not only inoculate your lawyers against these ills, but can, at the same time, build psychological engagement, strengthen resilience, and increase collaboration.

Law firm leaders need to pay more attention to the psychology of their lawyers, and to the breakthroughs in the science of human performance. You need to lead like a psychologist.

First, let’s look at what doesn’t work to pull your partners out of this kind of slump:

“Convincing” doesn’t work. Giving your partners statistics, articles or data about the downside of their acting this way—in an attempt to show them the logic of changing their behavior—is not likely to make much of a difference.

“Incentivizing” doesn’t work. Money is not a very precise tool to regulate mood. See Dan Pink’s excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for details about why incentives often go astray.

“Importuning” doesn’t work. Nor does begging, chiding, cajoling, scolding, threatening, demanding or requesting that partners “change”—all are ineffective strategies because they don’t address the root cause.

When you witness a widespread pattern of partners acting passively, irritably, selfishly, etc., chances are good that they are reacting to the uncertainty of change and the stress and anxiety that it raises. Here are some tips to help you deal with this more effectively:

  1. Take as many steps as you can to reduce uncertainty wherever you find it—Give people more information rather than less about finances, schedules, leadership changes, firm successes, new hires, advances towards the firm’s strategic mission, etc. Avoid co-leadership if you can. Don’t waffle or give ambiguous messages—be clear and unambiguous about what you want. Uncertainty is the enemy; clarity is the antidote.
  2. Cultivate a culture of positivity—That’s right, positivity. Let me explain: In the past 15 years, there has been a profusion of research showing that human beings naturally pay more attention to threats, problems, and bad news as opposed to opportunities and good news. Further, a steady diet of this negative mindset has really serious adverse consequences. (And lawyers are even better at hunting for problems than the general public, because of our training.) One implication is that we need to balance out our addiction to bad news with at least three times as much attention to good news. I’m not saying “Think positive instead of negative”—it’s vitally important that we continue paying attention to the threats and problems. And, it’s equally vital that we also make it a conscious habit to also celebrate wins, highlight opportunities, express gratitude for things that are working right, etc. Attention to the good needs to outweigh attention to the bad by at least three-to-one. One simple way to do this, widely used in corporate America, is to end every meeting with a “plus/delta” review: Plus:What worked well? What do we not want to change? What are we proud of? And what should we continue doing, etc.? Delta: What do we want to do differently or better the next time?
  3. Create a culture of gratitude—Research at the University of Michigan shows that organizations whose culture encourages people to be thankful for everyday things actually are more profitable than workplaces where an “entitlement” mindset prevails. Moreover, grateful people sleep better, are less depressed, are kinder and friendlier, more helpful, and more productive. About a dozen years ago, Rodgin Cohen, the Chairman at Sullivan & Cromwell, instituted a “Please/Thank You” rule. The mere step of asking partners to say “Please” and “Thank you” to associates produced game-changing behavior for the better.
  4. Encourage a strengths-based development mindset—Many law firms still adhere to the axiom, “The cream rises to the top”. The belief is that star talent will emerge, and you just have to sit back and wait. Worse, many firms employ an annual or semi-annual performance review that emphasizes fixing deficiencies. There’s no question that a lawyer who hasn’t mastered a critical skill needs to do so. But in the spirit of the 3:1 positivity research noted above, a parallel line of research shows that when your development model places the majority of emphasis on helping an individual to get even better at the things they already do very well (while still fixing those deficiencies that absolutely must be fixed), this primarily strengths-based approach produces dramatically higher levels of performance than a repair-your-deficiencies approach alone.
  5. Foster social connection among your lawyers—Perhaps the most compelling research of all shows the huge power of authentic human connection, something that makes many lawyers squirm. Squirm if you must, but the science on this point is crystal clear and growing in importance every day—informal connections, social networks, authentic relationships—these are your greatest potential assets. Here’s one practical reason why: When a lawyer represents a client, especially in a large, multi-country firm, in today’s complex environment, many transactions will require the expertise of more than just one kind of lawyer. The broader your informal social network, the more likely that you will be successful in identifying the right expertise and in successfully linking those other lawyers with your client. Research by Heidi Gardner at Harvard shows that (i) The more practices a client touches, the more profitable the client is for the firm—collaboration leads to greater profitability; and, (ii) larger social networks lead to greater collaboration. In one example, two partners joined the firm in the same year, had the same kind of practice, and had the same number of annual hours billed, but one had just a few connections, and the other had many connections. The latter’s book of business was 4 times that of the first partner.

