Strategy or opportunity?

I recently read a sentence (in a non-public email, so I won’t cite the source) suggesting that most lawyers and law firms are opportunists, not strategists.  That brought me to a dead stop.  Lawyers are trained (and generally self-selected as well) to think logically and analytically, and most lawyers put a high stock on strategic thinking.  In our own businesses and lives, though, does strategy get more play than opportunity?  Should it?

My first stop in thinking about this topic was to visit a dictionary, where I was reminded that (at least according to the American Heritage Dictionary), opportunistic means “[t]aking immediate advantage, often unethically, of any circumstance of possible benefit.”  Other definitions of related terms (opportunist, opportunism) had the same taint of shady dealing.  I don’t know whether that connotation was intended by the author of the original assertion; for the purposes of this discussion I’ll assume not and will interpret the comment to suggest that lawyers and law firm rely on favorable circumstances that present themselves more than strategy.

In January, I spoke on a panel at Duke Law School’s Leadership Symposium.  Our topic revolved around leadership development, but each panelist commented on the opportunities that presented themselves along our career paths and suggested that the ability to recognize and grab opportunities led us to where we are now.  That’s opportunism (again, without an unethical bent), though with a strategic underlay: “Chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur lectured.

I recently talked with a coaching client about her plan to attend a particular bar meeting.  Although she isn’t actively looking for a new position, she’s sensing that she doesn’t want to stay with her current firm in the longterm, so she’s seeking alternatives.  When I asked what her intentions are for the meeting, she said she hoped to meet someone who might be a good future contact.  Again, that’s sort of a blend between strategic and opportunistic; strategic in putting herself in the right place to meet potentially helpful contacts, but relying on opportunity as it emerges in who those contacts might be and how the meeting might unfold.  And interestingly, I’ve observed that although it’s helpful to identify particular people to meet, it’s often even better to identify characteristics of people to meet and to see who presents themselves.

Another client was in the process of mapping out her career plan.  We defined her goals, identified what she wanted her life to look like both professionally and in work/life integration, and planned the next steps that would prepare her for her goals.  And then a recruiter called, describing a position that was entirely outside her plans, but 100% compatible with her goals.  She applied, landed the job, and is completely satisfied even though she’s doing something completely different from what she’d expected.  If she hadn’t done the underlying work, she very well might not have recognized this terrific opportunity for what it was.

I occasionally receive calls from lawyers who are curious about coaching but don’t have any particular goals.  These lawyers want “a good career” without putting many limits on what that might mean, and I sometimes have a vision of them as sticks floating down a river, carried on a current that would exist with or without them.  Some lawyers do drift through their careers, moving reactively but not often proactively.  Happily (and, I suspect, not coincidentally) those who take a more strategic approach to their career are much more likely to find satisfaction and success.

It’s true as well for business development.  Any lawyer can stumble into an opportunity — being at the right place at the right time and having the right conversation with the right person.  Such flukes don’t occur often, though, and they certainly don’t form the basis for a full client roster.  Instead, a rainmaker must learn how to create favorable circumstances (another way of saying opportunities) that are likely to lead to new work.

What I notice over and over is a blend of strategy and grabbing opportunity.  The strategy is the foundation that allows appreciation of the opportunity.  I don’t doubt that some lawyer rely more or less solely on opportunity; I also don’t doubt that those lawyers as a whole experience less success and lower satisfaction than lawyers who have some strategic underpinning for their actions.

Take a look at your own career plan, your business development goals, your work/life integration.  How much of what you do is grounded in strategy?  If your answer is not much, try an experiment and set some intentions for your work (perhaps to acquire a new professional skill) or your professional branding (perhaps a new approach to serving your clients or a new way to approach potential clients) and see what happens with a month or a quarter.�

Lessons at an airport gate

I spent nearly two hours sitting at an airport gate today.  I’d assumed that between business travel and people headed home after the Easter weekend, the airport would be jammed, but I got through security in an astonishingly short time.  So, I sat about 5 feet behind a Delta American Express table.  You’ve probably seen them: a table to the side of a concourse, with various promotional freebies, application forms neatly stacked, and one or two hawkers, trying desperately to get people to pause and fill out an application.

Annoying, right?  I drowned out the hawker’s calls.  But as I sat reading, I noticed that more people than usual were coming up to this table, and they were staying longer than usual.  So I started listening. And I re-learned something useful.

Unlike the average hawker who bombards passersby with the “great offer” they simply “can’t pass up,” this guy focused on individuals and enaged them: “You, miss, in the red shirt!  Where are you headed today?”  I would have thought that his chances of getting responses, especially in a busy airport at peak travel time on Monday morning, would have been slim, but over and over, people walked up and started talking with him.

