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The Essence of Leadership for Lawyers

Sat, 12/24/2016 - 11:15

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 .

[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 post The Essence of Leadership for Lawyers appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

The Well-Rounded Lawyer

Sat, 12/24/2016 - 11:11

This blog post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on December 19, 2016  (

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

The post The Well-Rounded Lawyer appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

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

Wed, 09/28/2016 - 15:09

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

The post Podcasts: The Stress of Change . . . and What To Do About It appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

Why Law Firms Need “Great Managers”

Wed, 09/28/2016 - 14:52

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

The post Why Law Firms Need “Great Managers” appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

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

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 11:14

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 To contact the author, write to

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

© 2016 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

The post Toward Better Leadership: Self-Development, Focusing on Strengths & Accepting Flaws appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

What Can Social Science Tell Us About Ethics?

Thu, 03/31/2016 - 17:46


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 or go to

[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.

The post What Can Social Science Tell Us About Ethics? appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

Leading Like a Psychologist

Tue, 11/17/2015 - 08:10

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

The post Leading Like a Psychologist appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

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

Tue, 11/17/2015 - 08:07

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

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Making Your Law Firm a Great Place to Work

Tue, 11/17/2015 - 08:04

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

The post Making Your Law Firm a Great Place to Work appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

Leading Lawyers: Your Most Potent Tool is Your Mindset

Tue, 11/17/2015 - 07:55

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

The post Leading Lawyers: Your Most Potent Tool is Your Mindset appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

Lawyers Are Skeptical — Can You Believe It???

Tue, 11/17/2015 - 07:48

This post is a reprint of an article that I wrote for the ABA’s “Legal Career Central” website. It was originally published on November 15, 2015:

The Lawyer Personality: Why Lawyers Are Skeptical

I’ve been gathering data on lawyers’ personalities since the early 1980’s. Personality traits are typically measured on a percentile scale ranging from zero % to 100%. When large samples of the general public are tested, individuals’ scores on a given trait typically form a classic bell curve, with the mean average for any given trait hovering around the 50th percentile. But lawyers are different. As I have written about elsewhere, there are a number of traits on which lawyers tend to score much higher or much lower than the general public—in short, we’re outliers. The most extreme of all these outlier traits—the one on which lawyers consistently score higher (i.e., above the mean) than all the others—is Skepticism.

People with a very high Skepticism score tend to look at the world through a “glass half empty” lens—they focus on problems rather than on what’s working well; they tend toward the suspicious; they assume the worst, and rarely give others the “benefit of the doubt”. They wonder what another person’s “real” motive might be for any action that person takes. They question any assertion made by another person. And they tend to be slower to trust others.

On the surface, these may sound like negative thoughts and behaviors. However, considering the nature of what lawyers do for a living, these are quite functional and make a lot of sense. Many aspects of law practice require lawyers to scrutinize documents, transactions, actual or potential adversaries, deals, proposed actions, and the like, in order to protect their client. Lawyers are always asking, “What could possibly go wrong?” “What errors exist?” “Are there any potential sources of liability?” “Who might be at fault?” “Are there any exceptions to what has been asserted?” And, “Is there anything we should know about that hasn’t been disclosed?”

These questions, collectively, are often thought of as “critical thinking”. There is no doubt that they enable a lawyer to protect the client. But these days, lawyers wear many other hats that they didn’t used to wear—mentor, supervisor, manager, leader, rainmaker, committee chair, etc. And in all these newer roles, “critical thinking” – which in these other contexts can really be thought of as “negative thinking” – can actually get in the way. In fact, a steady diet of negative thinking can actually burn in neural pathways in the brain that deeply habituate a negative, pessimistic mindset, a filtering system that insures that the lawyer will see the half-empty glass and may even miss many of the half-full glasses.

Despite the need for more flexibility than ever before (specifically, there’s a need for lawyers to be able to “turn on” or “turn off” the Skeptical mindset), the fact remains that in today’s law practice climate, there are a number of reasons that high Skepticism is so common among lawyers and is likely to remain that way for some time to come.

First, because the personality trait of Skepticism provides an important advantage to any lawyer by making critical thinking more natural and easier, people with high levels of Skepticism are more likely to be attracted to the law in the first place. It feels more like a natural fit than many other jobs might. The more your personality aligns with the work you regularly do, the more likely you are to rate your job as satisfying. So the legal profession starts out with an overrepresentation of skeptics. (I’m using the word “overrepresentation” in the sense that statisticians use it—there are more high Skeptics in law than would be expected, based on their distribution in the general population.)

Second, for the same reason as above—i.e., the degree of “fit” between the person and the job—those lawyers with low Skepticism scores tend to drop out of law school and out of law practice (usually in their early years) at a higher rate than do those with high Skepticism scores. This “concentrates the herd” and results in a more overall skeptical cohort of lawyers who remain in practice.

Finally, Skepticism increases over time because lawyers work in a Skeptical environment. Every personality trait is partly dispositional (i.e., influenced by genes) and partly learned. Recent research suggests that genetics provide a larger contribution than previously suspected; however, Skepticism is an exception to that tendency—it is a trait that is significantly influenced by one’s environment. This means that the longer a lawyer works in a workplace in which the majority of his/her colleagues think and talk in Skeptical ways, the more Skeptical s/he will become over time.

These three forces are all moving in the same direction, fostering a culture of Skepticism in most law firms and a pattern of Skepticism in most lawyers. Over time, this becomes just the normal background “noise” and is taken for granted. Plus, it’s rare to find any counterbalancing force in most law firms that rewards “accepting” thinking or
trusting behavior (the opposites of Skepticism). Skepticism is a one-way street, which is why it seems so normal to most lawyers, and why it’s so hard for others—friends, spouses, staff, even clients—to shake lawyers out of their Skeptical mindset, even though, as noted above, in the newer roles that lawyers play today, lowering Skepticism and increasing accepting and trusting behavior is a growing necessity.

If, after reading this post, you find yourself taking my ideas with a grain of salt, you can begin to see the problem . . .

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

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

The post Lawyers Are Skeptical — Can You Believe It??? appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

Let the Blogging Resume . . .

Tue, 11/17/2015 - 07:42

To those of you who have been followers of my blog, I offer an apology for going silent. It’s been almost two years since my last post here. That hiatus is the result of a combination of factors–(1) a very busy consulting practice; (2) some personal issues (aging parents) that had higher priority; and (3) I’ve been blogging over at the ThomsonReuters Legal Executive Institute website. For your convenience, I’ll be posting my LEI blog posts here shortly.

But I also have lots of additional ideas that I’ll be writing about in this space. So let the blogging resume.

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

© 2015 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

The post Let the Blogging Resume . . . appeared first on What Makes Lawyers Tick?®.