There are many other research-based strategies that can inoculate against the stresses of change and uncertainty, and can build enormous potential for productivity and profitability at the same time. But if you start with these five tips, you can make an immediate positive impact in your firm.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Tea Reading or Testing—What’s the Best Way to Hire?

Posted in Assessment, Feedback, Leadership, Personality, Selection

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on July 29, 2015:

Amidst the head-spinning change and the increased competition that all law firms face today, there is an increased emphasis on—some say a frenzy to—hire the best people. The cost of making a hiring mistake is growing, and the consequences of doing so take effect even sooner than before.

Many law firms are re-examining their approach to talent acquisition, seeking more efficient, accurate and successful methods.

One topic that always comes up, but raises great anxiety in most lawyers, is the use of psychological testing as a pre-employment selection tool. There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about this topic, and in this post, I’d like to clear things up and explain why testing should be a part of your hiring strategy.

First, let me address a bias I have. I like testing. I do a lot of it. So naturally I would advocate for its use. But the truth is, the very reason that I use testing so extensively is because 20-plus years ago, when I was investigating the best way to reliably hire lawyers who were a good “fit” with the firm (I’ll explain “fit” in more detail below), I looked at the scientific literature and became convinced that testing, when done properly, is one of the most effective tools out there.

I’m both a lawyer and a psychologist, and the lawyer in me was quite skeptical that any test could tell me something useful. After all, I pride myself on being an astute observer of people, as I’m sure you do—how could a test add anything at all? Plus, what if a candidate “gamed” the test? And wouldn’t testing scare away risk-averse lawyers? But the psychologist in me was curious, and inclined to trust the science.

In the end, it was no contest. I became convinced that a sophisticated test can add valuable information that can be obtained in no other way, and, more important, that information could reduce the risk of making a hiring mistake.

So why should you use testing? To understand this, it will first help to understand a bit about the principles of successful hiring. When you hire a lawyer, you should be interested in more than just academic credentials. We all want the smartest, analytically skilled lawyers for our firms, with great credentials in a particular practice specialty. But smarts and experience alone are not enough to lead to success. In today’s complex environment, lawyers play many new roles beyond just practicing law. That means that new skills are required that we didn’t used to worry about, and this, in turn, means that we have to be much more sophisticated in our hiring practices.

Personality testing provides an enormous advantage here. Personality is one of the broadest and most reliable predictors of a person’s typical style of behaving, and their ultimate performance. Personality traits are stable over time. Everyone has a unique trait “fingerprint”.

The real question here is not whether a candidate has the “best” personality—there really is no such thing. Rather, the question you should be asking is whether the candidate’ personality is a good or bad “fit” with the firm, or with the practice group, or with a particular partner that the candidate will be working with. The idea of “fit” is simple but powerful. The research convincingly shows that the more congruent the fit, the more successful the individual and the longer the tenure of the individual. (It also is correlated with higher job satisfaction.)

Think of testing as a supplement to a series of good interviews. The interviews give you a subjective impression of a candidate. Testing can then give you three important types of objective feedback about fit:

  • Confirm—Suppose all your interviewers agreed that the candidate “seems like a nice person”, and you happen to be looking for lawyers that will fit in with your strong culture of collegiality. Suppose further that you test the candidate, and you learn that the candidate scores very high on a trait called “Sociability”. This basically explains why the interviewers came away with the impression that the candidate is nice—people with high scores on Sociability like connecting with other people, and are often perceived as “nicer” than those with low scores. (by the way, lawyers in general score much lower than the general public average for this trait, so if you find a high-scoring lawyer, it’s a rarity.) Thus, the test helps to “confirm” what the interviewers observed, and gives you a more concrete, scientific basis that underlies the more impressionistic data from the interviews.
  • Clarify—Suppose one interviewer concludes that the candidate seems very cautious, e., reluctant to disclose a lot until the candidate has as much information as possible. Let’s say that a second interviewer describes the candidate as someone who enjoys taking risks. Seems contradictory, no? And yet, this is not an uncommon situation. People are complex. Personality is not linear. Many individuals—including many lawyers—score high on a trait called “Cautiousness” but also score high on a trait called “Risk-Taking”. The first trait explains why someone plays their cards close to their chest; the second trait explains why a person likes variety, novelty and stimulation. This might play out in the world of real behavior as a person who buys junk bonds but reads the prospectus carefully; or, the person who buys a Volvo and always wears a seat belt, but drives it fast. These kinds of paradoxes that show up in seemingly conflicting candidate interviews can often be very satisfactorily reconciled once you see the candidate’s personality test scores. Personality is idiosyncratic, and does not follow rules of logic.
  • Uncover—Tests are also excellent at uncovering qualities that normally don’t show up in an interview. Take “procrastination”. This quality can be quite damaging in a law practice. However, you will rarely learn anything in a job interview that would tip you off that the candidate tends to procrastinate. But a good test can identify trait patterns that raise the potential for procrastination as an issue.

