As I’ve talked with law firm leaders over the past six months, increasingly I’ve heard them describe a troubling list of symptoms that they’re seeing in their lawyers. In their own words, here’s what they’re observing:

  • Malaise, complacency, burnout, an attitude of hopelessness, weariness, a “giving up” mindset;
  • Increased conflict; not playing nicely in the sandbox;
  • Failure to reach out to the best talent to staff a matter—sticking instead with their most familiar colleagues;
  • Increased evidence of low resilience responses—irritability, defensiveness, thin-skinned-ness, easily hurt, oversensitive;
  • Disengagement; passivity; biding their time;
  • A glass-half-empty mindset; not noticing or seeing but disparaging business development opportunities; increasing cynicism; a feeling that “it’s not worth the bother”;
  • Perfectionism—“If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do anything at all;” making excuses for not putting out the effort;
  • Diminished creativity;
  • And people being less proactive in using their “investment time”—waiting for work to come to them instead of seeking it out.

These are the classic signs of “learned helplessness.” First described by Dr. Martin Seligman, a leading psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania this is a well known condition in which individuals experience not having control over their destiny and then over-generalize to conclude that “nothing I do matters, so I might as well not try.” Studies show that this mindset is a potential precursor to depression in some individuals.

Learned helplessness, as illustrated by the laundry list above, is a common response to rapid, nonstop change and the uncertainty that comes with it. We as human beings are designed for stability and predictability. Living in a constant state of churn causes stress to anyone. But lawyers are even more vulnerable to these effects for two main reasons:

1)  Our negative mindset (which is required for practicing law) amplifies the negative psychological consequences of change; and,

2)   The personality traits that are common to successful lawyers similarly amplify these negative consequences of change.

For example, we have a much higher need for Autonomy than average, i.e., we like being in control. So when a lot of stuff outside our doors is changing and we don’t feel like we have much control over those changes, our need for Autonomy is compromised and our stress increases.

There is a bright spot in all of this. Research has shown that we can learn to buffer the negative effects of change-induced stress through a number of effective resilience-building strategies, mostly cognitive ones. These include optimizing social connections and adopting a practice of explaining adverse events in our mind using a “glass half full” cognitive strategy (“realistic optimism”), among others.

If you do nothing to combat these symptoms, what impact will they have on your success as a law firm? And can anything be done to improve the situation?

Let’s look at the impact first. A recent Gallup poll found that only 30% of the American workforce are currently psychologically “engaged” workers. Can you imagine how low this number must be for lawyers?

Before you dismiss “engagement” as a minor league “soft” metric, you should be aware that engagement matters—a lot. Study after study shows a direct link between high engagement and high profitability. Some firms say, “Let’s get our revenue production up first, then we’ll worry about engagement.” But this may not actually be the best strategy.

Jim Collins, in his research reported in Built to Last, found that the consistently top-performing companies had a “both/and” culture. For example, they focused on both profitability and on building a lasting something-or-other. In other words, they were mission-driven and also kept their eye on the financial ball—“both/and”. It’s a mistake to focus just on profits or revenue, especially if by doing so you create a negative mindset like those in the initial laundry list above.

So should you focus mainly on revenue-generation and then pay a little bit of attention to increasing employee engagement? There is gathering evidence that the psychological climate of the workplace plays a much more important role in the ultimate level of profitability, productivity, and client satisfaction than previously believed.

By “psychological climate”, I’m talking about the kind of employee mindset that you foster. How do people who work in your firm feel? Do they feel motivated? Respected? Cared for? Fairly treated? Do they feel like their work is valued? Do they feel like management is genuinely interested in the development of their competence? Is the culture one of tolerance of mistakes? (Innovation blossoms in such a culture.) Do the firm’s values – the ones you actually live – include gratitude, compassion or giving over receiving?