Some told him about their travel delays.  Others told him about the jobs they were traveling for or the family they were leaving behind.  Several soldiers told him what it’s like to be on leave from duty in Baghdad.  And the marketer listened.  He asked questions and empathized.  He was genuinely present with the people who were talking with him.

After he’d heard some part of their travel story, he’d weave in his offer: “Man, wouldn’t you like to get an extra 10,000 miles so you can get back to see her more often?”  Sure, he was trying to get people to apply for a credit card, but he was doing it by connecting with people, by building a relationship, albeit a brief one.  And almost without exception, the people who stopped in front of the display filled out something, whether a credit card application or a Delta mileage program application.

Observing this guy reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  What I saw was the power of listening and genuine, though brief and superficial, connection.

The contrast was clear when he went on break and another pusher took his place.  This hawker didn’t engage people.  He threw out half-hearted, “Sir, don’t you want extra some SkyMiles today?  It’s a great offer!  You can’t pass it up!  Sir, you flyin’ Delta today?  We’re giving away 10,000 SkyMiles free — for nuthin’!”  But the busy passengers did pass it by the table over and over without stopping.   Those who did stop received only the sales pitch, and I’d guess this vendor’s application completion rate was much less than half of the other man’s.

Small sale or large, connection really does pay.  And it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of effort.  It simply requires genuine presence.  Not a bad reminder while waiting in an airport.

Are you satisfied with your client development efforts?

I often notice that lawyers with whom I talk have some good ideas about client development activities.  They know what to do, and they implement some of that knowledge.  But when someone hires me to work on business development and we take a good look at what they’re actually doing on a consistent basis, the reality check often leads to some interesting findings.  Much like dieters who start keeping a food journal and suddenly discover that the reason for a plateau is not alien invasion but rather an unnoticed increase in caloric consumption, lawyers who pause to do an honest appraisal of their business development activities may be surprised with what they uncover.

My coaching clients and I go through a 5-page narrative assessment that looks at how the lawyer positions him- or herself, what activities s/he engages in and how frequently, and how s/he serves current clients.  Schedule a 30 minute free consultation with me – no strings attached.

Tuesday Shorts 3/11/08 (Unhappy associates, dealing with mistakes, time)



The Lost Generation of Associates Former GE General Counsel Ben W. Heinemann, Jr. and Harvard Law professor David B. Wilkins have written an article outlining some of the challenges that associates in large law firms face:

At the 250 largest law firms, the arrows are pointing up for many associate indicators. Summer internships are up. Incoming associate classes are up. Recruiting costs for both summer and first-year associates, in dollars and in partner time, are up. Salaries are up ($160,000!). Bonuses are up ($50,000!). Concierge services are up. Stress management services are up. Twenty-five percent of the 40,000 graduating law students today go to these 250 firms, by some estimates.

But for all this effort, one critical indicator is down. The larger law firms are reported to be losing 30, 40, 50 percent of associates after three to four years-with half to two-thirds of the defections due to associate, not firm, choice. Where do they go? Smaller firms, more competitive firms in the same city, firms in other cities, in-house, government, teaching, nonlegal jobs. The After the JD study of 4,000 graduates in the class of 2000-conducted jointly by the American Bar Foundation, Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession, and others-indicates such churn.

The more important question is: Why do they go? Some associates just wanted to pay off law school debts and had no intention of staying. Others are balancing two careers and need to follow a spouse. Some are lured away by higher-paying jobs in banking, private equity, or hedge funds. Or they don’t want the Faustian bargain of higher pay for more billable hours and a job that skews the work/life balance too far toward work. Finally, some do not want to stay for the likely rejection four or five years hence at the entrance to equity partner Valhalla-or don’t view it as Valhalla at all.

But on the basis of many discussions with students, associates, partners, and inside counsel, we believe that for a significant number, their first professional experience after at least seven years of higher education is too unprofessional and demoralizing. That disappointment is a major reason for leaving their firm.

They then suggest some solutions, such as allowing associates to observe client meetings (at no cost to the client), seconding 3rd or 4th year associates to clients or government agencies for a year, encouraging pro bono work, and developing a strong, respected professional development training program that would incorporate competency models, training materials, planned experiences, measurable milestones, internal career counseling, and communication with and mentoring by partners.

Mistakes were made… The Snark has written a humorous piece on mistakes and how to deal with them, and it wraps up with good advice:


This is the hardest plan to implement because you fear finally being discovered for being imperfect and possibly over-rated. Will you be fired? Will it go down in your “file” only to rear its head in four years when you are denied admission into the partnership and the only reason they can give is, “Back in your second year, you missed that 1 p.m. meeting with our best client, MegaCorp.”

But I think in the end it is better to fess up. Just don’t do it in a way that makes things even worse: no crying, sniveling or begging for mercy. And no need to shave your head or hold a press conference.

You just need to explain yourself while displaying the appropriate level of remorse blended with confidence that says, “Yes, I screwed up that once, but it was an uncommon lapse that will be rectified. I will work even harder and bill a few extra hours to make up for lost faith in my value.”

Provided your mistake didn’t actually cause lost revenue or client relationships, you likely will be forgiven. But don’t let it happen again. You get paid way too much money to make mistakes.

How do you see time? Stephanie West Allen has linked to an interesting op-ed from the New York Times:

Believing time is money to lose, we perceive our shortage of time as stressful. Thus, our fight-or-flight instinct is engaged, and the regions of the brain we use to calmly and sensibly plan our time get switched off. We become fidgety, erratic and rash.

Tasks take longer. We make mistakes — which take still more time to iron out. Who among us has not been locked out of an apartment or lost a wallet when in a great hurry? The perceived lack of time becomes real: We are not stressed because we have no time, but rather, we have no time because we are stressed.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stressed-for-lack-of-time interventions: find a watch with a second hand, stop what you’re doing and simply watch the clock while the minute passes. For many people (me included) that exercise helps me to reset my brain and realize that a minute actually is a significant amount of time, which in turn helps me to feel less stressed about the minutes flowing by.

Determining decision-making authority

In my experience, newer associates often have challenges in determining what they do and don’t have the authority to do.  Some may take on too little authority, undermining their usefulness to more senior lawyers who need not be consulted about every decision, and others may too on too much, possibly compromising strategic decisions that should be the senior lawyer’s call.

Senior lawyers bear much responsibility for these missteps, because they should have the foresight and ability to define what authority the lawyers they supervise may exercise.  However, all too often, everyone assumes that everyone is in agreement on what’s appropriate — right until the assumption comes crashing down in a rant of frustration at being disturbed yet again “for nothing” or a ballistic explosion at finding out that an incurable decision has been made without a full appreciation for its impact.

I’ve been reading a marvelous book recently: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott.  In addition to setting forth a valuable approach to conversations that facilitate exploration of the truth and collaborative problem-solving, Scott sets out a Decision Tree that supervising lawyers can use to explain a junior lawyer’s scope of authority — quickly, simply, and in a framework that permits easy shorthand reference in the future.

Scott’s Decision Tree comprises 4 categories of decisions (quoted from page 119, Fierce Conversations):

Leaf Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Do not report the action you took.

Branch Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Report the action you took daily, weekly, or monthly.

Trunk Decisions: Make the decision.  Report your decision before you take action.

Root Decisions: Make the decision jointly, with input from many people.  These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause major harm to the organization.

It’s quickly apparent how these categories can be used in the practice setting.  In the context of litigation, for instance, a partner might identify deciding whether documents are relevant and thus to be produced as leaf decisions, deciding what witnesses to interview as branch decisions, preparing discovery requests as trunk decisions, and deciding whether to move for a temporary injunction as a root decision.  As the associate advances, more and more decisions will become leaf and branch decisions, which is a strong indication that the associate is becoming more skilled and thus merits more authority.

This same principle is useful in a wide variety of other settings.  Suppose, for example, that you had decided to embark on a marketing program, and you decided to mail firm literature to some unidentified people and to invite others to lunch, to accept some requests to speak at CLE meetings or to write articles, and to use your box seats at a sporting event to thank or to woo particular clients.  The Decision Tree formula would permit you to delegate this process to a large extent to your assistant by explaining which steps you want her to undertake on her own without reporting back (sending out the marketing materials to new contacts), which you want her to do and to let you know about (setting up lunches with those in a designated group), which you want her to filter and then check with you about (”I don’t think you’ll want to speak at these conferences, but client XYZ always attends this one, so you may want to consider that”), and which decisions require input from you and perhaps others (which clients and colleagues should be invited to the playoffs).

Think today about how you can use Scott’s Decision Tree to clarify your own scope of authority and that of others with whom you work.

Wednesday Shorts 3/5/08

I almost titled this post “The Bad Blogger,” because that’s how I feel!  I’ve been away from Atlanta (my primary home) for all but 3 scattered days since mid-January.  I’m accustomed to travel, but doing this much of it all at once is truly a challenge.  One thing I’ve learned is to be a little more gentle with myself on negotiable deadlines, and blogging has fit into that category.  Thus, the unusually random schedule.  I’ve started using a voice-recognition software program recently (unlike just a few years ago, it works quite well!) and so I’ll have more fresh posts appearing soon.

