Legal training ill equips lawyers to solicit, understand, and incorporate feedback into their work. As a result, the profession struggles to respond to the profound changes it faces. Savvy lawyers will update their legal training and complement it with a different, more growth-oriented outlook. These lawyers will evolve and emerge as stronger client service providers. On the other hand, those who assume that legal training is sufficient and that the world will continue to defer to lawyers on how they can best serve their clients could be ensuring their own extinction.
Challenges On All Fronts
Lawyers face challenges at two levels. On the macro level, we are competing with emerging technology, new market entrants, and new models of service delivery. On the firm level, partners compete with one another for origination credit while associates compete for billable work with preferred partners, often to the detriment of the collective endeavor. Particularly since 2008, firms also face cultural challenges in the wake of lateral hiring and merger frenzies. While some of the forces creating these challenges are beyond our control, others are the natural result of the personality traits many lawyers exhibit, combined with our legal training. We fail to respond to the challenges we face because our training teaches us to spot the issues but not to develop creative solutions to them.
Introduction to Fixed Mindset
Many lawyers began the journey to law school because they loved school and the educational nourishment they received in their earlier scholastic endeavors. Many students arrive at law school after over a decade of schooling in which they performed frequent assessments and received feedback on how to improve and master a subject or task. This educational model supports students who incorporate feedback about their work to become stronger in the underlying subject matter. Before arriving at law school, students knew their teachers well and vice versa. Classmates pushed students to become stronger, better versions of themselves.
The first year of law school, though, is a completely different animal. Students learn a new language in a new way with very few opportunities—outside of the legal practice skills or legal writing programs—for feedback on their performance. Students generally do not know whether they are understanding the material. For many students, professors suddenly seem at arm’s length and—particularly as the first set of exams looms—classmates become intimidating competitors. After about three months in this environment, students sit for a multi-hour exam, which professors grade anonymously and which generates a single, immutable letter grade—the verdict of a student’s performance in a doctrinal subject area.
This training is not unique to any law school. Lawyer professional training is so uniform and so steeped in tradition that if your grandparent attended any law school in the United States, they could step foot into a first-year class now and recognize it instantly. But this training, which everyone at the helm of an American law firm has experienced—while essential and core to the legal services we provide to our clients—is incomplete, because it fails to equip lawyers to apply business principles to enhance those services.
I similarly experienced classic American legal education when I was a student at Penn Law. After I graduated, I spent 10 years practicing in three different environments—a judge’s chambers, a large law firm and a government law office. In each, the skills that separated the good lawyers from the exceptional client service providers were not legal skills—they were human skills. These skills included, among others, the ability to communicate complex issues clearly and succinctly, the ability to listen and to ensure that a client feels heard, the ability to proactively prepare to meet anticipated client needs, the ability to manage the various parts of a representation in an organized fashion and to appropriately communicate with the client about progress, and the ability to inspire confidence and enthusiasm in peers, supervisors, and direct reports.
I eventually returned to Penn Law to oversee its professional development training for students, and we are complementing students’ doctrinal legal education with education about a variety of other skills that encompass “the human element” of lawyering, including a focus on the importance of social connection, communication, problem-solving, organizational dynamics, and collaboration. Our professionalism programming also encourages students to cultivate a growth mindset during law school and beyond.
What is Growth Mindset?
Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University developed the concept of growth mindset. Dr. Dweck’s research has shown that individuals with a fixed mindset believe their talents, their abilities, and their limits are fixed—they are good at certain things and not good at other things.
Individuals with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that if they work hard, if they push through challenges, digest feedback and redouble their efforts, they can improve, get stronger, and achieve more.
Dr. Dweck’s research has shown again and again that a fixed mindset limits growth and leads to less satisfaction in pursuing endeavors. For individuals with a growth mindset, though, feedback on performance—be it academic or professional—is not the end of the story. To the contrary, it fuels that individual to become stronger. This growth leads to greater satisfaction in the underlying efforts and higher levels of self-esteem and happiness.
I can think of no starker example of a system that can create a fixed mindset than the system I described earlier—the system of 1L education. Every lawyer who practices in this country has been indoctrinated into the profession in this fashion. Legal education has traditionally focused almost exclusively on issue spotting. And while we must be able to spot issues, we must also be trained to solve problems, as well. These are two different skill sets, but combined they create a more sophisticated and helpful arsenal for our clients.