Each of these elements has been investigated by social scientists in the past decade and shown to have a direct correlation with profitability, productivity or client satisfaction (or all three.) Correlation is not the same as causation, but there is even some fairly strong evidence that suggests that these factors are indeed causative, or at least predictive, of these desired outcomes.

In short—and this next point is so easy to misquote out of context that I almost hesitate to make it, but here goes—Happy people generate higher profits. Several recent books and articles have documented this and related concepts. See, for example, Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage; Martin Seligman’s Flourish; and the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the cover story of which was entitled “The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits.”

Let’s face it—this is a hard-sell to lawyers. Most of us are just too skeptical to accept this at face value. Many lawyers will dismiss this news out of hand, or marginalize it by sarcastically labeling it as “Kumbayah management” or complaining that “now you want to create a hugfest”.

But smart leaders know better than that. These ideas are backed up by extensive empirical science. The law firm that successfully implements these practices can gain a decided competitive advantage over its more skeptical peers. Law is a people business—our assets are our people. So it stands to reason that bringing out the best in our people is a surefire formula for success. Firms that are serious about this need to have a dedicated internal champion—a “Chief Resilience Officer”—to maintain a steady focus on building an engaged workforce. This needs to comprise both focus on developing individuals as well as creating the kinds of resources and environment in which engaged employees can thrive.

There are already many experiments under way, from law firms that regularly conduct engagement surveys of their people to firms that have begun teaching Resilience skills to their lawyers. (See my other posts for some of these resilience-building techniques.)

The real question is: Even if these practice work in most businesses, are lawyers too skeptical and negative for them to adopt these practices, or to benefit from them if they are adopted? The jury is still out here, but it will be an interesting trajectory to follow.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

Baby Boomers are beginning to retire. In the legal profession, one microcosm of that trend is that managing partners are beginning to retire. In the old days, managing partners were mainly full-time lawyers who also carried out administrative responsibilities part-time. But in more recent years, the role has grown into a full-blown leadership role with much greater demands.

Many of the firm leaders who have announced their upcoming retirements have been in office for ten years or more, some even longer. Many firms are now facing the need to cope with succession issues, either scrambling to replace a leader who is stepping down, or hopefully planning for one whose exit from the role is imminent or inevitable.

The ideas on succession planning that follow come largely from a recent gathering of law firm leaders. I was fortunate to be invited to the annual conference at Pebble Beach that Brad Hildebrandt and Thomson Reuters sponsor for approximately 120 leaders of large law firms. One of the panel discussions included the following participants:

  • Ralph Baxter, Chairman Emeritus, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
  • Geoffrey Green, former Chairman of Ashurst LLP (now Senior Consultant – Asia)
  • Fran Milone, Chairman & CEO, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
  • Keith Wetmore, Chair Emeritus, Morrison & Foerster LLP
  • Mitchell Zuklie, Chairman, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
  • Andy Baker, Managing Partner, Baker Botts LLP

Both Mitch Zuklie and Andy Baker recently stepped into their roles. The others have all either stepped down or have announced that they are doing so.

In no particular order, here are some of the insights offered by the panel, along with some of their cautions:

