Summary: The failure of a law firm begins with the standards the leadership sets and accepts. Learn what to look for so it can be corrected before it is too late.
We all want to win. The extent that some are willing to reach to win can burn bridges and ruin relationships. The opposite is true as well. There are too many, especially in the legal world that should be succeeding but are failing. Leadership expert John Hamm suggests that there is a problem called “failing elegantly.”
Hamm explains this concept as, “Failing elegantly is a very sophisticated and veiled set of coping behaviors by individuals, the purpose of which is to avoid the oncoming train of embarrassment when the cover comes off the lousy results that we’d prefer no one ever see. In other words, it’s a fancy way to lose.” In a sense, he believes this happens when individuals no longer believe they can be successful. Instead, they invest their efforts and energy into how best they can fail. Lawyers often fall into this trap because the manner of their work is so important and stressful and they don’t always measure up to where they hope to be.
He further notes, “There is no obvious moment when the danger of failure comes riding in on a pale horse. But there is that moment, and everyone can feel it, when a project or the commitment to the promised results enters the risk zone – when challenges arise, and there are no clear answers or remedies. It is precisely at this fork in the road – when egos and reputations get shaky – that leaders must recognize the signs of an impending crisis of confidence and intervene with specific messages and actions aimed at getting everyone back into the winner’s mindset.” Law firms are greatly responsible for how their attorneys perform. They may be placing unrealistic expectations and projects on the attorney’s desk without proper consideration of what is required of that attorney to receive the anticipated results.
What is driving this failure can easily be traced back to leadership mistakes. Here are some of the mistakes leaders make that put their team at risk to fail:
- Set impossible goals
Every law firm needs goals to work towards together. Creating goals that are near impossible or actually impossible to reach will only discourage your team from trying. Set benchmarks for your team to reach, building up to the primary goal. Leaders must know the difference between a goal that challenges their team to excel and one that humiliates and disheartens the team from actually trying. Hamm explains, “While top performers are inspired by ‘stretch’ goals that seem slightly out of their reach, smart team members will not waste their time training for a ‘three-minute mile.’ Goals that are clearly beyond any reasonable confidence of achievement are worse than easy goals – they actually disengage your team’s energy. The predictable and natural response is ‘Why Bother?’”
- See Goal Setting for more information.
- Let problems slide
Even the best workers may struggle with something such as transitioning an idea into reality. Hamm notes, “Leaders must develop an eye and ear for this weakness – and must try to listen for it in every conversation and look for it in every ops review. They must relentlessly redirect energy to the hard problems, realizing that it is human nature to drift from the tough stuff in favor of more emotionally fulfilling and easier project modules.”
See the following articles for more information:
- How You Deal with Problems Will Determine the Quality of Your Life
- The Solution to Problems Lies within Each Problem
- Allow excuses
Allowing excuses to become common day occurrences weakens your firm. There may be valid reasons why something doesn’t get done. However, allowing these same excuses to be repeated over and over again dulls the credibility of valid excuses. When an attorney is in the mode of “failing elegantly,” they don’t bother to check excuses.
- See Take Responsibility for more information.
- Allow laziness
Nobody wants to be the tough guy, but allowing sloppiness in your attorneys’ work doesn’t benefit anyone. The law firm ends up with incomplete, incorrect, and just lazy work, affecting the reputation and credibility of the firm to their clients. The attorney learns they can get away with not putting their best effort into assignments without consequence. Hamm explains, “High reliability organizations never allow sloppiness, because they know it equals death. Unusually excellent leaders have a zero tolerance policy for sloppiness.”
- See The Power of Resistance in Your Career and Life for more information.
- Encouraging only good news
Leaders may give the feeling that they only want the good news, prompting staff to edit out the bad and fluff up the good data. Receiving accurate, objective data should be the expectation, so it’s the leadership’s responsibility to make sure their team knows that.
- Measuring the wrong stuff
As the Crosby Quality Institute suggests, “You will get what you inspect, not what you expect.” Turning attention and time to things that are not important takes the priority away from the things that do matter. Hamm explains, “Measuring what matters is perhaps the very highest use of leadership authority in leading the domain of execution. Once the plan is set, the resources and funding are committed, and the action starts, there is mostly just feedback and response to the unknowns of the battle to be managed. The only thing you must have, to make the real-time course connections that will inevitably be required, is good data. Invest in the design and the machinery required to gather, analyze, and present the data you need – quickly, accurately, and easily.”
- See Twelve Tips for Doing Associate Performance Reviews for more information.
- Accepting the wrong commitment
Using the analogy of boiling a frog by raising the temperature one degree at a time, your firm won’t realize how far gone it is until it is dead. Allowing the above factors to be acceptable practices puts your firm in a dangerous position to fail quickly. As Hamm explains, “When you’ve already begun to distance yourself from the absolute commitment to winning, you start blaming everything and everyone – your teammates, the strategy, bad luck, crooked competitors, insufficient support, and, most of all, the man or woman in charge.” He continues, “The passive acceptance of failure, and the rationalization that always goes with it, is a cancer that can begin anywhere in the organization, then metastasize to every office, including your own.” Prevent this from happening by establishing clear standards of behavior for everyone to follow, including the consequences of violating such standards. Control these expectations with continuous and open communication.
See the following articles for more information:
- Top 10 Unique Challenges Faced by Law Firm HR Departments
- 3 Ways You Can Gain Much Greater Support and Trust from Your Employees
- 10 Ways to Future Proof Your Law Firm Today
- 10 Ways Law Firm Managing Partners Can Increase Profitability
- 8 Marketing Mistakes Your Law Firm Might Be Making
- Eight Ways Law Firms Usually Stifle Creativity: How to Encourage Innovation in a Law Firm
- Employee Productivity and Collaboration in Law Firms