Systems awareness for lawyers-leaders

Elementary school children learn something that talented adults often forget: systems awareness. Remember the song that goes, “the knee bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone,” and so on? That’s a form of systems awareness: if the knee goes out of whack, you can bet that the leg and the hip will suffer too.

Systems are present in client representations. Imagine that you’re representing a client on a tax matter. Isn’t it natural to recognize that the outcome of the matter may affect not only the client’s tax liability, but potentially
his business, her marriage, or its employees as well? Lawyers are trained to recognize the ripples that flow from client matters, but what about other issues?

Your practice, your office, the personnel serving your clients – all of these are systems. Make a change in one area, and it’ll impact other areas as well. As a leader, it’s up to you to recognize the effects of your changes, both prospectively and retrospectively. Doing so will help you to anticipate and avoid problems and to design outcomes that positively impact a particular system.

A few years ago, the executive committee of a law firm decided that a live person should answer all calls received during business hours. To implement that policy, the office manager created a detailed system that regulated which secretaries could go to lunch or on break at what time and which lawyers’ telephones each secretary would cover. Seems sensible, right? Unfortunately, some lawyers didn’t want to have “strangers” responding to client inquiries, and morale among assistants plummeted since they were no longer free to take lunches and breaks together without careful planning. In other words, the system was disrupted. The plan failed miserably, and the hours spent in creating it were wasted – all because no one considered what impact the planned changes would have on the attorney/assistant system.

Systems awareness is also useful in evaluating how to accomplish professional and personal goals. Barbara hired me to improve her client development activities for her family law practice. She found it difficult to get in her billable hours and her rainmaking activities, much less optional interests like exercise and visiting with friends, or even being involved in her children’s extracurricular activities. As we reviewed Barbara’s activities, she remembered that she’d received a number of referrals in the past from people she’d met when she served as den leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. We discussed a variety of activities she could add in, but Barbara kept returning to her prior Girl Scouts experience and finally decided to get involved again.

By resuming Girl Scout activities, Barbara deepened her connection with her daughter, put herself in a situation to meet parents who might need help with family law matters or know others who’d need help, and even got in some exercise. Barbara added extra time to her schedule to do this, but because the time yielded payoffs in several areas, she was able to leverage the time to get benefits that she might not have realized otherwise. Barbara became aware of the “system” formed by the intersection of her personal and professional life. (You might remember a recent review of Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, which suggests experimenting with 4-way wins, which takes advantage of systems awareness.)

To increase your own systems awareness, consider the ripple effects of changes you make or action you might take.

Top Tasks When Beginning in a New Job

A lawyer contacted me after switching to a new firm. Eager to make a great first impression and to make the most of the first six months, he asked what he should be sure to do. Here’s my non-exhaustive list:

1. Do excellent work. First impressions are often lasting impressions and fumbling an early assignment creates great difficulty. If you make a mistake, you can recover, but so much better not to need to try.

2. Focus on internal networking. Get to know as many people as you can. You’ll be busy with work (we hope!) and it’s important to keep your “business social calendar” hopping as well.

3. Find a mentor within the firm. Especially for those who’ve made a lateral move, you must find someone who will tell you how your new firm’s culture operates.

4. Establish a fantastic working relationship with your assistant. You will likely need some time to get into the groove with someone new. Have regular meetings (they need not be long) to talk about what you need, what you assistant needs, and how you can work well together. Be sure to listen to your assistant’s input as well; he or she may have valuable input for you about how the firm operates.

5. Look for ways you can contribute beyond your work product. You’ll bring a new perspective and may have useful input on all sorts of situations. It’s impossible to list what they might be, so keep your eyes open.

Did I miss anything that you think belongs in the top 5? Please let me know if I did!

How flexible is your leadership style?

A review of Leadership That Gets Results by Daniel Goleman (Harvard Business Review, 2000)

Daniel Goleman gained notoriety in the mid-1990s for identifying competencies related to “emotional intelligence,” or the ability to perceive, regulate, understand, and work with emotions to enhance leadership. Those competencies are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Based on research by the consulting firm Hay/McBer, Goleman identifies six distinct leadership styles, each of which uses a unique combination of the emotional intelligence competencies.