The Psychologically Savvy Leader

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 16:58

In talking to law firm leaders these days, what I am hearing most frequently are their concerns about disruptive change and its impact on their ability to maintain a profitable and competitive firm.

One consequence of this increased focus on change is that rank-and-file partners are being asked to do more with less—to take on additional roles, step up their performance, be better at the things they never had to be good at before.

This has two psychological consequences: (1) It increases the level of stress that partners are under, and (2) it makes it imperative that they develop better “people” skills. (Most of these newer roles depend on interpersonal skill for their success.) Luckily, doing the second thing well can mitigate the first thing.

Lawyers have never been big fans of people skills. Culturally, the legal profession has historically relegated people skills to an unwelcome corner of the room. Even today, many lawyers belittle, dismiss, devalue and mock any mention of such skills.

This is ironic, because these skills are more essential to your firm’s survival today, and because more than ever before, there is solid scientific evidence emerging that shows how powerful and central these skills are to the superior performance of business organizations.

These days, there are at least four specific types of “people” skills at which the average partner, and most certainly any law firm leader, should become more skilled:

  • Teaming Skills: In today’s hyper-competitive and increasingly complex climate, successful law firms are placing more emphasis on lawyers working together in teams. These include client teams, industry teams, marketing teams, leadership teams, practice sub-specialty teams, and more.When people work together on a joint project, it evokes known psychological forces that don’t normally emerge when an individual is working alone. Examples include peer pressure, the need to be included, factionalization, groupthink, and relaxation of responsibility. Both team leaders and members need to understand group dynamics—both to avoid the dysfunctionality that lack of awareness of these principles can bring, and on the positive side, to boost performance to potentially extraordinary levels.
  • Leadership & Change Management Skills: Every partner today has to not only practice law, but also has to manage relationships, influence subordinates, peers and leaders within the firm, and influence clients and others outside the firm. And those in formal leadership roles have an even greater need to understand these skills. There is a huge and growing body of scientific knowledge about how to successfully lead and influence others, especially in the face of rapid change. Lawyers need to understand these principles. Let me illustrate with one salient example: as lawyers, we’re trained to use the adversarial model in our roles as lawyers. That is, our method of influencing others is to stake out a position and then advance didactic points which we hope are more cogent and compelling than those of the “adversary”.The problem with this approach is that it is designed to be used inside a system with a set of rules, a “game” of sorts—and it requires a neutral adjudicator who is trained in the same rules for one of us to be successful. This is exactly the structure of litigation, but this model doesn’t work at all when you’re trying to get a peer on board with your idea for how to pitch a client or to debate the merits of bringing on a lateral. You may have noticed that whenever lawyer “A” advances an argument, it rarely has the effect of convincing lawyer “B”. Rather, it impels lawyer “B” to harden his own position and to point out the flaws in partner “A”’s position. When the task is to influence your peers inside the firm, a more subtle, psychologically savvy set of skills needs to be deployed.
  • Emotional Intelligence Skills:  In 1988, the construct of “Emotional Intelligence” was proposed by two psychologists, Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey. Twenty-five years later, hundreds of scientific studies have shown that EI is a distinct set of skills, that it is learnable, and that these skills are powerful predictors of most of the desired business outcomes that we all want. Being an intellectually smart lawyer is the mere table stakes to get into the game of Big Law. To succeed on a sustained basis, today’s lawyer needs to develop EI skills. Savvy law firm leaders recognize this, yet few law firms have made a commitment to teach these skills to their lawyers. EI skills are harder to teach and learn than legal principles. Think of EI skills as more about “procedure” than “substance”. In other words, you can’t just sit in a lecture or read a book about Emotional Intelligence and then expect to be able to behave in a more emotionally intelligent way. Rather, these are behavioral skills, and they can only be learned by employing an “adult learning” methodology that includes at least the following steps:
    • See the skill demonstrated
    • Try it yourself
    • Receive high quality operational feedback
    • Make course corrections and try it again
    • Repeat as needed
    • Tie it to a practical, meaningful goal
    • Build layers of skill complexity, one layer at a time
    • Practice and rehearse on a regular basis until the skill becomes second nature

This last bullet is the most important and the most daunting for many lawyers. It’s the most important because in order to acquire a skill and develop it to a high level, a person has to burn new neural pathways in the brain. This takes time and repetition, and it means that there will be a period of discomfort and poor performance before there is mastery. Many lawyers become quite uncomfortable doing any behavior at which they don’t immediately feel competent. (See Tom DeLong’s new book Flying Without A Net – apparently this pattern is common not only to lawyers but to many other “high need for achievement” professionals.)

Here are the four emotional intelligence skills:

  1. Accurately Identifying and Labeling Emotions: The ability to notice and accurately label emotions, in both yourself and another person, is critical to any role involving interactions with others—this includes leadership, business development, coaching, mentoring, supervising, managing, working on a team, persuading, influencing, and attending a partners meeting.
  2. Using Mood as a Strategic Tool: Mood refers to emotions extended over time. Our emotions influence our thoughts, and our thoughts influence our emotions. By getting into a particular mood, you can actually enhance your efficacy at performing certain cognitive tasks, like generating creative ideas, paying attention to details, problem-solving, and analyzing data. There is an optimum mood for each of these tasks. If you understand mood, and if you know how to readily get into the appropriate mood, you can perform the related task better. Lawyers who know how to adopt the right mood will have a cognitive edge over those who don’t.
  3. Accurately Understanding and Predicting Emotions: There are countless situations in any workplace in which an individual, e.g., a leader, wishes to influence another person. You will be much more successful in doing so if you have a proper understanding of human nature, particularly if you understand the natural emotional response that is likely for a given scenario. How might a partner react if you de-equitize her? How can you give someone critical feedback without de-motivating them? How can you successfully encourage a reluctant partner to develop more business? The more you can accurately understand and predict emotional reactions, the more successfully you can navigate these scenarios.
  4. Regulating Emotions—Your Own and Others’:  Recent neuropsychological research shows that we had it all wrong—emotions are not the opposite of thoughts—they’re indispensably intertwined, both in our brain structure and our behavior. Many lawyers grew up with the message that emotions are bad, it’s better not to show them, and being logical, detached and objective is the best way to conduct yourself. Thinking is seen as a sign of strength; emotional displays are seen as a sign of weakness. It turns out that none of this is accurate. It’s time to hit the re-set button on this one. Science has also shown us that whenever an emotion is expressed, it is preceded by a thought. Thoughts lead to emotions. If you change your thoughts, you will change your emotional responses. We have all been in situations where we expressed a particular emotion and in hindsight realized that it would have been better not to have done so. And we’ve all been in situations where we refrained from expressing an emotion that we felt, and in hindsight wished we had expressed it. Emotional Regulation is the skill that allows us to do both of these things. In other words, a person with good emotional regulation skills has learned how to consciously make a choice in that small space between the time that they feel and emotion and the time that they express it behaviorally. We all have the capacity to choose or regulate our emotional responses, and doing so can keep us out of trouble and also help us sustain important relationships. The fly in the ointment is that not everyone has developed this capacity. It’s a skill, and it  can be taught and learned.  In a law firm, leaders without this skill can easily alienate their constituents. This skill also affects the practice of law—in firms where I have worked with their highest performing partners, they routinely are better skilled at emotional regulation than their average counterparts.In short, today lawyers need all four emotional intelligence skills in order to maximize their potential for success.
  • Resilience-Building Skills: The final skillset is perhaps the most important. I have written elsewhere about the importance of Resilience, and about the widespread lack of it among lawyers, according to our personality research data. Low Resilience makes lawyers thin-skinned and defensive, and more vulnerable to prolonged negative emotional responses to setbacks. But it has another, more pernicious, impact: in a time of great change such as we currently face, the low Resilience lawyer is at greater risk of suffering stress and the other negative consequences of rapid change, particularly change that we don’t feel we can control. Lawyers today need to learn how to build their Resilience skills. Doing so has a double benefit—first, it reduces their poor response to change, stress, and adversity, and further it helps toughen them so that they don’t  have as many setbacks in the first place. It also helps them recover faster when they do have a setback. But the second benefit is the more important one—the very same Resilience-building techniques that protect you from adversity also build positive resources. Lawyers who have learned how to boost their psychological Resilience are more likely to be collaborative, grateful, friendly, less critical, more open-minded, more social and more optimistic. And these characteristics, in turn, are all predictors of greater success in the workplace, and greater life satisfaction. Thus, building Resilience skills is the most leveraged of the four psychological skills under discussion here. (Don’t these sound very similar to the kinds of behaviors we want all of our partners to exhibit today?)