  • When a leader announces that s/he is stepping down, the rank-and-file lawyers will naturally begin asking, “Can we trust the new person?” This will be particularly evident if the incumbent has served a long term.
  • When a Baby Boomer leader steps down, many Baby Boomer partners in the firm will likely begin asking themselves, “Is this the time for me to retire too?” Firms that are considering succession planning should take this into account.
  • When possible, it’s a good idea to identify a new leader at least 6 months before s/he will need to actually take over the reins. Keep in mind that not only does the incoming leader need to learn the ropes, but his/her new leadership team will also have a learning curve. While the new leader has likely already been deeply involved in the details of leading the firm before being selected to succeed the incumbent, this may not be true for every member of the new leadership team.
  • It’s absolutely critical to build buy-in with the partners for the new leader. This becomes even more important if the “rules of the game” are going to change in some way when the new leader takes over. This could include a shift from a single leader to a bifurcated leadership arrangement; a re-shuffling of practice group organization; new approach to comp; etc.
  • Many of the panel members mentioned how important it is to maintain the firm’s culture through the transition period.
  • Maintaining the perception of fairness is another theme that was mentioned several times.
  • There were several “timing” issues that were mentioned: (1) Should there be term limits for a new leader? (2) If you are stepping into a role in which your incumbent led the firm for ten years or more, what expectations has this tacitly set up among your partners? (3) Considering that the pace of change has quickened dramatically in the past few years, will a new leader ever serve as long as the currently retiring generation has? Or will we see shortened terms just because of the increasingly changing dynamics? Can you prepare for this?
  • Has the firm grown or changed significantly since the incumbent started his/her original term? If so, maybe the firm should examine its assumptions about leadership structure and responsibilities, leadership competencies, and related issues, in thinking about the next leader.
  • Anticipate and deal with “Lame-Duck-ism”. “As soon as your new title is announced, all eyes will shift to the new guy.”
  • At MoFo, the Chair who steps down becomes the head of the Comp Committee. This allows a degree of continuity and sends a signal that the former leader will “still be in a position to keep his promises”.
  • Should an incumbent recommend his/her own successor? What are the pros and cons of doing so?
  • If your firm has a multi-country footprint, what are the pros and cons of choosing your next leader from one of the other countries in which you are present?
  • Every leader who steps down has “unfinished business.” Some of this unfinished business involves perennial problems that seem intractable and will always be there; some involves problems that are fixable and must be resolved before you go; and some involve good ideas that you should definitely pass on to your successor to consider.
  • The panel concluded that every firm is different, and there is no “one size fits all” governance structure that works for every firm.
  • The panelists agreed that it’s a good idea to look at structure first—given the conditions that we face today, what’s the best governance structure for our firm? Having determined this, then consider who should actually fill the role.
  • Most of the panelists endorsed the importance of the new leader having many conversations with the partners to discuss the transition, listen to their input, build trust, and foster continuity.
  • One panelist mentioned that once you’re in transition—on the way out—in some ways, you may have more latitude to “clean up stuff” – unfinished business – because you no longer need worry about the political implications.
  • One panelist mentioned that “When you go through your first partner retreat, that’s when you really take over, you make your mark.”
  • If you leave on your own timing, you get to negotiate your own title and perks.
  • There was some discussion about whether it’s a good idea or not for an outgoing leader to become Emeritus. On the one hand, it can be helpful to the new leader, reassuring to the firm, and useful in a number of ways. On the other hand, there is always the risk that partners will try to go through the Emeritus leader instead of the new incumbent, or that the Emeritus leader will interfere with the new leader’s ability to build credibility. Each firm has to work out how this evolves.

These are just some of the issues to consider when the top leader’s time to step down is approaching. Some of these issues also apply to other leaders such as practice group leaders or office heads. But one thing that everyone can agree on is that if you have the luxury of doing so, planning for succession far in advance is significantly better than scrambling at the last minute, even despite the fear of “Lame-Duck-ism”.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

This is the time of year when a lot of law firms administer multi-rater feedback surveys—these can include “360-degree feedback” or simply “360’s”, as well as peer reviews and upward evaluation surveys. What they all have in common is that an individual receives feedback from multiple raters.

Multi-rater surveys can accomplish several goals at the same time:

  • They can provide important feedback to the individual “ratees” (i.e, the feedback recipients).
  • They can provide the raters an opportunity to be heard
  • The aggregated results can provide actionable feedback to firm management about important behavioral issues that may need attention

Some law firms take a minimalist approach to these surveys—they run the survey, gather feedback from raters, and then simply send the feedback report to the ratees (usually partners) and leave it to those partners to interpret their own reports.

While this approach is quick and efficient, it can significantly sacrifice effectiveness and result in little to no behavior change.