American law firms are owned exclusively by lawyers, all of whom are trained in the same fashion. The problem is that these lawyers must also be business leaders—professionals skilled in responding to shifting market conditions, new competitors and advanced technology. Legal training, though, does not alone equip lawyers with the tools they need to thrive as business leaders. This training deficiency exacerbates the kinds of challenges the legal profession is now facing—threats from automation of lawyer tasks, increased retention of work by corporate in-house counsel, and more disaggregation of legal work.
In addition to the legal education and training model we have all experienced, lawyers are a naturally conservative and risk-averse population, resistant to change. Dr. Larry Richard’s studies of lawyer personality shows that we are more skeptical than the general population—in fact, we fall in the 93rd percentile on this measure, which means that most of you reading this article are highly suspicious of its contents. We also prefer autonomy to social interaction and we are much less resilient than the general public. These personality traits make it even more challenging to grow because we are skeptical of the feedback we hear from our clients, we are unlikely to seek it out in the first place because we prefer to work autonomously, and when we do make the effort to get feedback, our low resilience makes it much more difficult to process productively.
Focus on the Past
Our work requires that we focus on the past. In litigation, we spend our days looking backward to something unpleasant that happened between our client and another party. To guide our counsel, we rely on statutes written in the past and on common law precedent—decisions courts have made in past disputes. Even in the transactional context, while we look forward toward a project or a contract execution, we rely on past deals and relationships between the parties to guide our decisions. This reliance and reference to the past is essential to our actual practice, but it can be harmful if we fail to adopt a different lens when it comes to our business. We are a profession accustomed to looking in the rearview mirror while the car is heading toward a curve.
This “perfect storm”—our fixed mindset training, our collective lawyer personalities and our constant reference to the past—impairs our ability as business leaders to adapt to the changes that are no longer merely on the horizon but have arrived and are reshaping our industry. Firms are beginning to tinker at the edges with their business models, but the firms that will thrive during this transformative moment are the ones that will take the opportunity to reexamine their work and adapt. To adapt, lawyers must seek out, understand, and respond to the most powerful fuel for growth—client feedback. Using this fuel, lawyers must look ahead and use this information to inform an evolving practice.
Feedback is the best way for businesses to learn what is working, what isn’t and how to do more of the former and less of the latter. But having a complete picture of the client experience is key to knowing how to improve moving forward. Responding to incomplete information can result in making poor business decisions and many lawyers do just that: many lawyers assume that clients are satisfied because the firm has achieved a certain legal result and because the client paid the bill. Lawyers frequently fail to solicit feedback because they believe that gathering feedback is too challenging without a structured system, that it distracts too much from billable time and because they believe the clients do not fully understand the work they perform (even when those clients spent years performing similar services as firm attorneys).
But gathering feedback can be easy and efficient and it does not require a robust feedback system. It requires two things—an effective communication medium (phone, email, or even text) and a willingness to listen. And it can take less than .1 billable hours to reach out to a client and ask, simply, “What am I doing well? What could I do to serve you better?” Of course, if your firm has the resources and the will, the sky is the limit with respect to how sophisticated your outreach and how expansive your understanding of client feedback can be. But tight budgets and limited technology solutions are poor excuses for a failure to learn from your client—one human being to another—about how you can improve your service. And, in many cases, you may be surprised by the things that will make your client happier. Frequently, client feedback has nothing to do with the legal work you are performing but instead relates to how you can be a better communicator, listener, project planner, presenter, or budget manager.
Make 2018 a Year for Growth
Our industry is changing every minute. We can sit around and listen to news of the changes, repeating mantras that make us comfortable in our complacency: “They’ve been saying for decades that the end of law firms is upon us and we’re still here!;” “Lawyers are different—we can’t be disrupted.” These dogmatic responses to rapid change will be of little comfort to lawyers and law firms who find themselves desperate for work in a business they no longer understand. For the savvy lawyer who wants to reconnect with the growth-oriented person who applied to law school so many years ago, though, 2018 can be the year to adopt a new, future-oriented, growth mindset. Seek client feedback openly and earnestly. Strive to respond in ways big and small. Embrace the challenge of being an entrepreneurial lawyer. Update your legal training and complement it with the outlook of a nimble professional, hungry to get better and to stay ahead of the curve. A very happy New Year to all of you—may it be the best one yet!
About the Author
Jennifer Leonard is the director of the Center on Professionalism at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, which designs programs to help prepare students for success in the evolving legal landscape. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @PennLawCOP.