To summarize, in today’s rapidly changing world, lawyers who want to gain a competitive advantage and increase their potential for success will do well to learn the skills of . . .

  • Teaming
  • Leadership & Change Management
  • Emotional Intelligence; and,
  • Resilience

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

We need a Chief Resilience Officer

Wed, 08/21/2013 - 08:00

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

Succession Planning for Baby Boomer Leaders

Mon, 06/03/2013 - 17:54

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

Accountability 101 – Part four

Wed, 05/22/2013 - 18:47

In three previous posts, I’ve discussed the psychology of how to hold partners accountable. I focused primarily on approaches that work well with individuals.

In this post, I want to introduce you to three approaches that are more strategic, and work well with teams, groups or an entire firm. As a consequence, they have broader reach and impact.

Each one is based on relatively recent research and has a sound, scientific foundation. Each one has been used in conventional corporate settings with remarkably positive outcomes—results have often been achieved that far exceeded even the best of expectations. Each has been documented in the professional literature. Two of them come from recent research on the impact of positive emotions—Skeptic alert: We know that most lawyers are dismissive of anything that even faintly resembles an emotion—even if it’s deeply rooted in science—and so be forewarned that it may be much harder to get your partners to take these three practices seriously in a law firm, even though they are each more powerful than the interventions I’ve previously written about.

Nevertheless, for those of you looking to take a bold step, to surpass the competition, to be a pioneer instead of waiting to see what other law firms have done, I commend each of these to you as a way of achieving an almost insurmountable competitive advantage.

The three approaches are:

  1. Encourage a 3:1 Positivity Ratio (Foster a steady diet of mostly positive emotions to counter the normal negativity that’s natural for lawyers)
  2. Use “Elevation” Principles (Bring out the best in your people, and gain the inevitable payoffs for doing so); and,
  3. Follow the “4DX” Model (Apply the 4-step model developed by Franklin Covey to get your people engaged in executing really important goals)

Here’s a description of each:

1. Encourage a 3:1 Positivity Ratio:  Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has conducted research for many years on the use of positive emotions, their effects, why they exist from an evolutionary perspective, what the differences are among the various positive emotions, and what their payoffs are. With the help of psychologist/mathematician Marcial Losada, she discovered that individuals who regularly experience a ratio of 3 positive emotions to every 1 negative emotion—what they call the “3:1 Positivity Ratio”—experience a quantum leap in well-being—they experience significantly greater job satisfaction, life satisfaction, relationships, work effectiveness, and a whole range of other payoffs. Individuals with a 3:1 or higher Positivity Ratio thrive; individuals with a Positivity Ratio below 3:1 languish. This phenomenon is interesting because it is quantum, not linear. Earlier research by Roy Baumeister and others has shown that human beings have a built-in negativity bias, and as a result, the negative will normally outweigh the positive when there are equal amounts of each. So it takes a substantially larger quantity of positive emotion to produce any beneficial effects.

This finding is part of a broader field called “Positive Psychology”. Don’t confuse this label with “positive thinking” and all the sugar-coated ideas that surround that phrase—Positive Psychology is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s based on the scientifically rigorous study of the psychological factors that make life worth living.

Since World War II, the main focus of psychology has been identifying what causes psychological problems and how to alleviate them. About 15 years ago, a group of psychologists got together and concluded that more attention needed to be paid to the scientific study of what causes psychological well-being and in what ways it can be taught to others. Focusing on both work satisfaction and overall life satisfaction, this new area of psychology has grown rapidly, and builds on both field research and breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience such as functional magnetic resonance imaging which lets scientists study the actual functioning of the brain in real time at a biological level. These new approaches add a level of precision and rigor that give us much higher confidence in the findings that are emerging.

Frederickson’s and Losada’s work represent a major contribution to this canon. Several applications of their research have been reported in other professions and businesses with dramatic effects. For example, there is a book that will be coming out later this year that details work done by a psychologist in a major teaching hospital. The main intervention that he carried out over a 12-month period was coaching individuals in a particular unit of the hospital on the 3:1 Positivity Ratio. Here are the results that he obtained:

•     Sick leave dropped 75% in a year

•     48% increase in retention

•     Engagement moved from 3rd percentile to 87th percentile

•     Staff satisfaction rose from 1% to 85% in one year

•     Patient satisfaction increased 13%

•     Higher job enjoyment

•     Savings of $800,000 a year in this one department

•     The unit he worked with was described at the outset as “the worst of the worst”. A year later they won award for “best of the best”

Since Frederickson’s book Positivity was published in 2009, a lot of other peer-reviewed research has been conducted in an effort to replicate and test their findings. Studies have established that successful married couples have a 5:1 Positivity ratio, and that successful business work groups have a 6:1 Positivity ratio (actually, 5.5-to-1). Both of these studies were based on positive vs. negative statements as opposed to emotions. This just goes to show that it’s the positivity that matters, not the form (thoughts or feelings both work).

