Ever feel stuck? Perhaps you've tried the "best practices" for
finding a new job or getting new client, but nothing seems to work.
What can we learn as lawyers from outside the legal industry and
the design firm, IDEO to up our game and innovate? Here are five
steps that make a difference.
Step One: Observe without judgment. Lawyers
think quickly. We examine a scenario, identify the legal issues,
draw conclusions, and then advocate a position. Observing without
judgment is different. Here's an example (Client identifiers have
been changed in all examples).
Randy joined a mid-size firm right out of law school. He
performed well and after five years, transitioned to a large firm
as a senior associate. Two years later he became an equity partner.
After 10 years of success as a service partner, he began to notice
a decrease in work from other partners. A decrease in his base pay
and bonus followed. Since rainmaking wasn't among the decision
criteria the led to his promotion, he was surprised to hear that
his low billable hours and the absence of personal clients was the
reason. When he received a harsh warning several months later, he
was shocked. If things didn't turn around, he could expect a
demotion to non-equity the following year.
He searched and found partners in another office willing to send
him work and a few new clients and current clients ready to give
him more work. His efforts were squashed. The firm declined the few
new clients he presented (for different reasons) and refused to
give him credit for the new work from existing clients. Eventually,
he was told to leave. If he cooperated, he could negotiate the time
and terms of his departure. He felt betrayed, hurt, and desperate
to find an acceptable solution ASAP.
Randy's law firm, like most firms, expected every partner to be
an effective rainmaker, yet Randy disliked business development.
Randy's initial certainty, to find another firm that would
appreciate him for his exceptional legal skills, obscured his
strong dislike of business development and the small and
unpredictable size of his book of business. His belief that equity
partnership was more prestigious than being in-house obscured
opportunities outside of law firms. His SWOT (his Strengths and
Weaknesses and the external environment's Opportunities and
Threats) analysis was laden with judgment. Only when set aside his
judgment and focused on the data did he notice great opportunities
for his transition. How did he do that?
Randy observed without any judgment his feelings. He
didn't like business development. He examined his judgment and
realized his bias about status. He re-thought what his career
transition task was and took his coach's advice that it was to
collect offers, rather than make decisions about a hypothetical
"right" position. Then he expanded his search and gave every
opportunity that came his way a fair chance.
He also observed the new opportunities without judgment. The law
firms that were extending offers expected him to generate a certain
amount of business annually. Although the in-house jobs on first
glance seemed to pay less, a closer look revealed stock options and
bonus potential that put the salary on par with what he was making
at his firm. He chose to go in house and now loves his job, his
salary, and his life.
Where are you jumping to conclusions and stopping yourself from
finding your next business development or career opportunity?
Step Two: Test your assumptions to get to bolder
ideas. We make assumptions constantly. Many are helpful.
Some are not. Let go of the assumptions that are keeping you stuck
with a rich dose of curiosity. Why aren't your business development
efforts working? What are your assumptions about how business is
Patricia's steady stream of clients for her trusts and estates
firm was drying up. She assumed that people didn't understand the
importance and value of doing the right end-of-life planning. So,
she tried harder to make the business case on her website and in
her elevator speech with little success.
Patricia assumed she was reaching the right people with the
right message. Her assumptions about business development were
wrong. When she tested her assumptions with "What if" questions,
things began to change. What if client development isn't the
process I'm using (of pushing out information anywhere and
everywhere)? What if it is something different?
When she changed her thinking about business development, she
became curious about where her target market clients would be and
what they needed to hear to be influenced to hire her.
She realized that senior centers werewhere her clients would be
and that they only needed to hear a short presentation and really
wanted the chance to ask questions. She began speaking at every
senior center within a 50-mile radius of her office. Her
presentations were short, followed by a longer question and answer
session. She captured email addresses in exchange for subscribing
to her newsletter. She, her programs, and newsletter audience grew
in popularity. Things began to change.
When your efforts aren't producing the results you want, try
identifying the assumptions behind your actions and change them.
Changing your assumptions will change what you are doing.
Step Three: Gather and analyze data to get a deeper
understanding of yourself and your target market.
Regardless of whether you work in-house, in a firm, or looking for
a new job, your target market is the group of people for whom you
are or want to be working for. It's your job to construct a bridge
between you and them. Effective bridges tap into your brand and the
brand your target market wants. Everyone has a brand, even if they
can't articulate what it is. Effective brands are authentic and
aligned with the interests and concerns of their target market.