The selection of a leadership style influences not only the outcome of a particular situation, but the overall organizational climate as well. “Climate” is defined to reflect the organization’s flexibility, workers’ sense of responsibility to the organization, the level of standards set, the degree to which performance feedback and rewards offered are considered accurate, the clarity those in the organization feel about its mission and values, and the level of commitment they hold toward a common purpose. Each style affects each component of the organizational climate as well as the organization’s financial results, and each may be used effectively in certain situations. Highly effective leaders draw on multiple styles:

The styles, taken individually, appear to have a direct and unique impact on the working atmosphere of a company, division, or team, and in turn, on its financial performance. And perhaps most important, the research indicates that leaders with the best results do not rely on only one leadership style; they use most of them in a given week-seamlessly and in different measure-depending on the business situation. Imagine the styles, then, as the array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag. Over the course of a game, the pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of the shot. Sometimes he has to ponder his selection, but usually it is automatic. The pro senses the challenge ahead, swiftly pulls out the right tool, and elegantly puts it to work. That’s how high-impact leaders operate, too.

Goleman describes the six styles as follows:

  • The coercive style, in which the leader unilaterally directs action and requires compliance, summarized as “Do what I tell you.”
  • The authoritative style, in which the leader identifies a vision and motivates those responsible for achieving the resulting goal to choose their approach to it, summarized as “Come with me.”
  • The affiliative style, in which the leader focuses on building harmony and strong working relationships, summarized as “People come first.”
  • The democratic style, in which the leader seeks to build consensus among team members by giving each a voice, summarized as “What do you think?”
  • The pacesetting style, in which the leader sets and adheres to high standards for performance for him- or herself and the team, summarized as “Do as I do, now!”
  • The coaching style, in which the leader focuses on developing team members’ performance, summarized as “Try this.”

Although each style can be used well in a particular situation, the authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching styles have a consistently positive effect on organizational climate and results. (The article includes a fascinating table that shows quantitatively the effect that each style has on each component of the organizational climate as well as the overall positive or negative effect.)

An effective leader selects the appropriate style based on the situation he or she faces. For example, immediately following a natural disaster, the coercive style would likely yield a positive effect (the leader would identify and provide direction as to what actions must be taken for the organization to weather the crisis), whereas a democratic style would be ineffective in such an emergency, as team members would waste valuable time reaching consensus.

Becoming aware of the six leadership styles may permit leaders to develop those styles that come less naturally and to choose consciously when to employ each style. Leaders may develop styles that don’t come naturally by studying the emotional intelligence competencies that underlie the style, as set forth in Goleman’s article. Although emotional intelligence may seem like a flighty buzzword, each competency contributes meaningfully toward an individual’s ability to motivate, encourage, and lead team members to high performance.

What’s in it for lawyers?

Unlike many corporate leaders, lawyer-leaders frequently lack training in or vocabulary to describe what creates effective leadership. Studying Goleman’s article is a good first step in understanding the empirical study of leadership styles and the circumstances in which each is effective. For example, though the pacesetting style is not a consistently effective model, it may be quite effective for teams composed of high-achieving, highly motivated lawyers.

Most lawyers have had the experience of working for a talented, demanding (perhaps even “obsessive”) senior lawyer who sets high standards and expects everyone to meet them as well as he or she does – someone who exhibits the pacesetting style, in other words. A pacesetting leader might learn about the drawbacks and dangers of using only the pacesetting style, including low morale that results from overwhelm in the face of unreachably high standards and fear that results from the need to second-guess what the leader wants rather than what might be most effective.

By learning to use other leadership styles masterfully, the pacesetting lawyer may round out his or her leadership repertoire and find more effective ways to evoke high performance from every member of the team. While such development requires consistent effort over time – simply reading the article will not, without more, produce meaningful change – learning the vocabulary and seeing that leadership is a science as well as an art will enhance every lawyer’s leadership abilities.

The Art of Being Fully Present

How often do you find yourself doing one activity and thinking about another? Perhaps you check email while you’re on the phone or talking to someone? Or you read the paper (or browse the web) while your partner or child is trying to tell you something?

It’s so common to do this, and when we do, we generally think we’re making good use of the time by multitasking. And yet, most of us have also had the experience of getting “busted”:  the person who’s talking realizes we aren’t listening, or we make an error because we’re juggling two (or more) tasks simultaneously. At a minimum, our stress level goes up because the brain isn’t wired for multitasking.

Instead, try being fully present with what you’re doing. If you’re in conversation, close your email and put your phone on “do not disturb” so you can direct all of your attention to the discussion. Conversations tend to go more quickly when you’re fully present because you’re at full attention, and you’ll notice that you catch not only what’s said, but also what is going unsaid that should perhaps be explored.

For instance, imagine that a colleague is briefing you on an expert witness deposition prep session and the words say all is well. If you are fully present to your colleague, you might notice tension in his face that you would miss if you were looking at papers or email while he’s talking. Seeing the tension, you’d have an opportunity to inquire and learn that although he can’t put his finger on the issue, something isn’t right about the testimony or the way the expert is presenting it. That’s valuable information that could go undetected. (Should your colleague raise the concern without being asked? Absolutely. However, many of us are uncomfortable bringing up a concern without any evidence to back it up, and so he might well not mention it.)

How to become fully present? I recommend a quick centering exercise, which can be as simple as taking 3 or 4 slow, deep breaths. Bring all of your attention to the present activity, and if you find your attention wandering, breathe deeply again and bring it back. This level of focus will allow you to be more effective and less stressed.

As Malcolm Forbes said, “Presence is more than just being there.” Being fully present focuses all of your senses on the task or person at hand. It’s a learned skill. Try an experiment: resolve to be fully present for a couple of hours a day and see what you notice. I’d love to hear your feedback!

Avoid overwhelm: hit reset!

A client recently called me, and I could hear the tension in his voice right away.  Too many projects coming due at the same time (and thus, another long weekend in the office) combined with sheer exhaustion to make Rick an unhappy lawyer.  “I just don’t know how I’m going to get it all done.  I always do, but you know, I’m thinking maybe I’m not going to pull it off this time.”  We started listing out exactly what Rick needed to do and, while it was a lot of work, the truth was that he could accomplish all of it within about 30 hours, which would leave him some time free over the weekend — if, and only if, he was able to stop worrying about the work and start doing it.

“So, Rick,” I ventured, “you sound completely stressed out, and your brain seems to be going in six different ways at once.  Why don’t you hit the reset button?”

Rick took a few seconds before speaking, and when he did his voice was incredulous, laced with frustration-bordering-on-anger.  “And how would you recommend I do THAT?”

We all fall into periods of overwhelm, frustration, malaise, boredom, and so on.  Sometimes it’s a few minutes, and other times the feelings can last for weeks.  Hitting the reset button is a simple technique I recommend.  Every person I’ve ever talked with has something that serves as the human equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Delete.  (Sorry, Mac users, you’ll have to translate that into Mac language or remember your PC days!)  And most people have a variety of strategies that may work, depending on the situation.  A few that clients and I have used:

  • Going for a walk, a run, a bike ride, or other solitary exercise
  • Playing music that pumps you up or soothes you
  • Yoga
  • Calling a friend or loved one for a short conversation
  • Flipping through vacation photos
  • Meditating, praying, or deep breathing
  • Getting a cup of coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice and savoring it
  • Using smells (essential oils, for instance) to trigger relaxation
  • Stretching
  • Making a “gratitude list”

Although each of the activities listed above are fairly quick and designed for run-of-the-mill circumstances, hitting reset can also mean taking a weekend trip, taking a weekly class, or something else that’s sufficiently out of the ordinary to break your routine.  Each year, I spend a week alone in Wyoming, walking and thinking in nature.  When I return from my retreat, I see my business and my life through new eyes.