My own informal, unscientific studies in a number of law firms shows a dismal ratio of less than 1:1. In one firm I worked with, the ratio was 0.8:1 (For every 8/10ths of a positive emotion shown, there was one negative emotion shown.)

I have written before about the pervasive negativity in most law firms—it’s a helpful mindset for being a good lawyer, but it has serious side effects: it fosters and sustains low Resilience among the lawyers who work in such environments, and it makes it very hard for lawyers to excel in more social roles that they are being asked to play (leader, manager, mentor, etc.)

This leads to an irony: We have good reason to believe that increasing the Positivity Ratio in a law firm would produce hugely welcome and beneficial effects—not only would it help them perform these newer social roles more effectively, but it would likely lead to greater collegiality, collaboration, and accountability, as well as better client service.

But the very reason that such an approach is needed—i.e., the excessive skepticism, negativity and pessimism—may be the very reason that such an approach would never be accepted. That’s why I say that this is an approach that only a bold leader who is willing to take a risk can even think of implementing in a law firm.

But it’s worth doing. If you were to reduce the amount of negative thinking (or feeling), and increase the amount of positive thinking (or feeling) in your firm, so that the typical ratio on an average day exceeded the 3:1 tipping point, you would not only see a firm of happier, healthier people, but their willingness to comply with requests from leaders would significantly increase. That is, increasing the Positivity Ratio past the tipping point changes the mindset of the individuals, and this leads to many types of behavior changes, not the least of which is improved accountability. (Other documented benefits include greater collaboration, more kindness, increased gratitude, less criticism, and greater trust.)

Increasing the Positivity Ratio is not about “saying nice things.” It’s about increasing the quantity of positive emotions that your lawyers experience in a particular time frame (say, during a work week.) Before I tell you why this matters so much, and how to achieve it, let me point out one very important element of the 3:1 Positivity Ratio research—the “1” in “3:1” is quite important. Dr. Frederickson declared in a recent seminar that without paying attention to the “1”, thriving is impossible. In other words, her research provides a validation for what a lot of lawyers tell me—i.e., that it’s important to be “realistic”, to pay attention to threats, worst case scenarios, what could go wrong, etc. (This type of thinking generates negative emotions.) Where she parts with them is that her research also shows how important it is to balance out this negative attention with a much larger attention to what’s good, what works, and what positive developments might be just around the bend. (This type of thinking generates positive emotions.) Bottom line: Until the ratio gets beyond 3:1 (3 positive:1 negative), thriving is unlikely.

There are a number of ways to build Positivity. Techniques include boosting the ratio of positive to negative thoughts that an individual has; increasing the number and duration of positive emotions that an individual experiences in a typical week; reducing the number and duration of negative emotions one experiences; measuring and modifying the ratio of positive to negative statements that two individuals make, on average, in their regular communications with each other; doing the same for regular meetings of partners; and doing the same during individual mentoring, coaching or feedback sessions. Further guidance is available in Dr. Frederickson’s book Positivity.

If you can successfully implement any of these changes, you have the potential not only to increase lawyer accountability, but to catalyze many other sweeping changes for the better.

2. Use “Elevation” Principles: Research from the same field—Positive Psychology—shows that we all have a spectrum along which we behave that ranges from “me at my best” to “me at my worst”. When I’m my “best self”, I may be thoughtful, considerate, cooperative, friendly, diligent and attentive. When I’m my “worst self”, I may be aggressive, self-centered, irritable, uncooperative, aloof, etc. More importantly, the research also shows that when we operate at the better end of our behavioral spectrum—when we are “elevated” in the jargon of the journal articles—it leads to a whole basket of desirable outcomes—these include greater job satisfaction, higher life satisfaction, deeper social connections, greater efficiency, greater profitability, better health metrics, and more “prosocial” behavior. Prosocial behavior is basically “helping” behavior. People who act prosocially tend to be more cooperative, less critical, more willing to work in a team or to collaborate, more likely to voluntarily help a colleague, more likely to be friendlier and more likeable. So if you can elevate the mindset of your partners, they will naturally behave as better firm citizens in many different ways.

How do you “elevate” an individual? There are several ways: (1) role-modeling (e.g., when a leader behaves at his/her best, others tend to do so as well); (2) regularly giving people an experience of “awe”—spending even a little time in nature, even a peaceful view of a lake or a forest from a conference room window might do the trick; (3) seeing other human beings at their best, e.g., showing a video or telling a story about an inspiring event, or holding up an individual who has done a positive act (e.g., recounting a generous pro bono case that a group of your partners handled), or seeing someone do an act of courage, generosity or kindness. For additional ideas, take a look at this article by Jonathan Haidt at New York University or this list of articles or at his TED Talk here.

By the way, if you were able to elevate the mindset of the lawyers in your firm, you would create a nearly insurmountable competitive advantage. These days, with the ubiquity of information, almost any feature that gives one firm a competitive advantage can be copied by at least one or more other firms more readily than ten or twenty years ago. However, the skeptical—and even cynical—nature of most law firms makes it doubtful that even the best leaders can make any headway here. See my earlier post on lawyer negativity here. But for the bold among you, it’s worth a try because it’s unlikely that your competitors will follow suit. Caveat: Practices that “elevate” human beings are easy to describe, but challenging to carry out in a law firm due to the high levels of skepticism among lawyers.

3. Follow the “4DX” Model: Last year the Franklin Covey organization published a very important new book called The Four Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. It spells out a simple but powerful 4-part strategy for getting people to execute on important goals despite the daily distractions of what they call “the whirlwind”—the pressing to do’s of your normal workday. One of their principles is to only require people to commit to two—that’s right, two—goals, no more. Their research shows that once you get beyond two goals, the likelihood of completing any of the goals drops like a stone. So if the thing you’re trying to get your partners to do is competing with their “whirlwind”, their lack of “accountability” may actually be nothing of the sort. It may simply be the natural consequence of expecting your partners to deliver on too many goals at the same time. The 4DX system has already been field-tested with over 1500 different workgroups, and they have shown surprisingly robust success. The system is conceptually very simple. The challenge is in getting skeptical, time-driven lawyers to follow the four simple principles.

In the jargon of Franklin Covey, the four steps are:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important (Pick just one or two important goals, and make sure they are really important to the firm. Their importance is, in part, what will get your lawyers to be accountable.)
  2. Act on the Lead Measures (A “Lead” measure is a step which leads to the desired outcome. Their advice, in other words, is that instead of just keeping your eye on the goal, as we are often taught, you also need to keep your eye on the behaviors that will most likely lead to the goal.)
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard (They advise firms to create a very real, concrete scoreboard that people can see and touch; to keep it simple; and to show regular progress on both the goal and the lead measures.)
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability (This is done by having short—15 to 20 minutes—meetings each week during which you focus only on what you promised to do this week, did you do it, and what are you going to commit to do next week.)