When applying for jobs, Sam's "target market," of one was the
medium-size firm where he now was an associate. It was a safe
choice. When he arrived, he learned about the work-flow portal that
partners consulted to find available associates. It was safe to do
what was asked and deliver more than expected. However, there was a
lack of variety in his assignments. He heard about interesting
cases, but they never came his way. He had never considered asking
to work on them and had never thought about his brand. Waiting for
partners to approach him affected his brand. He developed a
reputation as a reliable associate among the few partners that gave
him work, but not an enthusiastic, curious, driven lawyer.
He began to wonder whether he was too timid and losing out on
opportunities. Was there another firm that he would like better?
Were there other matters that were more interesting? What could he
do differently to find out?
Avoiding risks and playing it safe left him in a position of not
really knowing what he wanted and or what the partners expected.
Sam needed to collect the missing data.
First, he looked inside and asked:
- What kind of lawyer do I want to be?
- Where do I really want to work?
- What kinds of people do I want to be working with?
- What type of work do I really want to be doing?
- How am I holding myself back?
Next, he looked outside and collected data about the clients and
matters represented by the partners in his firm, the different
management, mentoring, and work-styles of the different partners,
and the criteria being used by different partners to select
associates, evaluate them, and advance their careers.
Then, he looked forward and planned. He decided to ask for a
role on projects that interested him. He realized that doing so
would help develop a favorable reputation and learn more about his
interests. He decided to seek out partners that he could learn from
as mentors. He realized that these partners would eventually
evaluate his performance. He wanted them to view his brand as
curious, eager to learn, help others, and succeed.
Don't be afraid to ask questions and explore new opportunities,
even if they seem risky. It's the only way to learn who you are,
what you want, and which opportunities will be mutually beneficial
to you and your clients.
Step Four: Develop empathy. Empathy is a
competency. It is the ability to see the world, with all of its
challenges and opportunities, through the lens of someone, who
experiences it differently than you do. It gives you a deeper
understanding of the needs of your clients and referral sources,
how to become more influential, and how to be a better lawyer.
Empathy helps us to see more than what is perceptible through our
Marilyn knew she was delivering great work to her boss, Devlin.
She was also expected to contribute to the firm's marketing and
business development. She loved and excelled at one-to-one
networking events, while she was less enthusiastic about publishing
articles and delivering presentations. Her problem was that Devlin
cared more about the latter. Marilyn tried to persuade Devlin that
her networking efforts were more important for the firm. She didn't
understand why Devlin cared more about writing and speaking, until
In a chance "aha" moment, she realized that the firm was
evaluating Devlin on the number of publications and presentations
delivered by his department. She wasn't making his life any easier
with her advocacy. This sparked her creative thinking. Ted, who was
in the same department, loved to write, but hated networking and
giving presentations. They struck a deal to help each other. At the
end of that year, she received one of her highest evaluations
Are you thinking about the interests and concerns of the people
you are trying to influence? When you do, how does that change your
thinking and behavior?
Step Five: Share insights to inspire innovation in
yourself and others. Creativity is about putting ideas
together in new ways that take you in unanticipated directions.
When new products, services or processes result; that's innovation.
When they have a practical application, that's a home run.
Leadership in Niche LLC, a 125-lawyer firm with 25 partners was
a committee of three partners, which changed every three years.
Niche paid a consulting firm a hefty fee to develop a formal
strategic plan. which they couldn't advance. Frustration,
disappointment, and anger abounded.
At a retreat, one partner observed that none of the partners
actually wanted to lead the firm. That sparked an insight from a
second partner. The leadership committee wasn't really leading.
They only managed the day-to-day business. A third insight
followed. Every practice group has different interests and concerns
about the firm strategy. An idea, to appoint a temporary strategy
leadership committee comprising one partner from each of the five
practice groups to address their stalled strategy plan, arose from
these insights. This temporary leadership group was able to talk
about the conflict among the practice groups created by the formal
plan created and how to resolve it.
Share insights and ideas with your colleagues to spark
creativity, even when the insight seems paradoxical, like "our
leaders aren't leading," because that's often what sparks a
When your career or business feels stuck, you need to jar it
free to move forward again. Use one or all five of these design
thinking steps to help you spark creativity and turn a frustrating
problem into an unexpected solution.