To achieve the maximum payoff for your investment—for example, if you want the feedback to be maximally effective, or you want to foster behavior change, or you want the raters to feel like they’ve definitely had their voices heard—then consider taking the following two steps in addition to merely administering the survey:

(1) Gain buy-in at the time that you build the survey, and

(2) Provide meaningful coaching and strengths-based feedback at the back end.

Buy-in: Surveys have a powerful impact on people—on both those who give feedback and those who receive it. For the givers, they can raise significant expectations about potential changes in the ratee’s behavior—and they can also arouse concerns about retaliation, confidentiality, and related fears. (Not all feedback is “bad”, but lawyers tend to pay more attention to the negative.) For the feedback recipients, it can create a potent discrepancy—between “how I thought I was behaving” and “how others see me behaving”, for example, or between “how I see myself” and “how others see me”.

However, the degree of impact will be minimal if the survey participants had little or no involvement in the creation of the survey. When firm management simply announces that a survey is going to take place, and sets it in motion, it’s seen as something that “they” are doing.

Consider how much more powerful it can be to involve the potential raters and the potential ratees in the actual design of the survey from the outset. This small additional step can yield an enormous advantage—participation leads to commitment.

In other words, when the raters and ratees have had a hand in discussing the survey, thinking about its purposes, contributing ideas about what should be measured, and weighing in on some of the design choices, then when the survey actually takes place, these participants will be much more inclined to accept its legitimacy and to take the entire exercise more seriously.

Strengths-Based Coaching:  When a feedback report is provided to an individual without any coaching, the individual is left to make sense of the feedback on his/her own. Inevitably, human nature takes over, and most people will skim the positive feedback quickly and then linger on and resist the negative feedback. Lawyers do this more readily than most people.

Lawyers are trained to hunt for flaws, problems, and weaknesses. In my experience, when a ratee receives a feedback report at the end of the survey process, s/he almost always focuses on the “bad news”—for example, the first place that most lawyers turn to is the narrative comments that contain any criticism.

This is quickly followed by coming up with reasons why any critical comments are invalid and must be dismissed or ignored. This defeats the purpose of the exercise.

A good coach can help the feedback recipient make sense of the feedback in a way that is open-minded and constructive. The coach can help the recipient use the feedback to improve performance, attain desired goals, or adjust behavior.

The most effective coaching emphasizes the feedback recipient’s strengths. There is a growing body of scientific research showing that employees who focus more of their attention on their strengths, and how to leverage them, realize greater increases in performance and report higher levels of satisfaction than those who focus primarily on their weaknesses.

Focusing on strengths does not mean that weaknesses are to be ignored. Rather, it’s a question of emphasis. Research shows that it is more effective to spend about 75% of your time focusing on how to improve strengths, and 25% on how to manage those weaknesses that are so dire that they actually are interfering with your performance. (Lesser weaknesses can be safely ignored—when someone demonstrates a superior strength, others tend to overlook moderate weaknesses altogether.)

Bottom line: The most effective multi-rater feedback systems involve potential raters and ratees from the outset and seek their input in the design of the system. And the most effective way to deliver feedback is by using a coach who employs a strengths-based approach.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

I recently finished conducting a 6-month-long “Action Learning” leadership program with a mid-size law firm. The idea is to train lawyers to be leaders by actually placing them into real live leadership situations, and teaching through experience, instead of using a “death by Power Point” approach.

At the end of our capstone meeting, one of the participants asked me about skepticism and leadership. If you’ve followed my writing, you’ve heard me describe the personality data that I’ve gathered on thousands of lawyers. One of the most robust findings over the years is that lawyers are much more skeptical than the general public. This is the result of several factors that all move in the same direction:

Being a lawyer requires one to constantly search for problems, to wonder what could go wrong, to find the flaws and defects in an assertion. As a result, people with a personality that leans in this direction are more prone to entering the profession, and people with less of this tendency drop out of law school and out of practice at a disproportionately higher rate than their more skeptical counterparts. This concentrates the skeptics in two ways–more are attracted in the first place, and fewer drop out over time.