Like I said, the steps are simple. The challenge is getting lawyers to do these four things without the usual slippage. Since the system has been shown to work really powerfully in other service businesses, there’s every reason to expect that it can work in a law firm.

All three of these “big” ideas are based on solid research. They all have a track record in other settings such as large corporations, the military, and nonprofits. And they are all relatively simple to understand and really hard to execute with a skeptical, autonomous, urgent audience like lawyers. If you do decide to jump in and use one of these approaches, please leave a comment in this blog space so our readers can cheer you on and learn from your efforts. Good luck.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

Accountability 101 – Part three

Mon, 03/25/2013 - 20:39

In a previous post (Accountability 101 – Part two) I mentioned that to achieve accountability on the part of partners, you need to:

  1. Use a buy-in approach. Avoid either coercive or “incentivizing” approaches.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive.
  3. Use multiple interventions, not just one.

In this post, I want to address the third point, “Use multiple interventions, not just one”.

Use multiple interventions, not just one: Changing human behavior is not easy—we are creatures of habit, and there is a lot of inertia to overcome before people begin behaving differently. When your goal is to get a partner to start doing a behavior that they are not currently doing, that certainly requires a decent amount of effort to get past the inertia. But it’s even more difficult to get someone to stop doing a behavior, or even more difficult, to get them to change how they do it, i.e., do the same basic behavior, but do it differently. These latter two kinds of change involve an additional step that’s not usually involved in “teaching an old dog new tricks”—namely, overcoming old habits.

For this reason, getting partners to do what you want them to do is almost always easier, more effective, and longer lasting when you use multiple interventions of different varieties and apply them repeatedly and consistently over time until new habits take hold.

In my previous blog post, I introduced 7 interventions. Keep in mind that no one of these alone is generally sufficient to produce compliant behavior; the best approach is to combine several of them in order to create a wave of behavior change. Many of them benefit from repetition—because we’re creatures of habit, it takes a lot of influence to get us to change—another reason that compliance-by-memo is so ineffective.

Here is a baker’s dozen of additional strategies that you can use at the time you request that your partners complete a particular behavior. All of these are based on published studies in the behavioral sciences. Each of these can add to the likelihood of success:

  • Study Successful People: Who’s doing it right already? Research shows that people improve their performance most readily when they follow the lead of those who have already attained success in similar tasks. These individuals do better than those who are given feedback about their mistakes, even if the intention is to teach them how to avoid those same mistakes in the future. This is why role modeling is so powerful.
  • Provide Operational Feedback: Operational feedback is pragmatic and non-judgmental. If you’re hanging a picture, and your spouse says, “Tilt it a little to the left”, that’s operational feedback—it gives you concrete guidance about what’s working and what’s not, and how to improve your performance. By contrast, evaluative feedback contains a judgment, e.g., “That picture looks lousy there!”, and is usually not very helpful in making any course corrections. The research shows that moderate amounts of operational feedback can improve the likelihood of success of any task.
  • Design-in ways to recognize small successes: Teresa Amabile at Harvard has shown that people are most motivated when they achieve regular, ongoing small successes. If you can find ways to break a large task down into smaller units, and establish checkpoints along the way so that partners can be recognized for having completed these smaller elements, you’re more likely to see a successful outcome.
  • Use the ‘buddy’ system: When people commit to completing a task by a date certain and they do so to someone with whom they have an ongoing trusting relationship, the chances of success increase significantly. If you ask partners to pair up with each other and to hold each other accountable, you’re more likely to achieve success than if you leave it to each individual on their own.
  • Use defaults wisely: In most situations, there is a “default” consequence for inaction. In some of these situations, it can be quite appropriate to set the default so that it results in a desired outcome. For example, in countries where organ donation upon death is the default (but one can opt out), organ donations are far higher than in countries where one must opt in and choose organ donation. Using this schema, you can probably think of appropriate ways to set defaults in favor of the desired outcome. Note that this won’t work in every case—sometimes you’ll hit a tripwire if the issue is too controversial—but it’s good to keep in mind for those times when it can be useful.
  • Set up a competition: Lawyers by nature are fairly competitive. If you can set up a friendly competition, often this can increase the likelihood of achieving the outcomes you’re looking for.
  • Use Social Proof: Especially in situations where there is ambiguity as to what the right behavior is, people look around to see what others are doing, and they usually follow what the crowd is doing. Sometimes called the “bandwagon effect”, and also known as “social proof”, this tendency is well known in the legal profession. Lawyers are always asking, “What are other firms doing about this?” You can harness this phenomenon to your advantage by strategically sharing information within the firm once a subgroup clearly begins to pull ahead in complying with a requested behavior. Simply report their success to the rest of the partners. Caution: Don’t make the mistake of using “reverse social proof”—in other words, never say, “Come on, we really need you to complete your plan—only 5% of the partners have done so already.” This is a surefire way to stop people in their tracks!
  • Use ‘Story’ as a Strategy: Human beings are programmed to respond to stories. (See Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron.) Finding examples of partners who not only succeeded but who demonstrably conferred some benefit on the firm or practice group by doing so can be a great way to encourage compliance. Take these positive examples and weave a story and let it go viral within the firm. Telling stories (rooted in true accomplishments) is a powerful way to communicate important values, desired behaviors, and cultural norms (“how we do things around here”).
  • Maintain congruity as a leader: Be sure that you have done whatever task you’re asking your partners to do. There’s no quicker way to short-circuit your efforts to get partners to behave in a certain way than to ask them to do something that you yourself haven’t yet done. If you ask them to turn in a plan, make sure that you’ve turned your own plan in early first. People have an innate capacity to detect hypocrisy.
  • Tie requests for action to firm values: Does your firm have a clear, written statement of values? Is it honored in practice or is it just a “lip service” statement? Do the firm leaders make a clear effort to live the firm values? If so, then those values can be referenced when you ask partners to complete a particular action. How does that action further or reinforce a particular firm value? Make the link for them. It adds impact.
  • Encourage the firm’s thought leaders: People are more likely to comply with those they see as authorities or as prominent individuals. Every firm has partners who are either held in high esteem, are seen as role models, are considered the embodiment of the firm’s values, are natural leaders, or in some other way “punch above their weight.” Encourage these thought leaders to complete the requested action, and let it be known that they have complied, and other partners will be more likely to do so as well.
  • Begin with a small step: Small commitments lead to larger commitments. (See Influence by Robert Cialdini.) Suppose you want all partners to turn in a business plan by the end of the month. Instead of asking for that right off the bat, start by asking every partner to simply send you a short email listing one sentence or less stating the most important goal they are aiming for in their plan. This is a much simpler request to comply with than writing a full plan. Once people have sent you this email, though, they are much more likely to follow through with the full plan than if you had just asked for the plan alone at the outset.
  • Use the Contrast Principle: Sometimes leaders initially ask for too much, e.g., “Can you write one marketing article a month?” When that happens, backing off a bit and asking for a noticeably smaller objective often works when the initial request didn’t. Social psychology research shows that when contrasting experiences are offered to an individual, the second experience is perceived as magnified. For example, if you put your right hand into ice water, and then put both hands into room temperature water, it will feel like your right hand is in hotter water than your left hand because of the contrasting experience. Likewise, if you ask a partner to do something that feels burdensome, and then you back off and concede to a less burdensome version of the request, it is more likely to be seen as palatable than if it were presented without the initial offer.