If you don’t like a candidate, a test is not going to change your mind. But if you do like a candidate, you would be well served to add to your subjective impressions the objectivity that a test can provide. No candidate is ever a perfect fit with a firm or a practice. But testing helps you to reduce the risk of making a hiring mistake, and it improves the odds in your favor.

Tests should never be used in a binary way—in other words, you should never make a hiring decision solely on the strength of a test, because personality only explains about one-third of the factors leading to a person’s behavior. But one-third is a large chunk—nothing else has that kind of predictive power. So tests help you chip away at uncertainty, but they always should be used in conjunction with interviews, references, writing samples, problem-solving exercises, or other screening mechanisms.

In the end, talent is the lifeblood of a successful law firm. And testing is one of the best, most scientific ways to find and retain the best talent. It’s time to think about following the success strategy that most of your clients already use.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Making Your Law Firm a Great Place to Work

Posted in Engagement, Leadership, Organizational Behavior, People Skills, Performance

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on May 13, 2015:

The Great Place to Work Institute publishes an annual list of the “100 Best Places to Work”. This year, 20 of the companies on the list are in the “Professional Services Firms” category. And of these, five are law firms. This is the first time that law firms have represented fully a quarter of those spots, and from my conversations with law firm leaders, this is a trend that will only accelerate.

It’s smart business to transform your law firm from a mere conventional law practice to a great law firm in which to work. Benefits of doing so include:

  • attracting and retaining Millennials;
  • increasing their competitive advantage over peer firms;
  • counteracting some of the deleterious effects of rapid change;
  • building loyalty;
  • improving client service and satisfaction;
  • strengthening the firm’s brand;
  • attracting laterals (and reducing the cost to acquire laterals);
  • reducing burnout;
  • lengthening associate tenure; and,
  • improving profitability.

When you transform your firm into a great place to work, the psychological engagement of your people soars. And engagement is the attitudinal gold standard that leads to higher productivity, increased profitability, higher work satisfaction, longer tenure and increased “goodmouthing” (as opposed to “badmouthing”) of the workplace.

So what are the things that a law firm leader can do that really matter in creating a great place to work? Here’s my Top 8 list, based on the latest research:

  1. Clear goals and roles—In a world of rapid change, the increasing uncertainty can disrupt high performance in an organization. One proven antidote is to continuously make an effort to reduce uncertainty, to provide clarity to your people. This includes letting people know very clearly what’s expected of them—What do you expect of partners? What does an associate have to do to advance? What are the job expectations of staff? It also includes having clear values that are vigilantly adhered to. It’s especially important that your leaders “walk the talk” here. And role clarity is equally important—who’s in charge, and what exactly are their responsibilities. Try to avoid co-leadership if you possibly can—it creates more uncertainty that often is not offset by the minimal benefits it offers
  2. A Development Mindset—Research shows that when employees feel a sense of mastery, e., competence in a particular skill, they become more engaged. This is especially true for associates who are learning their craft. The key here is that in addition to teaching the mechanics of good lawyering, it’s even more important to focus on developing the individual. Development is about attitude, and attitude matters greatly. When a lawyer or a staff person gets the sense that their mentor is taking a genuine interest in helping them to develop their skills and master their craft—that “my mentor really cares about my becoming an excellent practitioner”—engagement levels soar.
  3. Autonomy—Human beings have a need to feel a sense of autonomy—not just the idea that “no one is telling me what to do”, but more importantly, the idea that “I am being given the freedom to be my true self, my best self, in this environment.” For lawyers, this type of autonomy—often called “self-determination” in the research literature—matters hugely. To build engagement among the ranks of your professional staff, first, avoid micromanaging, even if you can rationalize 16 reasons why you need to do it. Second, adopt a nonjudgmental attitude that communicates that you encourage the uniqueness of the individual to shine through. It’s fine to set demanding expectations about the outcome you want an associate to achieve, but relax your vigilance about how exactly they arrive at that outcome.
  4. Social connection—This is the single most important element—not just in producing engagement, but for all kinds of thriving (life satisfaction, work satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, ) The research shows that regular doses of authentic positive connections with others not only lead to high levels of engagement, but also have a beneficial impact on health, cognitive focus, mood, collaboration, and a range of other desired behaviors. Many lawyers are uncomfortable talking about relationships, connections, or intimacy, seeing it as touchy-feely and irrelevant. My data on the lawyer personality explains this discomfort to a great extent. But it’s important to note that just because these topics make them uncomfortable doesn’t mean that they don’t need human connection. They do, and when you can facilitate more of it in your firm, it has very beneficial effects. This doesn’t mean that you need to have group hugs or start singing Kumbayah every morning. It does mean that removing barriers to social interaction, creating natural gathering places, and encouraging face-to-face communication are all interventions that will lead to increased engagement.
  5. Meaning—Few practices hold the power of creating meaning in one’s work. When you experience meaning in your work, it can lead to feelings of pride and significance. This doesn’t mean that your firm can’t represent financial institutions, or that every client transaction must lead to a spiritual awakening. It doesn’t even mean that your work has to help those less fortunate than you. At its simplest, this need is satisfied when a lawyer sees that words s/he drafted actually end up in the final document, or when a supervising lawyer says “nice job”, or “thanks, this helps check off one important element for this deal.” In other words, the idea that something that I did was useful to someone else, that it mattered, is what’s important. If, in addition, it also leads to good works in the world, that’s a plus, but it doesn’t seem to be indispensable to see a bump up in engagement.
  6. Gratitude—The research on gratitude is also quite compelling. Studies (see, g., Robert Emmons’ books Thanks! and Gratitude Works!) have shown that regular use of gratitude leads to:
    • a reduction in physical symptoms (fewer colds, headaches) (plus lower levels of biomarkers for inflammation);
    • reports of greater life satisfaction;
    • more optimism about the coming week;
    • higher states of alertness, attentiveness, determination and energy, and reports of sustained better moods;
    • fewer absences;
    • more helpful behavior toward others;
    • reports of fewer hassles in peoples’ lives;
    • better quality of sleep;
    • an increased feeling of being connected to others; and
    • higher productivity.