Skepticism itself is one of those personality traits that is more influenced by one’s environment than is typical. Most personality traits are more genetically predisposed, more nature than nurture, but skepticism is an exception. It is very much influenced by one’s milieu. And the milieu in most law firms, the mindset that is the norm, is one of skepticism. Over the years, I’ve asked people who work with lawyers, are married to lawyers, or who know lawyers, “What adjectives would you use to describe the lawyers you know?” I’ve gotten many responses, but the five most frequent are these: cynical, skeptical, critical, negative and pessimistic. (I also hear arrogant, analytical, egotistical, smart, and several others quite often.)

The point is that the profession both attracts and reinforces people with a negative mindset because this type of critical thinking is essential for a lawyer who wants to do a good job at representing clients.

In recent years, however, lawyers have increasingly been called upon to play many other roles besides “lawyer”. These include leader, manager, supervisor, mentor, committee chair, rainmaker and teammate. These newer roles all require less skepticism and more trust, the opposite of skepticism.

This brings us back to the question that this new law firm leader asked me–Can a skeptical lawyer be a good leader?

The essence of leadership is setting a clear goal and then mobilizing and inspiring others to voluntarily take action to achieve that goal. According to research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (The Leadership Challenge; Credibility), trust and credibility are the sine qua non of effective leadership. Leading others is an intensely personal process. People follow a leader because they trust their leader to do the right thing. When a leader is skeptical–and I mean skeptical in his/her leadership role–it leads to a big problem.

Think about really skeptical people that you know. How do you react to them? Do you instantly trust them? Or do you find yourself being skeptical right back at them? Most people instinctively find themselves pulling back and becoming skeptical in response to a skeptic. When a leader is skeptical of us, we become less trusting and more skeptical of that leader. And this is precisely the opposite reaction from what any leader should want. In short, the most effective leaders are trusting, approachable, accepting.

When a lawyer takes on a leadership role, the challenge is one of adaptability–how can you maintain your useful skeptical outlook while wearing your lawyer hat, and yet relax your vigilance and assume a more trusting persona while wearing your leadership hat? I can tell you from experience that it is possible for lawyers in leadership roles to learn this kind of adaptability, what I call “personality agility”, but it’s not easy, and not everyone can do it successfully. It requires first and foremost the desire to become more effective as a leader, plus a willingness to both be self-aware and to receive and reflect on feedback. Next, it’s important to see one or more actual examples of people who have successfully figured out how to achieve this kind of role adaptability, so that the learner can role model what s/he is seeing. Finally, it requires lots of actual and mental rehearsal of the new behaviors, and sufficient reinforcements to cement them in place.

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

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

When I design a leadership course for a law firm, I usually include an assessment component. Effective leaders need to be self-aware–they need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their possible blind spots, and the style of leadership to which they gravitate. To gain this kind of insight requires feedback. The two most common types of feedback that we use are 360-degree surveys coupled with a high quality personality test that measures traits that are germane to leadership.

Over the years, I’ve observed that two personality traits in particular seem to differentiate effective lawyer-leaders–Cognitive Empathy, and Flexibility. The more empathic and flexible a lawyer is–when s/he is in a leadership role–the more effective s/he will be as a leader.

Does this mean you’re out of luck if you’re low on these traits? Not necessarily. Think of personality as a “comfort zone”. A low score simply tells you that you aren’t as comfortable using this trait. If it’s nevertheless an important behavior, you can still do it–you’ll just have to work harder at it than will an individual with a high score on the trait.

Recently I was working with a ten-person leadership team from a mid-size law firm and was surprised to find that literally the entire team, without exception, had low scores on both of these traits. Statistically speaking, this is fairly unusual. So should we “throw them back in the pond” and get a new batch of leaders?

Not at all. Each of these individuals has many other leadership qualities, and were selected for this program because of their leadership potential. The best use of personality feedback is not as an exclusionary tool, but rather as a feedback tool–“Here’s what you need to work on if you want to be more effective.”