If you combine these with the 7 previous suggestions, you now have 20 ideas which you can combine in almost limitless ways to achieve partners compliance and accountability.

Stay tuned for the final post in this series, in which I’ll discuss 3 strategies for shaping partner behavior that each involve a more sophisticated approach to fostering accountability. It will appear here in about two weeks.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

Accountability 101 – Part two

Tue, 03/05/2013 - 10:58

This is part two of a series of posts on partner accountability. To recap, in order to achieve accountability, you need to:

  1. Use a buy-in approach. Avoid either coercive or “incentivizing” approaches.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive.
  3. Use multiple interventions, not just one.

In a previous post (, I explained the importance of the buy-in approach. In this post, I want to address the second point, “Be proactive, not reactive.” Once I explain this, I’ll offer you some potent interventions that you can put to use immediately.

Be proactive, not reactive.  Over the years I’ve had many conversations with law firm leaders concerning the lack of partner accountability, and I’ve noticed something interesting about these conversations—virtually all of them seem to emerge on the leader’s radar screen after the deadline has been reached or even passed. In other words, when it comes to accountability, leaders often find themselves looking into the rear view mirror and bemoaning the fact that the partners failed to comply with a request. It’s at that point that they ask, “How can I get my partners to be more accountable?”

It’s better to think about accountability at the time that you make the request, rather than after the partners have failed to comply. In other words, be proactive, not reactive. Your ability to be successful in getting partners to be accountable is very much a function of when you start paying attention to their accountability.

If you wait to address the issue of getting partners to comply until after the deadline has passed, the number of productive strategies for fostering the desired behaviors will have diminished considerably. Moreover, the few strategies that do remain will be mostly coercive in nature, which is just what you don’t want. However, if you address accountability when you first make the request of your partners, then there are quite a number of strategies at your disposal that, collectively, can increase the odds of getting the behaviors you seek.

Proactive Interventions.   Let’s look at some of the most effective strategies. All of these work particularly well in fostering compliance with a request if you apply them at the time of the request and not after the fact. (I’ll use the “turn-in-your-business-plan” example to illustrate, but know that you can use these principles with a whole range of other behaviors for which you’re seeking accountability):

  • Perspective-Taking: We often assume that since “commanding” another person to do something sounds authoritative it will produce results. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, “commanding” has limited effectiveness—it works pretty well when you’re in a crisis, an emergency, or a life-or-death situation like on a battlefield. But in a knowledge-based business like law, when you are requesting behaviors that require the use of intelligence, judgment and nuanced decision-making, a “commanding” approach creates resistance rather than compliance.Perspective-taking is a more effective approach. It involves stepping into the world of the person you’re seeking to influence, to find out what motivates them. See if you can find a way to show them how doing what you’re asking them to do helps get them what they are seeking. This turns a command into a win/win event—but you’ll only succeed at this if you temporarily put your own agenda aside, and explore what the other individual’s motives and needs might be, and look for the alignment of both.
  • Envision the Steps: People who articulate a clear goal or purpose are more successful in achieving results than people who have fuzzy goals or who “play it by ear.” Research shows that you can be even more effective by envisioning the specific stepsthat you plan to take in order to reach your clearly articulated goal.For example, political operatives have utilized this finding to increase the likelihood that voters who say they will vote will actually go out and do so. Volunteers now call voters and ask them not only “Do you plan to vote?”, but also things like “What time of day do you think you’ll vote?” and “How do you plan to get to the polls?” and “Which route do you think you’ll take?” These questions actually serve to mentally rehearse the wanted behavior, which makes it all the more likely that it will take place.
  • Put it in writing: Research shows that people who put a commitment in writing are more likely to follow through on it than if they just verbally assent. Ask your partners to write down their commitment to turn in a business plan. If they add their personal signature, it increases the odds of compliance even more.
  • Make It Public: There is also evidence that when we make a commitment publicly, e.g., to others in our practice group, we are more likely to follow through than if we simply agree privately.
  • Use small groups: If all you do is ask your partners to submit their business plans, then their role is rather passive. You’re waiting for them to move from inaction to action. Consider instead convening a practice group meeting, breaking everyone into smaller groups of no more than 4 people, and having each small group begin the planning process. Each person can throw out ideas to and receive feedback from the others in the group. This has several advantages: It automatically invokes the “Make It Public” heuristic described above; it also helps to invoke the “Envision the Steps” heuristic, also described above. There is also separate research suggesting that people who have already started something are much more likely to complete it than people who have not yet begun. If you use the group experience to kick-start the discussion, and then let them finish it on their own, this increases the likelihood of success. By contrast, if you just send a memo and ask all partners to turn in a plan by a particular date, the “getting started” part can be a barrier.
  • Increase the amount of “meaning”: It’s natural for people to want meaning in their work. When we ask our partners to do things, to take specific actions, they are more likely to carry them out to the extent that doing so appears meaningful to them. By analogy, consider two partners giving the same assignment to an associate: the first partner does so without explaining the context—“research whether Section XYZ in the CFR applies to the following fact situation . . .” while the second partner provides some context and background—“Here is what our client is seeking . . . and here is why this issue matters to the client . . .” and then gives the same assignment. Most associates will be far more motivated by the second approach. Research has shown that there are a number of ways to foster greater meaning in work assignments, and by doing so, you increase the likelihood of psychological buy-in and hence of ultimate performance. See, e.g., Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron, where the author discusses four ways of fostering greater meaning.
  • Remove Obstacles: Sometimes the biggest barrier to getting things done is not an individual’s intention or skills or motivation, but rather real-world obstacles in their environment. If the firm’s document management system is antiquated and it’s tedious for a partner to create a document; or if there’s a procedure to follow that contains redundant steps; or if there’s not enough of a needed resource and it creates a bottleneck—all of these and others like them can prevent even the most well-intentioned individuals from fulfilling their commitments. As a leader, you have a responsibility to remove obstacles, to make it as easy as possible for your partners to do what you’ve asked them to do. It may be time to do an efficiency audit and find out how work flows in your office. There’s an entire field—Process Improvement—that’s devoted to the science and engineering principles around the efficient completion of work tasks.

