To Improve Your Law Firm, Change Its Mindset

I spend the majority of my workweek in conversations with law firm partners and associates. Again and again in our coaching sessions or in other conversations, common themes emerge. These include the following:

  • From lawyers at different levels: “I’m not someone who’s good at, or who will ever be good at, business development. I hate self-promotion, and I also don’t like asking people for things. Moreover, I’m _____ [an introvert, not part of a “power circle,” not from the “right” background, the “wrong” color/race/gender/religion/age, etc.].”

  • From senior lawyers: “Associates these days don’t take any initiative. They only do what’s explicitly asked of them. I was much more proactive when I was a junior lawyer.”

  • From junior lawyers: “The senior lawyers in my group form judgments about new associates early on. Once an associate develops a reputation, it sticks. You can’t turn it around. That’s why I picked up the phone and answered that headhunter call today. I need to make a lateral move so I can have a fresh start and a chance for success.” 

  • From law firm leadership: “We have senior partners who will not broaden their client relationships to include more junior partners. It makes it hard for our firm to do any meaningful succession planning, and we’re concerned that some of our rising stars will leave as they become frustrated by the lack of opportunity here.” 

I have come to the conclusion that that these seemingly disparate themes and sentiments actually have a common thread. It’s “Mindset.” This article is the first of a two-part series. In this article, we explore the research on Mindset and its impact on the legal profession specifically.

GROWTH MINDSET – THE RESEARCH

If you are not familiar with the research on Mindset, here’s a CliffsNotes-style version.

The concept of Mindset was popularized by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor, whose research focuses on why some people achieve success, while other people get derailed by failure and therefore never realize their potential. Dweck’s extensive research is summarized in her 2007 bestselling book, “Mindset: the New Psychology of Success.” [1] (Click here to see Dweck’s TEDx Talk on the subject.)

Dweck’s conclusion -- confirmed through many experiments, and proven to hold true across income levels, IQ, and fixed traits such as race, color, and gender -- is that the mere belief that one can improve a personal quality via effort - which Dweck calls a “Growth Mindset,” itself leads to higher achievement. By corollary, the opposite belief - that a personal quality is fixed - which Dweck calls a “Fixed Mindset,” itself leads to lower achievement. [2] Essentially, someone who believes that talent is innate (nature) will perform worse than someone who believes talent can be developed (nurture). [3] Dweck’s research confirms the old adage: “Whether you think you can or you can't... you're probably right.”

Neuroscientific research confirms that the act of working hard on a problem actually increases intelligence by developing additional neural pathways. Images taken of the brains of people working at a challenging task show that more brain areas light up in people whose answers to questions indicate a Growth Mindset than in people whose answers indicate a Fixed Mindset.

Significantly, and of particular relevance to law firms, businesses and other organizations, a person’s Fixed or Growth Mindset about his own given quality usually extends to his perceptions of other people as well.

Dweck’s research has been applied in the business world (as well as in the arenas of education and sports). Bill Gates cited her book as one of the most influential he’s read, [4] and Dweck has been invited to share her work at Google and other leading companies. [5] While Dweck is still researching whether there is a direct correlation between an organization’s Mindset and its financial results, [6] what has been shown (in a 2015 study conducted by Dweck and consulting firm Senn Delaney) is that organizations with a Growth Mindset benefit from more trusting, engaged and loyal employees; greater innovation, risk-taking and creativity; stronger ethics, and a more positive view of employees by their supervisors. [7]

THE MINDSET OF THE LEGAL PROFESSION

So, what of our own industry? The legal profession in many ways promotes a Fixed Mindset.

Consider law school. Law school grades are typically graded on a curve and based on a single final exam; consequently, there’s no chance for students to improve and learn, as the student’s performance is rarely, if ever, debriefed and discussed. Furthermore, career trajectories are often determined at the beginning of law school; first-year grades disproportionately dictate which summer job the person will receive (as well as whether the person will be offered a coveted spot on a journal and/or a judicial clerkship), and the summer associate experience, in turn, often determines the person’s first law job.

Once lawyers move into law practice, they find that the profession’s Fixed Mindset continues, with subtle and undesirable consequences:

  • Suboptimal Results for Clients. The associates I coach often tell me that they are afraid of looking “dumb” and/or of being considered insufficiently deferential to the more senior lawyers on their teams. So they neither ask all their questions nor offer all their opinions. This sometimes reflects poorly on them in the eyes of their senior colleagues (for example, I’m often asked to coach lawyers with the goal of helping them portray more confidence and appear less deferential). Perhaps more importantly, because the team operates with less than full engagement, the team (and therefore the client) may be deprived of a diversity of ideas and innovation.

  • Lost Rainmaking Opportunities. A common refrain I hear is, “I’m not a good networker,” or “I’m not good at developing business; I just want to do the legal work.” Many lawyers self-select out of any business development (BD) activities based on these Fixed Mindsets. Yet, networking and BD are concrete skills that can be taught, practiced, and internalized – by anyone, regardless of any kind of personal quality. BD coaching, whether it is individual- or group-based, often focuses extensively on Mindset (in addition to skill-building), since it’s quite often a Fixed Mindset that blocks lawyers from realizing their full BD potential.