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. It connotes a sense of thankfulness for something good that was unexpected or to which you were not necessarily entitled. Workplaces in which a culture of gratitude is cultivated report greater collegiality, higher productivity, and less turnover. Prof. Kim Cameron, at the University of Michigan, in his book Positive Leadership, details some of the positive consequences in those companies that have cultivated a culture of gratitude.

In 2006, the Chair of Sullivan & Cromwell implemented a policy encouraging partners to say “please” and “thank you” to the firm’s associates, and many articles since have detailed the remarkable improvement in the daily work climate and the increase in associate retention since that simple intervention. The cost to implement: $0.00.

  1. Strengths—As lawyers, we’re trained to spot problems. We tend to carry this mindset over to the review process. Annual reviews in most law firms concentrate primarily on reporting deficiencies that need to be repaired. Years of research reveals that a 75/25 focus on strengths is the optimum proportion for high engagement and morale. Note that this ratio does not mean eliminating feedback about deficiencies—far from it. People need to know what they need to improve. And, they need even more encouragement to capitalize on the things they are good at. The Gallup organization has identified 12 “predictor” questions that strongly predict high levels of engagement in the workplace. The 3rd most powerful predictor is this question: “Do you have an opportunity to do what you do best every day?”Research by Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that people who get to use their strengths in creative new ways have less depressive thinking and greater work satisfaction. There are hundreds of similar studies showing that when a person concentrates on getting even better at his/her strengths (e., “leveraging” those strengths), the result is genuine increases in life satisfaction and a whole host of associated positive improvements, both attitudinal and behavioral.
  2. Fairness—Finally, research by Sirota Consulting and others has shown that people want to be treated fairly, and while fairness doesn’t “cause” engagement, the perception that one has been unfairlytreated can definitely destroy engagement. Wise law firm leaders will be particularly attentive to how their policy decisions are perceived in terms of fairness—as seen through the eyes of those who are affected by the policy decisions.

Most of these principles and practices are not very complicated, cost very little or nothing to implement, and are relatively easy to do. What makes them challenging is that all of them can easily be seen as “touchy-feely” (and thus discredited) by hard-edged, skeptical lawyers. Fifteen years ago, we had very little hard data about any of these practices, so one could hardly blame the eyeball-rollers. But in the past decade-and-a-half, an explosion of high-quality, methodologically sound scientific research has produced all of these findings I’ve reported on.