One important caveat:  Resign yourself to the fact that not everyone will be influenceable. Some individuals, for example, are dispositional procrastinators—it’s their nature not to turn things in on time. (I’m using the example here of turning in a business plan on time, but these ideas apply equally forcefully to almost any other action that you ask your partners to do, whether it has a calendar deadline or not.) You have to make a decision as to which is more important—getting compliance or saving money and other resources. For these individuals, the only way you may succeed in getting their compliance is to help them out by assigning someone to work with them, for example, or investing in a new technology. This can incur significant expenses. If a partner is important enough to a firm, but they don’t comply with actions that partners are expected to comply with, then you may have to invest in paying for a staffer to help them out, or spending money on a technology solution, or using some other strategy to get their compliance despite their own dispositional shortcomings. Occasionally, firms decide that it’s not worth the effort—either you comply or you’re out of here. Far more often, firms either invest in the partner’s success or they overlook the partner’s non-compliance. My advice: Try at all costs not to overlook the partner’s non-compliance. It will very quickly open the door to non-compliance by others without those same dispositional shortcomings.

Next: I’ll be posting at least two more blog posts on this subject. In the next post, I’ll introduce another half-dozen useful interventions, and I’ll discuss why using multiple interventions is vital. And in the final “Accountability 101” post, I’ll introduce 3 “super” strategies that will not only help you achieve accountability, but at the same time will give you a decided competitive advantage. Stay tuned.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

Accountability 101 – Part one

Tue, 02/19/2013 - 21:55

How do you “hold partners accountable?” It’s the beginning of the year, and many law firm leaders are still struggling to get their partners to complete some of the non-billable tasks that are vital to the firm’s success.

In the past several weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of law firm leaders who have raised the accountability issue. One managing partner expressed concern that his partners weren’t billing enough hours, and he wanted to hold them accountable. Another expected every partner to turn in a business plan by December 31st, but only 40% had done so. A third managing partner told me that his partners were not collaborating in business development teams despite their having just finished an expensive program in how to do so. In a fourth firm, the complaint was that the practice group leaders are not devoting enough time to their leadership role.

In each of these cases, the leaders are hoping for more “accountability” in the sense of “getting lawyers to do what I asked them to do”. Getting lawyers to behave accountably has been a challenge in nearly every law firm. Research into lawyers’ personalities that I have conducted over the years shows that lawyers are far more Skeptical and Autonomous than the average person. These two traits, in combination, produce a personality style that is not very compliant with authority. Compounding these tendencies is the fact that the main focal point of most lawyers is their clients, so if there’s any accountability to be had, it’s to those clients. The things that they’re being asked to do by their leaders usually fall into the category of non-billable time, and except in the rarest of firms, such actions are viewed as less important than billable client time, despite David Maister’s now famous admonition that “what you do with your non-billable time is your investment in your future.”

Despite these challenges, there is something that you can do to increase the likelihood that partners will comply with requests that you make. The last two decades of research in the behavioral sciences has simply exploded with studies that give us greater insight than ever about what makes people behave in ways that leaders want them to. What can behavioral science research tell us about how to get lawyers—or people in general—to do what they’re supposed to do?

Beginning with this post, and continuing in several that I will post subsequently, I’m going to cover some of the psychological principles of how to get partners to behave accountably. Some of these principles seem like common sense, but as Stephen Covey so incisively reminded us, common sense is not necessarily common practice.

To achieve accountability on the part of partners, you need to:

  1. Avoid didactic, coercive or “incentivizing” approaches. Instead, use a true buy-in approach.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive.
  3. Use multiple interventions, not just one.

Today’s post addresses this first point. Future posts will address the others.

Avoid didactic, coercive or “incentivizing” approaches. Instead, use a true buy-in approach: When trying to get partners to behave in the right way, many law firm leaders by default opt for one of three approaches:

a) The didactic approach: You send a memo to your partners and expect that the information you provide will be sufficiently compelling on its own to generate a compliant response (This feels, at least initially, like you’re being quite efficient); or,

b) The coercive approach: You ask your partners to do a particular thing (e.g., turn in that business plan), “or else”—in other words, something bad will happen to you if you don’t comply (“the stick”), or,

c) The incentivizing approach: You offer a reward to your partners to “incentivize” them to do the requested behavior (“the carrot”).

Each of these is a big mistake. They may produce results, but they all end up either being ineffective in the end or being effective but at a much greater cost than you anticipated.

The didactic approach is an easy trap to fall into. On the surface, sending a memo makes sense. In the practice of law, the right information expressed in the right way is often the key to success. But in the realm of human behavior, the ground rules are different. People are not moved to action by compelling arguments alone. An emotional response must be evoked, and a memo alone can’t usually do that.

The coercive approach is also a fairly natural default for people trained to think in an adversarial mindset. This approach involves a demand, such as “Do this, or else . . . ”  Unfortunately, though, if you demand compliance, it often backfires with lawyers. We’re all trained to push back, to find flaws in any request, to challenge the legitimacy of a demand. A buy-in approach is likely to be far more successful in getting lawyers to comply than a coercive approach.

The “incentivizing” approach involves offering some sort of reward as a contingency for doing the required behavior—“If you do X, then you’ll get Y.” These types of rewards are known as “extrinsic rewards” because they come from outside the individual. I’ll use the phrases “incentivizing”, “incentives”, and “extrinsic rewards” interchangeably here. Why do I urge you to avoid “incentivizing” the desired behaviors? It seems like a perfectly reasonable approach. Haven’t we always heard that “What gets rewarded gets done”??? The problem is that twenty years of research on the use of such “if-then” extrinsic rewards shows that they are quite ineffective, especially when they are used to motivate behavior that requires judgment, discrimination or the use of intelligence.

Daniel Pink, in his recent book Drive, details some of the social science research on incentives and shows why, despite their surface appeal, they can be a disaster as a means of getting compliance with specific behaviors, especially if what’s desired is not just a behavior but the behavior done with an accompanying beneficial attitude (like being a responsible firm citizen.) They work very well for simple rote tasks, but can be very unpredictable when used to foster more complex behaviors.

Incentivizing strategies are imprecise (you may not get the behavior you thought you would), they often have significant unwanted side consequences, they displace naturally occurring intrinsic motivations, they diminish creativity, they foster self-aggrandizing behavior, and they encourage other bad behavior like cutting important corners.

So what does work? Seeking true buy-in as part of your campaign to get people to do the requested action. People in general—and lawyers are no exception—are far more likely to comply with a request when they have had some opportunity to be involved in shaping their destiny. To put it succinctly, “participation leads to commitment”.