  • Lawyer Stress, Depression, and General Lack of Well-Being. Significant numbers of highly credentialed, overachieving lawyers expend lots of physical and emotional energy trying to prove that they are smart enough to “belong” in the ranks of their colleagues and peers. The result, which research shows can be correlated with a Fixed Mindset, [8] is an ongoing struggle with perfectionism and/or “imposter syndrome.” The legal profession’s individual and organizational costs of the resulting stress (which can lead to depression and substance abuse) are well established. [9]

  • Thwarted Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Efforts. In my experience, the already-common perfectionism / imposter syndrome issues referenced above can be even more pronounced among underrepresented groups (e.g., female and diverse attorneys) – the same groups that law firms are increasingly under pressure to recruit, retain and promote. Research shows that when Fixed Mindsets (on the part of other lawyers and/or the underrepresented lawyers themselves) cause them to feel like they don’t “belong,” many in underrepresented groups either opt out of or else dilute or silence their authentic and most talented selves. [10]

  • Talent Drain and Derailed Careers. Law firms’ assignment and evaluation processes often result in a snowball effect of “groupthink” Fixed Mindset, as one senior lawyer’s impression that an associate is not capable (or not driven, or not attentive to detail, or anything else) becomes orthodoxy at the firm. There’s often little room for that lawyer to grow and to rehabilitate his or her personal brand, as other senior lawyers avoid staffing that person on their matters or deals. The result is either (a) underperforming lawyers who don’t learn and grow, or (b) retention problems as otherwise good lawyers feel insecure after making a mistake and unilaterally decide that it’s necessary to have a fresh start elsewhere.

  • Senior Partners Who Won’t Retire or Allow for Succession Planning. Many law firms struggle with bottlenecks in their partnership ranks. This can frustrate the firm’s efforts both to promote a newer generation of lawyers into leadership positions and to facilitate the transfer of institutional client relationships to the firm’s more junior partners. Whereas many lawyers “of a certain age” previously retired as a matter of course, that is no longer the case. While there are many reasons for this (including financial necessity and loosening of mandatory retirement requirements), in my experience, this is also attributable to many lawyers’ rigid attachment to their “lawyer” identity and, specifically, to the inability to imagine themselves doing anything else (i.e., a Fixed Mindset). That’s why I often hear, “I have enough money to retire now; I just don’t know what I’d do with myself if I did. I’m not qualified to do anything else.”

In the next article, we will explore ideas for consideration by law firms and other organizations that may encourage a Mindset that will optimize their talent pools, increase lawyer satisfaction and ultimately, enhance profits.


Endnotes

[1] Dweck also gave a 2014 TEDx Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve?language=en] and wrote a 2016 follow-up article in the Harvard Business Review to address some misconceptions about her work. [https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means]

 [2] In one of Dweck’s experiments, she had students take a challenging non-verbal test and then commented on their scores, telling some, “Wow, you got X correct, you must have worked really hard” and telling others, “Wow, you got X correct, you must be really smart.” Then she gave all the students a second challenge. The results were fascinating. The students who were praised for their effort performed better (they stuck with it longer and got higher scores; they also measured higher levels of enjoyment). The students who had been praised for their intelligence actually dropped in performance and spent less time on the challenges; interestingly, they also lied about their scores when later asked to describe the scores to others.  

[3] The reason for this is that someone with a Fixed Mindset spends considerable effort and energy trying to appear “smart” (or whatever label is at issue) and therefore avoids situations that might allow her to grow but risk her losing that label. In the case of the label “smart,” for example, the behavior that the person avoids might include learning something new, trying something challenging for the first time, offering a nonconforming opinion, or proposing an original idea that might be criticized. In contrast, a person with a Growth Mindset is more willing to take intellectual and other risks because she believes, “I can learn and develop, and if I’m not successful right away, I probably just need more instruction and/or practice.” These two mindsets are applied to other people as well as to oneself.

[4] https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/bill-gates-reads-50-books-per-year-but-only-these-6-leadership-books-made-his-list-of-recommendations.html

[5] https://talksat.withgoogle.com/talk/the-growth-mindset

[6] https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-companies-can-profit-from-a-growth-mindset

[7] https://www.senndelaney.com/SD_growthmindsetstudy.html

[8] Dweck’s experiments at a top university showed that students with a Fixed Mindset suffered from higher levels of depression; they ruminated and became paralyzed by their problems and setbacks (since they believed that there was nothing they could do to change them). In contrast, students with a Growth Mindset – even when feeling miserable about their problem or setback – took action to confront their problems, which in turn had the effect of alleviating or eliminating the setback/problem.

[9] See the ABA’s 2017 Report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. [https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/task_force_report.html ]

[10] In one of Dweck’s experiments, the math test scores of girls with Fixed Mindsets decreased after those girls were told that females are not good at math, while the test scores of girls with Growth Mindsets who were told the same thing did not. Dweck posits that a Fixed Mindset causes people to buy into stereotypes about themselves, while a Growth Mindset allows people to resist stereotypes by seeing a stereotype for what it is – others’ Fixed Mindset view of them; thus, the Growth Mindset person can confront it with all of his or her “abilities and confidence intact.”