After Rick and I explored some ideas, he decided that he would take a quick walk around the block while listening to a favorite “power song” as soon as we hung up, and that he would make time to play ball with his son for a few minutes in the evening.  He was skeptical but willing to give “the reset” a shot.  And he discovered that it worked well enough that he now “hits reset” regularly, as soon as he starts feeling overwhelmed or otherwise on edge.

What might you do when you need to reset your system?

Could you be unemployable? It’s up to you.

Introducing Ron Peterson, a guest author.  To learn more about Ron, scroll to the end of his post.

Lawyers will often carry Phi-Beta Kappa keys, law review credentials, marquee college and law school degrees, and—after a few years of diligent and conscientious practice—a growing realization that they may be unemployable! How can this be? Throughout school your work has been “A” quality, tests confirm your abilities, you law work has proved impeccable—but advancement has been halted at a critical time in your career. Unlike the earlier part of your life, after six or seven years, law firms take for granted the quality of work and focus more on your ability to attract new business. The nitty-gritty that now counts has shifted, and how well you can sell yourself and your firm to new clients becomes paramount. Whether you like it or not, you’re at the level of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, not the intellectual equivalent to your college deans! This is a difficult fact to digest, and mystifies many lawyers while leading to an inconvenient-truth about modern law firm practice—it’s a business.

Unlike your school courses, where quality of work guaranteed success, being in a business environment is entirely foreign to the singular emphasis on good work that brought you there. Bringing in clients that pay their bills is now almost always a necessary (bordering on sufficient) metric by which you will be judged for promotions and bonuses. You can have other partners, of-counsels, associates or even contract attorneys do the actual work, just so long as you can bill on their backs.

“Don’t clients care about quality?” Of course they do, but there are a lot of smart lawyers (too many, some would say) and others can do just as well as you can and are waiting at the doors for the chance to show it. Julie Fleming-Brown has been flogging you with this realization for years, and it’s time you acted upon it. So, here are a few steps that can help you bridge the gulf between worker bee (read: potential victim) and rainmaker:

  • Start thinking of yourself as someone who needs to bring in business (change your mindset);
  • Look for opportunities to help potential clients, formulate a solutions-orientation strategy and communicate it to those people. Just make sure it’s intelligent and is designed so the prospect can understand it and see the value;
  • Tom Goldstein built a Supreme Court practice by finding split-decisions on Lexus-Nexus and asking the parties if they wanted to take their case to the Supreme Court, (a very simple, but entirely effective approach that led to his chairing his firm’s litigation and Supreme Court practice). Joel Popkin built a consulting practice by reading about corporate problems in the news, figuring out a potential solution, and writing a letter outlining the work and benefits to the CEO;
  • Tom Gorman puts many extra hours in per month for his website and blog,, where he keeps a large audience around the world up to-date on a variety of securities issues (and loves doing it!).

The above examples represent a small sample of what attorneys have done to build their client base for the good of both themselves and their firms. Surely, you can think of things that are even more effective, can’t you?

I recruit partners, of-counsels and some associates for the most prestigious law firms in the world, both here and overseas. Every day I hear from some hapless soul about how wonderful his or her work is and surely some firm needs their input. Sadly, they generally don’t. I do suggest that working on a marketing plan is the very best step any attorney can take to make themselves valuable, and I’m glad to help them in this effort. Even more than sketching out a plan is taking those first steps to implement the ideas.


Ron Peterson is a legal and lobby recruiter with in Washington, DC and can be reached at (240) 308 0337 or He ran an investment banking firm, was a VP at brokerage firms such as Prudential & Paine Webber, holds several masters degrees plus graduate certificates, and is the author of When Venture Capitalists Say “No”—Creative Financing Strategies & Resources and Technology Transfer in the Life Sciences, both now e-books that are free for Life at the Bar readers. Just e-mail with your request. Also, do you have some good stories about building a business that you’d consider sharing, in some form, for a new book?