Much has been written about “buy-in”. Unfortunately, too many law firm leaders have oversimplified this important idea and see it merely as the process of telling a partner what you want them to do and waiting for them to signal that they’re on board. Just because a partner says “I’ll do it” does not necessarily mean that you have true buy-in—even if they say it in all sincerity. True buy-in involves a conversation in which they learn about and really understand what they are committing to, how it will affect them, and what behaviors are expected of them, and after considering all this they still say “yes.” It also involves giving the partner an opportunity for choice, input or control. One great way to do this is to discuss with the partner where this particular commitment fits with all the other commitments that the partner has, and ask him/her to place this commitment in the proper spot in their “priority pipeline.”

Buy-in approaches work mainly because they trigger intrinsic rewards—internal feeling states that make a person do something for their own reasons (e.g., pride, wanting to make a difference, recognition, power, security, and above all, the feeling that I owe you a responsibility—literally, “You can count on me.”) Their effect is not as instantaneous as extrinsic (incentivized) approaches, but they last longer and are more satisfying. They don’t result in “buyer’s remorse”.

“Accountability” results first and foremost from the relationship that a leader has with his/her constituents. Constituents who feel heard, respected, and valued by their leader are more likely to comply with that leader’s request. Leadership demands relationship-building if for no other reason than it fosters feelings of responsibility, i.e., a constituent literally feels “accountable” to his/her leader. Buy-in is an intrinsically motivated, emotion-based response that you want to cultivate. It’s the meta-principle behind most of the interventions I’ll discuss later in this and subsequent posts. My research on lawyers’ personalities shows that lawyers in general are not well suited to this kind of relationship building.

Nevertheless, the more you spend time listening to your partners, giving them an opportunity for input, giving them a voice in the outcome, even if it’s in a small way, the more likely it is that the individual will carry out your request. Instead of just insisting that the business plan be submitted, you could start, for example, by giving the partners some latitude in picking the due date, or you could provide them a choice of form to use and let them pick one. Even small opportunities to exercise some choice, input or control can have big effects on later compliance behavior.

What I’m proposing is more than just passive “listening”, but rather a more active process that begins with listening, and then beyond that invites the partners to make choices, decisions, shape the outcome in at least some small way.

Next time: Why a “proactive” approach is so important, plus over a dozen specific interventions that really work.

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved

The Lawyer Personality: Why Lawyers Are Skeptical

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 07:34

I’ve been gathering data on lawyers’ personalities since the early 1980’s. Personality traits are typically measured on a percentile scale ranging from zero % to 100%. When large samples of the general public are tested, individuals’ scores on a given trait typically form a classic bell curve, with the mean average for any given trait hovering around the 50th percentile. But lawyers are different. As I have written about elsewhere, there are a number of traits on which lawyers tend to score much higher or much lower than the general public—in short, we’re outliers. The most extreme of all these outlier traits—the one on which lawyers consistently score higher (i.e., above the mean) than all the others—is Skepticism.

People with a very high Skepticism score tend to look at the world through a “glass half empty” lens—they focus on problems rather than on what’s working well; they tend toward the suspicious; they assume the worst, and rarely give others the “benefit of the doubt”. They wonder what another person’s “real” motive might be for any action that person takes. They question any assertion made by another person. And they tend to be slower to trust others.

On the surface, these may sound like negative thoughts and behaviors. However, considering the nature of what lawyers do for a living, these are quite functional and make a lot of sense. Many aspects of law practice require lawyers to scrutinize documents, transactions, actual or potential adversaries, deals, proposed actions, and the like, in order to protect their client. Lawyers are always asking, “What could possibly go wrong?” “What errors exist?” “Are there any potential sources of liability?” “Who might be at fault?” “Are there any exceptions to what has been asserted?” And, “Is there anything we should know about that hasn’t been disclosed?”

These questions, collectively, are often thought of as “critical thinking”. There is no doubt that they enable a lawyer to protect the client. But these days, lawyers wear many other hats that they didn’t used to wear—mentor, supervisor, manager, leader, rainmaker, committee chair, etc. And in all these newer roles, “critical thinking” – which in these other contexts can really be thought of as “negative thinking” – can actually get in the way. In fact, a steady diet of negative thinking can actually burn in neural pathways in the brain that deeply habituate a negative, pessimistic mindset, a filtering system that insures that the lawyer will see the half-empty glass and may even miss many of the half-full glasses.

Despite the need for more flexibility than ever before (specifically, there’s a need for lawyers to be able to “turn on” or “turn off” the Skeptical mindset), the fact remains that in today’s law practice climate, there are a number of reasons that high Skepticism is so common among lawyers and is likely to remain that way for some time to come.

First, because the personality trait of Skepticism provides an important advantage to any lawyer by making critical thinking more natural and easier, people with high levels of Skepticism are more likely to be attracted to the law in the first place. It feels more like a natural fit than many other jobs might. The more your personality aligns with the work you regularly do, the more likely you are to rate your job as satisfying. So the legal profession starts out with an overrepresentation of skeptics. (I’m using the word “overrepresentation” in the sense that statisticians use it—there are more high Skeptics in law than would be expected, based on their distribution in the general population.)

Second, for the same reason as above—i.e., the degree of “fit” between the person and the job—those lawyers with low Skepticism scores tend to drop out of law school and out of law practice (usually in their early years) at a higher rate than do those with high Skepticism scores. This “concentrates the herd” and results in a more overall skeptical cohort of lawyers who remain in practice.

Finally, Skepticism increases over time because lawyers work in a Skeptical environment. Every personality trait is partly dispositional (i.e., influenced by genes) and partly learned. Recent research suggests that genetics provide a larger contribution than previously suspected; however, Skepticism is an exception to that tendency—it is a trait that is significantly influenced by one’s environment. This means that the longer a lawyer works in a workplace in which the majority of his/her colleagues think and talk in Skeptical ways, the more Skeptical s/he will become over time.

These three forces are all moving in the same direction, fostering a culture of Skepticism in most law firms and a pattern of Skepticism in most lawyers. Over time, this becomes just the normal background “noise” and is taken for granted. Plus, it’s rare to find any counterbalancing force in most law firms that rewards “accepting” thinking or trusting behavior (the opposites of Skepticism). Skepticism is a one-way street, which is why it seems so normal to most lawyers, and why it’s so hard for others—friends, spouses, staff, even clients—to shake lawyers out of their Skeptical mindset, even though, as noted above, in the newer roles that lawyers play today, lowering Skepticism and increasing accepting and trusting behavior is a growing necessity.

If, after reading this post, you find yourself taking my ideas with a grain of salt, you can begin to see the problem . . .

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

© 2013 LawyerBrain LLC  -  All rights reserved