The broad sweep of this research tells us that treating employees with dignity, and adopting a mindset of wanting to genuinely help them to thrive, helping them to connect with others in authentic ways, and bringing out the best in people—despite our problem-focused training—is the secret formula to a creating a great place to work.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Leading Lawyers: Your Most Potent Tool is Your Mindset

Posted in Change Management, Influence, Leadership, People Skills

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on April 15, 2015:

Are you a practicing lawyer who is transitioning into a leadership role? Whether it’s as a managing partner, practice group leader, office managing partner, or executive committee member—in all cases, to be effective as a leader, you need to make a significant shift in your mindset in several ways.

First, many lawyer-leaders default to the role of “manager”—making sure that important things get done in a regular and predictable way (timesheets are turned in, mentoring younger lawyers takes place, work is assigned rationally, etc.). There is certainly a need for management, but today the greater need in law firms is for leadership, i.e., determining what direction your constituents should go in, and then encouraging them to voluntarily go there. So in addition to thinking like a manager, you also have to think like a leader.

Leadership is a natural response to change. When making decisions, leaders, by definition, never have all the information they’d like to have. Thus they depend on establishing credibility and a trust relationship with their constituents. This, in turn, requires a large dose of emotional intelligence and other relationship-building skills. These are learnable skills, and lawyer-leaders need to increase their competence in these areas.

The second and more important mindset shift that you need to make is an extension of the first. You need to shift your mindset about how best to influence people.

In your role as “lawyer”, you have been trained to influence others using an “advocacy” model, rather than a “behavioral influence” model. In the advocacy model, we influence by marshaling a series of persuasive syllogisms with which we regale the object of our influence in the hope that the force of logic will persuade them to our point of view. In a litigation, this is a winning strategy—but mainly because there is a neutral third party present to adjudicate the issue between adversaries. If you try the same technique with one of your partners, you may have noticed that the typical response is not capitulation. Instead, the other person will dig in their heels, harden their previous position, and marshal their own best arguments about why you’re wrong and why their view should prevail. Advocacy as an influencing tool is utterly ineffective and inadvisable as a leadership strategy when your mission is to effectively lead other lawyers.

What does work? A “behavioral influence” approach. Over the past 30 years, considerable attention has been paid by psychologists to the methods used by highly effective influencers in society—advertisers, fundraisers, public relations experts, lobbyists, and business leaders. The methods of these “natural persuaders” have been analyzed and codified, and it turns out that all of them rely on just a few simple strategies that are very effective in getting large groups of people to do what the influencer seeks.

Law firm leaders need to understand these natural pillars of influence. They include role modeling, social proof, commitment and consistency, and similarity.

Role modeling: We are all wired to pay more attention to leaders and other authorities than to our peers. In particular, we pay far more attention to what leaders do than to what they say. So the first rule of influence is that a leader must “walk the talk.” You can’t ask others to turn in their timesheets on time when you don’t turn your own in on time. This is a far more powerful principle than the timesheet example might lead you to conclude. If you are asking people to try behaving in a new way, it is imperative that you take the lead in doing the new behavior yourself. It also helps to enlist other highly respected and visible firm leaders as well—there’s strength in numbers.

Social proof: Also known as “the bandwagon effect”, this is more or less a first cousin to the role modeling principle. If role modeling tells us that rank and file lawyers will look up to leaders, social proof tells us that they also look to their peers to obtain guidance about what the proper behavior should be. This is especially true during times of great change such as we’re going through now—the ambiguity that results from a rapidly changing environment increases people’s need to look around and see how others are behaving.

The lesson here is to enlist thought leaders—lawyers that others look up to but who are considered peers of the other partners—and one by one, make a personal plea to each of them to adopt the desired new behavior. A small number of thought leaders adopting a new behavior is a powerful inducement to all the other partners to adopt those behaviors too.

Commitment and consistency: Human beings like being consistent. We don’t like the tension that exists when we believe we are one kind of person and then we behave as if we’re another kind of person. When that kind of discrepancy occurs, there is great psychological pressure to bring belief and behavior into alignment. In some cases, changing one’s behavior is the easier path; in others, changing one’s belief is the easier way.

The main point is that if you can get your partners to try a small version of a larger behavior, that “toe in the water” often makes it much easier for people to move on and adopt the full-blown behavior that you’re hoping they’ll adopt. So start small. Begin with little steps, and build from there.

Similarity: The last principle is based on the idea that we are much more likely to allow ourselves to be influenced when we believe that the person asking us to change is just like us. So before you make a request of your partners to do something new or different, you first should consider showing them how others just like them have already done so. This principle dovetails nicely with the “social proof” principle—although they are technically two separate and distinct psychological patterns, they work very well together, and often overlap.

If you begin using these behavioral influence methods instead of relying on logic alone, your ability to lead other lawyers will grow commensurately.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved