Should you take a stand on social issues?

Like so many people, I was rocked by last week’s shootings at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC. (For those of you outside the US who may not have heard about the story, here’s an article that will fill you in.)

In 2012, I wrote a short article following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, urging lawyers to act in whatever way they felt appropriate to address the issues. Nearly three years later, we’re still facing these issues, and others (especially concerning racism and how law enforcement interacts with various groups of people) are boiling.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from the 2012 article:

There’s been much discussion about what we as a society should do in terms of gun control, making treatment more available for the mentally ill, and protecting our children. This newsletter isn’t the forum for me to promote the solutions that seem most appropriate to me. The bottom line for me is, as expressed by Nelson Mandela, “We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear.”

As lawyers, we are in a unique position. We are not “more equal” in any Orwellian sense, but we are often de facto leaders in our communities. There’s been a great deal of discussion about whether this is the time for mourning or action, but I personally believe that the stakes are so high that the two should not be separated.

Please, use your leadership and your voice to advance the solutions that you think stand the best chance of creating the life our children deserve. I will be doing the same in my community. And whether we agree or disagree about the “how” of building a safer society, I believe that the free and open dialogue joined with action will advance that goal.

I received a number of responses to that newsletter, most questioning whether and how to take a stand without alienating clients and potential clients. It’s a fair question, especially when addressing hot-button issues like how to address racism, whether to institute some additional forms of gun control, or access to mental health treatments. And the truth is that if you take a stand, there’s a chance that someone will be offended. That’s true for less-pressing issues as well, though: do you support the “right” community activities? Will someone be offended if you do (or don’t) sponsor some organization?

Taking a stand may cost some business, and it may also attract some other business. The bigger question is the cost of not saying or doing something that’s in deep alignment with one’s values.

Whether it’s in the context of recent events or more day-to-day affairs, think about these factors as you consider taking a public stand:

  • How likely is it that your stand will alienate a class of [potential] clients? If you’re considering taking a public position in favor of gun control, for example, and you represent gun manufacturers, it’s a safe bet that your clients and potential clients will be affected and probably displeased.
  • How important is this position to me? If you choose to take sides on a hot social issue, make sure that the issue really matters to you. Otherwise, you’ll likely find that any cost outweighs the benefit. But don’t take a position just to get business—it may appear disingenuous and if so, it’ll backfire.
  • How likely is it that your stand will attract a class of potential clients? Your answer here should not determine whether you decide to take action, but it may provide some comfort. If you can’t answer this question, look at the psychographics of your ideal client. Just as some investors choose socially conscious investments, some clients may be attracted to a lawyer who views the world as they do.
  • How publicly should you act? Your options range from taking a very public role to donating money anonymously. Choose an action and a forum that matches your level of commitment and your assessment of business risk.

I’ll close with the same call I made in 2012: Please, use your leadership and your voice to advance the solutions that you think stand the best chance of creating the society we deserve. 

Nine Ways You’re Losing Business (part 3)

Welcome to part 3 of a 10-part series, Nine Ways You’re Losing Business—and What to Do About It.

Reason No. 2 You’re Losing Business: You don’t really see your clients.

Sure, you see your clients. You have meetings with them, you talk with them by telephone or videoconference. But do you really see your clients? Too many firms and lawyers view their clients as one-dimensional objects of practice. Client numbers are assigned, and the client comes to assume that number as an identity.

You don’t ever intend that to happen, but the press of business can make it hard for you to keep up with clients individually … And that’s why you must have a system in place for making sure that you recognize what’s happening with and for your clients. 

This is a problem that’s endemic to rainmakers who are seeking to grow a book of business above all else. You court a potential client. You’re interested, highly responsive, you make an effort to learn about your potential client’s interests, to engage that person in business and personal conversation, to be your most appealing self. And then as soon as you get the matter, that deeply personalized attention drops off because you’re in service mode (which often equates to maintenance mode) while you’re off chasing another client.

I once spoke with a disillusioned spouse who complained about the shift in the relationship after marriage. No more cards, no more gifts just because, conversation dwindled to the day-to-day focus on the kids and getting the car serviced and making the mortgage payment. The relationship wasn’t bad, but it certainly was dry. And then someone new came on the horizon, someone who did the things that the spouse used to do, who always brought on deep and interesting conversation, who seemed to promise a richer relationship. Suddenly, an alternative to the relationship with the present-but-not spouse appeared. This story has a happy ending because of the marriage vows both took, but no client will take a vow to stay with a lawyer for better or for worse.

