Jumpstart your career or practice in five steps

Issue November/December 2016 By Susan Letterman White

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 developed?

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 limited lens.

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 she asked.

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 ever.

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 creative solution.

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.

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