And, I’d like to share a celebration with you: I learned last week that I’ve received the ACC credential (Associate Certified Coach) from the International Coach Federation.  While I’m the first to admit that the path to that credential was nothing like as onerous as getting my license to practice or becoming registered to practice before the Patent Office, it’s a significant accomplishment nonetheless — especially in light of the fact that only about a quarter of ICF members are currently credentialled, and many, many other coaches aren’t ICF members at all.  I know some excellent coaches who aren’t credentialled, so I help certainly don’t intend to cast any aspersions there!  But I’m quite pleased, and happy to share the news with you.  I learned in practice to celebrate at least briefly whenever an opportunity arises, especially since those moments can be awfully fleeting, and I follow that habit today.

Now, on to the legal news!

Leading Big Law Leaders to Lead  That’s the title of a recent article from the New York Lawyer. The article offers a nice overview of some of the leadership training alternatives in which law firms are now investing, ranging from one-on-one coaching to in-hour training to multi-day programs at major universities, including Harvard and the Wharton School.  It raises a few warning bells:

Paul Zwier, a professor at Emory University School of Law [and] author of the book Supervisory and Leadership Skills in the Modern Law Practice (National Institute for Trial Advocacy, 2006), said that in some cases leadership training can serve as an “opium of the masses.”

In other words, what some firms call “leadership training” in reality is a way to get lawyers on board with a firm’s strategy, rather than truly honing leadership skills.

Dubbing it “leadership training” can make participants more willing to sign on to a program and feel more valued if they think that they are recognized as special. However, Zwier said that even lawyers without supervisory duties within a firm need leadership skills, since such skills are necessary in dealing with clients.

And, as recognized by Larry Richard, an attorney and psychologist with Hildebrandt International:

To truly change behavior, training must include much more than a few days at an impressive school, Richard said. He divides programs into two categories: conceptual education and skills-based education. Conceptual education models are the popular “boot-camp” executive programs offered at prestigious schools that use mainly the case-study method. Those programs are valuable, he said, but limited. Attorneys also need long-term training, or skills-based education, to enhance specific leadership behaviors, which are more readily measurable.

I’m a proponent of leadership development work (both training and coaching) for lawyers.  Some might question whether expenditures on such “non-essentials” can be justified, especially in today’s economic climate.  My answer is, not surprisingly, absolutely.  More on why in a future post.

It’s About Time II  The Georgia Association for Women Lawyers released its study of flexible and part-time work arrangements this week, following up on the 2004 initial study.  From the Executive Summary:

Results from this study suggest that it is about time. Few working professionals feel the “time crunch” more acutely than attorneys. Billable hours requirements render the business of law virtually all about time. Should it be any wonder then that the issue of time would weigh so heavily in attorneys’ evaluation of the work they do? Our findings indicate that the availability of flexible and part-time work arrangements is extremely important to male and female attorneys alike. Regardless of whether they themselves plan on taking advantage of such policies, attorneys place a high value on the availability of flexible and/or reduced-time work at their firm. Isn’t it about time that firms recognize that value as well?

Interest in flexible and part-time arrangements is particularly strong among women attorneys. Reduced-time work options are so highly valued that women are willing to exit employment to find more flexible work arrangements. Indeed, firms that provide formal, written policies governing part-time work arrangements enjoy higher retention rates of women lawyers and firms that maintain a successful part-time program reap the rewards of retaining highly satisfied, highly motivated, and highly committed attorneys.

The study is based on surveys completed by 84 Georgia law firms, and the results fall squarely in line with national results: flexible and part-time options are important to lawyers, many firms don’t have written policies to solidify those options, many lawyers are concerned that taking part-time or flex status is a career-limiting move, and there’s evidence to support that concern.

The full report is almost 100 pages long.  The Executive Summary is 3 pages.  It’s well worth a read.

Your personal Board of Directors  I always recommend that lawyers develop a group of mentors.  Did you notice that’s mentors, plural?  Because each mentoring relationship is unique, I find that those who have multiple mentors realize significant benefit.  And mentors need not be in your firm or city (indeed, some mentors absolutely should be “external”) or even in your profession.  Collectively, this group of mentors forms your personal board of directors.  Wondering how to fill all the spots?  Michael Melcher, author of The Creative Lawyer (which is on my list of books to review here) has suggested finding people with 25 attributes and narrowing down the nominees to a group of 6 to 10 “board members.”  Attributes include:

4.    Can give you encouragement in tough times
5.    Can talk to you straight about your weaknesses
20.    Gives good advice about office politics
21.    Gives good advice about professional development
22.    Gives good advice about how to get ahead
23.    Thinks you are great at what you do
24.    Thinks you have great talents other than your present career

Check out the whole list.  You may be surprised.