That’s how marriages end, and that’s how clients get poached by other lawyers. Not necessarily because the courting stops (though, really, who doesn’t like to feel important, especially when paying a hefty fee?) but because the attention makes a difference. Understanding what’s happening with a client can significantly affect the way you approach the client or the representation itself.

Do you know what your clients are concerned about? Are you aware of their successes and failures, and do you respond appropriately? When’s the last time you sent a baby gift, a card or flowers to acknowledge a death, a note signed by your staff to acknowledge a business success?

Create a system that ensures that you get information about your clients (like Google Alerts) and that you check in with your clients regularly, to: 

  • take their temperature on their experience with you
  • discover any significant business or personal changes that may affect the matter you’re handling
  • discuss what’s going on with them in the bigger picture

Don’t bag a client and then move on: build the relationship as you deliver the service you promised. If you fail to do this, you will lose business.

What’s the Problem?

When you aren’t achieving the results you want to see from your business development activity, you almost certainly have one of three problems. Identify the problem, make a thoughtful shift, and you will likely see your results change. (The difficulty, of course, is in knowing what change to make, but that’s another topic for another day.)

So, what are the three problems?

  1. Not enough quality potential clients (directly or by referral).  You may not be having enough conversations that lead to a “getting the business” conversations, or you may be having plenty of conversations, but with the wrong people. For instance, if you’re having numerous business conversations that don’t intersect with your area of practice, you have a “leads” problem. (Unless, that is, those conversations lead to your bringing business to a colleague and getting an origination credit even though you personally aren’t doing the work.)
  2. Not enough sales conversations, or not being able to close the sale. Your connections may stall short of an opportunity to discuss a specific legal problem that your prospective client has and to offer your services, or you may find that you’re unable actually to land the work. You won’t be able to grow a sizeable or a stable book of business until you solve a sales-related problem.
  3. Poor client service. If you don’t serve your clients well (in what you do for them as well as how you provide that service), you’ll have dissatisfied clients. Studies show that unhappy clients often don’t communicate their dissatisfaction but simply take their business elsewhere, leaving the former service provider unclear on what happened. If you’re losing clients often, if you aren’t receiving referrals from your clients, or if your clients have repeat business that doesn’t come to you, you have a problem with client service. Although this problem will initially affect your work with current clients, it will eventually undermine your opportunity to secure new work.

Do you have a problem in one (or more) of these areas?  Identifying the problem gives you an opportunity to identify an appropriate solution.

Independence as a Goal for Building a Practice


When I have a consultation with a potential client, I always ask two questions:  what do you want to create in your practice, and why?
 More often than not, one aspect of the “why” addresses the desire for independence.  Service partners, for instance, often mention the desire to regain some scheduling freedom.  Freedom in being able to generate income often figures prominently, as does the freedom of choosing which matters and clients to accept.

If you don’t have a clear answer to what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it, you will find success elusive.  You must know the what so you can lay your plans and measure your progress, and you must know the why so that you can keep your motivation when times get tough.

This week, be sure your what and why are clear.  If not, you have some reflection to do!  In the meantime, consider these quotations about independence, especially in the context of business, industry, and personal independence.

If you are going to have to play defense all the time, you cannot have the kind of ingenuity, assertiveness, independence, and intelligence which is what has made our country strong.
~Arlen Specter

Many a revolution started with the actions of a few.  Only 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence.  A few hanging together can lead a nation to change.
~Wynton Marsalis

Originality is independence, not rebellion; it is sincerity, not antagonism.
~George Henry Lewes

 

Legal Business Development: Do this & never compete on price again


Warning:  Being a fungible billing unit is bad for growing your law practice!

I’ve written previously on finding your Unique Service Proposition, which distinguishes you from other lawyers (and non-lawyers) serving your ideal clients’ legal needs.  In that article, I noted that if you are one of a pool of fungible practitioners, you’ll be forced to rely on other ways of distinguishing your practice–including, perhaps, competing on price.

In today’s cost-conscious environment, many lawyers feel that they must compete on price.  (Note that this issue applies to all lawyers, regardless of the size of firm or sophistication of practice.)  No savvy client will pay an undeserved premium, and clients seem to hold the advantage in hiring lawyers these days.  But competing on price is not the only option.

Other lawyers struggle to find a reason why a potential client should choose them over someone else.  Personal connections make a difference, and many lawyers feel most skilled in landing business after a face-to-face consultation.  But getting to that point may seem daunting.

When it comes to marketing, if you feel like you’re just one of a large number of fungible billing units, you’ll have trouble standing out from your competitors in a way that will be appealing to potential clients.

The common thread?  The belief, All of the lawyers in my practice area are the same.

At first blush, this may be true.  You most likely have the same education and similar experience (though the depth of that experience may differ), and most lawyers would say that they are strategic, good listeners, responsive, and smart.  Fair enough.

Your task is to dig deeper and find what sets you apart from others in your practice so that your potential clients and referral sources know what makes you the best lawyer for their specific needs.  Without a clear point of differentiation, you are simply one of many fungible lawyers, which makes your business development job more difficult.

When searching for what makes you different, consider these examples:

  • Does (or should) your practice focus on some subset of clients or issues?  For example, you might be an employment attorney who focuses on the food service industry.
  • Do you have previous experience or education that is particularly relevant to your practice?  For example, if you do white collar defense and you previously prosecuted such cases with the Department of Justice, that insight will distinguish you from other defense attorneys.
  • Do you approach your cases in an unusual way?  For example, you might offer a collaborative approach.  In some practice areas, flat fee billing or a retainer engagement would be a distinctive form of practice.
  • What skills or resources do you have that benefit your clients?  Consider fluency in a foreign language, a wide network of advisors and service providers you can refer to your clients, or a familiarity with a foreign legal system that’s relevant to your practice.

When you determine what sets you apart from others who practice in the area of law that you do, you lay the groundwork for business development activity that is both distinctive and appealing.  But remember:  the touchstone of these points of distinction must be usefulness to your clients.  You should not market based on your skill in rock-climbing, because it will not benefit clients–unless you have a niche practice in representing individuals who suffered injury on rock climbs and now seek to sue an expedition leader.

Questions for you to consider today:  What sets you apart in a way that your clients value?  How can you capitalize on that attribute or experience in your marketing?

How Else May I Help You?


While visiting Wyoming last summer, I had an epiphany that made owning a home there possible:  I could buy a duplex.
 Renting out one side would not only give me the cash flow to pay for the property, but it would also alleviate the problems of wintertime absentee ownership.  (Love Wyoming though I do, this Atlantan is not cut out for months of snow!).  I browed through a few listings but didn’t see anything suitable.

One day, I asked my contractor an offhand question:  is it difficult to divide a single-family home into a duplex?  He explained that it depends on the home, asked why I wanted to know, and offered to look at listings with me and tell me what he could about the ease of making a house into a duplex.  As we looked at listings and talked and he explained what the considerations are (and also how to tell the difference between an easy-to-fix deal and a moneypit that looks promising), I could see my dream coming to fruition.

I could also see that I didn’t have all the necessary knowledge to make it happen, and that he did.  I have contacts in Wyoming and could easily have found a good local contractor to help me choose and renovate a property, but because Oldrich (my contractor) has been so helpful and so clear, he became the only logical option for me.  We hopped on a plane in late October, selected the right properties and put in offers.  Thanks to Oldrich, I got the house I wanted, in the areas I wanted, for less than half the going rate.  We’re planning the renovations this week, and the next week he and a crew will head back to Cheyenne to get it done.

Bottom line:  because Oldrich listened to my question and offered to help beyond a simple answer to that question, I’m getting the result I want and he’s getting additional business that he would not have had otherwise.  We both leave happy.

What does this story have to do with legal business development?  Simple:  there’s always another opportunity to assist a client (or former client), but you have to be prepared to identify and seize the opportunity.  Sometimes you’ll get more billable work, sometimes you’ll be able to make a referral to another lawyer, and sometimes you’ll be of assistance in some other way.  One thing is for sure:  when you watch for opportunities and lend help, you’ll build relationships with your clients.

What can you do to identify an opportunity to help a client?

  1. Initiate conversations with your clients (and former clients) so that you are in a position to know what’s going on in their businesses and lives.  If you rely exclusively on the representation and cease communication when it’s completed, you won’t be privy to other circumstances in which you could help.  Note that, of course, not every client will want to engage in conversation.  Some clients will want a transaction rather than a relationship.  Even so, stand ready in case an opening appears.
  2. Listen and clarify.  Often, a client will ask a question (as I did of my contractor) that suggests the need for some additional assistance.  If you’re busy, it’s easy to answer the question without exploring the underlying context that could reveal the need.  The better approach is, of course, to ask any questions necessary to be sure you understand the situation.
  3. Determine how you can best help.  Sometimes that’s offering additional legal assistance.  Be clear that doing so in the appropriate situation is a service to your client, and don’t fall into the trap of feeling awkward.  Otherwise, offer referrals or contacts, and be prepared to follow up.

While these steps are simple, many lawyers are so focused on the matter on their desk that they fail to notice hints of other needs.  Others feel such discomfort with selling that they hold back on picking up on a potential need and offering help.  And yet others fail to make it a practice to keep in close enough touch with clients and former clients, eliminating the opportunity to offer help before it even starts.

Ask yourself these questions…  How open are you to hints (intentional or otherwise) that clients drop and questions they ask?  Do you have a process that allows you to stay in touch with former clients and periodically check to see what’s going on with them?  How comfortable are you with offering help, and is your network strong enough that you know or can identify someone who can help your client if their need is outside the scope of your practice?

You’ve Got to Conquer Your Resistance. Here’s How.


Until recently, I was most familiar with Steven Pressfield as the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance
, though he has written a number of other well-received books.  And then a year ago, I ran across The War of Art.  Curious, since I’d just finished The Art of War, I started reading and found myself drawn into a world that I quickly recognized as my own.

“It’s not the writing part that’s hard.
What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

“Most of us have two lives.  The life we live, and
the unlived life within us.  Between the two lies Resistance.”

Pressfield’s thesis is that we all have something within us that both seeks and runs from expression.  The book is written expressly for creatives, but even a cursory read reveals that it applies to everyone who has a big goal or calling of some sort.  Pressfield speaks specifically to divinely-inspired genius, and the latter part of the book delves into the role of the divine in genius and talent.  Whatever the source of this talent, however, Pressfield’s focus and his brilliance lies in explaining the role of Resistance and how to recognize and ultimately vanquish it.

Pressfield defines Resistance as “the enemy within”, a “repelling force” that “prevents us from doing our work”.  Resistance comes in many forms:  procrastination, personal drama, and “plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work”.  As I read, it became clear to me that “our work” refers equally to writing or any other form of art and to the work of practicing law, including building a book of business.

In The War of Art, Pressfield introduces the pro, meaning one who combats Resistance and is determined to do the work.  The pro knows that “if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.  The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished.  The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone.  He stays at work.”  In Turning Pro, Pressfield further distinguishes the amateur from the pro and offers insight into making the shift.

The concept of Resistance (and Pressfield’s specific identification of its dangers) prompted me to read The War of Art through a lawyer’s eyes.  As I did, I discovered that Pressfield describes almost every one of the key mistakes I see among would-be rainmakers.  For example:

  • Would-be rainmakers often plunge headfirst into activity, frantically doing everything that seems like it might lead to new business.  Pressfield identifies the cause of this hyperactivity as Resistance:  “Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion.  It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity.  We will hit the wall.  We will crash.”  Instead of the pedal-to-the-metal approach, he counsels, look on the work as a marathon, and prepare for the long haul.
  • Likewise, engaging in over-the-top activity leaves little time for study and developing skills.  Like firing up a new gadget without reading any of the instructions, jumping from one activity to another can yield superficial success but will never lead to the level of success that results from truly mastering skills.  “The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”
  • Fear can paralyze the aspiring rainmaker, resulting in too much planning and little, if any, action.  We lawyers don’t often talk about fear in a professional setting, but the truth is that stepping up to build a book of business can arouse fears of saying or doing the wrong thing, looking dumb, seeming pushy or desperate, being rejected, being perceived as unprofessional, and so much more.  Preparation can reduce some of those fears, but as Pressfield observes, anyone who succeeds in doing the work “knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he’ll be okay.”  The only way out of fear is to move through it.

What’s in it for lawyers?  The War of Art and Turning Pro both address a problem that often goes unaddressed in the business literature.  Self-sabotage is rampant, and Pressfield nails both the why and the solution in his description of Resistance.

While you may not feel that your practice rises to the level of a calling, committing fully to becoming a rainmaker (through study, planning, and action) requires deep dedication to the goal and a compelling reason to continue despite the inevitable setbacks and difficulties.  Success requires conquering Resistance.

Nearly every successful author adheres to the discipline of daily writing.  Even if the writing for the day is dreadful, the act of writing makes the flashes of inspiration possible.

Parallels exist for every pursuit you might imagine.  In the context of business development, daily activity ensures that something happens each day.  On some days, that something may be fairly meaningless, but showing up and doing the work every single day creates the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time to meet a key contact or to have a conversation with a potential client just after an unmet legal need has popped up.

The War of Art and Turning Pro are poetic, juicy books that might be best consumed on vacation or over a glass of wine.  They speak to the mind, but they influence the heart.  Having read the books, you will be better able to identify and combat Resistance.  You’ll also find yourself inspired by the drama that Pressfield describes.  Although the books are somewhat light on step-by-step “how to” instructions, you’ll find gems throughout.

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, www.SECActions.com, 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 www.veritaslex.com in Washington, DC and can be reached at (240) 308 0337 or tarrows@verizon.net. 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 tarrows@verizon.net 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?

Under pressure? Don’t get rattled.

I noticed another lesson in the Olympics last night.  I watched the 400m relays and saw the U.S. men’s and women’s teams disqualified for dropping the baton.  The men quit running after the drop, but the women’s team anchor Lauryn Williams picked up the baton and ran the rest of the race.  It was hard to watch the drops and the runners’ responses, knowing how hard the athletes had trained and that one slip terminated any hope of winning.  I wondered if the women knew that the men had dropped the baton and, if so, if they were shaken by their teammates’ error.

Coverage cut next to the women’s 10m platform diving.  Although the Chinese divers were considered almost a lock for gold and silver, the story behind the competition was about Laura Wilkinson, the 30-year old diver hoping to wrest a medal from competitors about half her age in this, her last competition.  She’d injured her wrist and right tricep, and her dives were sufficient only to put her in 9th place.  What I noticed (as an ignorant viewer, not even a diving enthusiast) was her spirit and composure.  Although she was clearly disappointed that her dives earned such low scores, each time she mounted the platform, she smiled genuinely and gave each dive her all.

What do these sketches have to do with lawyers?  As I watched the competitions last night, I started thinking about one of my former clients — let’s call her Jane.  When we began working together, she was second-guessing herself at every turn.  Jane had a rocky start in practice and had made some mistakes.  She perceived that everyone was waiting for her to fail, and she was determined not to fail.  (Did you catch that?  She was determined not to fail, not determined to succeed.)  Her hours were being sliced because she spent so much time trying to avoid making mistakes, and yet she made them anyway.  She was discouraged, frustrated, and fearful.  And yet, Jane knew she’d performed well in the past and wanted to do so again.

Before we began working together, Jane had already come to recognize what she called “the clutch,” the sense of fear and inadequacy that paralyzed her.  When in the grips of “the clutch,” Jane found it difficult to write for fear of saying the wrong thing.  She found it difficult to edit, for fear of missing mistakes.  And even though she’s articulate and well-spoken, she found herself stuttering and talking in circles.  The harder she tried not to make these mistakes, the worse things seemed to get.  I suggested to Jane that trying to perform well while in the clutch was unlikely to work, because the clutch is simply too strong.  Our work focused on learning how to get out of the clutch.  Here are a few ideas Jane implemented:

1.  Stop and recognize the clutch.  Name it.  There is innate power in recognizing what’s happening.

2.  Breathe.  It sounds simple, but taking a few deep breaths kicks off a string of positive physiological changes that work to counteract the effects of the clutch.

3.  Figure out what exactly is going on in the moment.  What needs to be done?  What is in incoming data?  What is the next right step?

4.  Select and take an action.  The next right step can be as small as going to get a cup of coffee or stretching.  It could be choosing to edit a brief by reading it out loud, which draws on a different part of the brain and increases the chances of catching typos and errors of grammar and logic.  Or it might be taking another deep breath, adjusting to assume a more powerful stance, and moving forward with an oral presentation.

When Jane learned to take these steps, she found that she was usually able to meet the demands of the moment.  Within a couple of months she was performing on a higher level, feeling much better about herself and her work, and sufficiently confident to make a move just a few months later to a better-fitting practice.  She tells me that “the clutch” still shows up sometimes, but that she is now able to recognize it and deal with it, and it’s no longer the paralyzer that it once was for her.

Returning to the Olympics, I’m not suggesting, of course, the the relay runners “just” got rattled, and the results show that grace under pressure won’t necessarily lead to a gold medal, either literally or figuratively.  Training, physical conditioning, and skill play huge roles.  However, knowing how to escape “the clutch” increases the opportunity for training, conditioning, and skill to shine through.