Personality traits have a strong genetic component, and tend to be very stable over time, so they are hard to “change”. But every trait can be “managed”. For example, I’m high on a trait called “Urgency”–I’m much more impatient than most other people. I’ve always been that way, and I will most likely remain that way for the rest of my life–I can’t change the trait. But over the years, I  have learned how to manage my “ready-fire-aim” tendency, first by becoming aware of it, and then by learning a set of mental strategies that allow me to be more mindful in how and when I express this trait.

When I asked the lawyers in this program what personal leadership skill they wanted to work on, many of them chose to work on ways of better managing their empathy or flexibility.

Why are these traits important to leaders?

Cognitive empathy has to do with taking the perspective of another person. Leaders often need to influence the other lawyers in their firm or their practice to change how they’re behaving in some way. There are usually a multitude of ways to get others to change. An effective leader needs to think through in advance which strategy will work best with which individuals. The ability to accurately predict how another person will react emotionally and behaviorally in a given set of circumstances is what “cognitive empathy” is all about. The better you are at this trait, the more accurate and successful you will be in figuring out the approach that will work when you want to influence someone else.

(Cognitive empathy is quite different from “emotional empathy”. Emotional empathy involves feeling what the other person is feeling–remember “I feel your pain”?)

Flexibility, on the other hand, is a trait which is characterized by an open attitude–open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, openness to the possibility that how I’m doing something might not be the best way. The opposite of Flexibility is Stubbornness or Rigidity.

Leaders need to try stuff that no one has done before. We never have perfect information, so leaders are often experimenting, and some experiments fail. If you are low in Flexibility, then you’re likely to just keep trying the failed behavior over and over–“It should work–let’s try again.” The flexible leader will try something different instead of digging their heels in and getting stuck.

Hopefully you can develop your own skills in these two important areas. Remember, as you’re working on this, I feel your pain.

If you have comments or reactions, we’d like to hear from you.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved


Recently I was working with a group of leaders in a mid-size law firm who were wrestling with the issue of how to make the “income partner” role more attractive so as to stem departures. Much of the conversation focused on how to “structure” the role of income partner in the right way–Should this category include partners on the way down? Associates on the way up? Senior partners who are cutting back? etc.

Focusing on structure is not necessarily the wrong thing to do, but recent research suggests that if this is all you do, you may be missing a more powerful step.

A recent article (“Why is Performance Management Broken?) makes the compelling case that getting the structure right–choosing the right tools, implementing them properly, etc.–is not very effective unless you also pay attention to what they call the “manager-employee relationship”. For example, it’s important to use the right competency model to let employees know what performance standards are expected of them (the “structure”); but it turns out that the competency model alone doesn’t really result in improved performance unless the individuals managing these employees have a good relationship and communicate effectively about their expectations.

The lesson learned is that if a law firm wants to implement a new system for organizing or managing its people, attention must be paid to two very different aspects: (1) get the right system or tool or process in place, one that has been shown to work effectively; and (2) be sure to pay attention to the human element:

  • Carefully select the people who will be managing or implementing the new system or practices.
  • Train them about how to communicate about the new system or practices.
  • Monitor them and provide them feedback about how they are communicating with your lawyers about the desired behaviors.
  • Pay attention to tonality–Is the communication style abrasive? Loaded with innuendo? Disingenuous or incongruent? Communication needs to be clean, direct, mature, and kind or you’ll generate resistance or worse.
  • Did you get true buy-in? That is, does everyone support the new idea or the change in behavior not just verbally, but by actually doing what you ask of them?

Note that these two elements are multiplicative–If you get the procedure right, but get the people stuff wrong, you won’t successfully change peoples’ behaviors; and if you get the people stuff right but have a poorly designed system or set of procedures, you’ll get inefficiency at best and failure at worst. You need to get both right–procedure, and people.

If you have comments or reactions, we’d like to hear from you.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved