How To Cultivate A Growth Mindset Within A Law Firm

In the first article, we reviewed the research on Mindset and how it impacts the legal industry. So how can law firms reconcile the psychology of a Growth Mindset with the realities of their organization’s business needs?  Here are some ideas to start a conversation to help your firm move toward a Growth Mindset.

  1. Start at the Top. Every organization’s Mindset starts with its leaders; it’s virtually impossible to change a Fixed Mindset culture when that culture is determined by Fixed Mindset leaders. Research shows that the most effective leaders (in terms of innovation and employee loyalty and engagement) are those who are willing to “walk the walk” by talking openly about Mindset and its corollaries: mistakes, failure, empowerment, and opportunities. If a firm’s leadership can influence its other lawyers to understand, adopt, and show their support for a Growth Mindset, the firm as a whole can harness its talent more effectively.

  2. Explicitly Teach a Growth Mindset. Explain the Growth Mindset – both the “what” and the “why,” and the organization’s commitment to it – to lawyers and staff. Research on university students has shown that as little as two 30-minute training sessions to explain the neurobiology (i.e., IQ is malleable, and the brain is like a muscle that grows stronger and builds better neural connections via practice and struggle) can significantly boost achievement, not to mention engagement [1]. Stanford University offers some excellent free online resources for teachers and parents - - imagine how these could be successfully translated into a law firm context. Firms could link Mindset training explicitly to initiatives promoting lawyer well-being and innovation, two concepts that have become priorities for the legal profession in recent years.

  3. Hire Better. Dweck highlights the perils of prioritizing pedigree over potential, and of what she calls a “culture of genius” over a “culture of development” [2]. One of her key findings concerns the different hiring processes used by major league sports teams. All teams typically ask player candidates, “To what do your attribute your success?” The most successful teams value answers along the lines of “I practiced all the time” while the less successful teams accept answers along the lines of “I was born with this talent.” Another finding is that job candidates who ended up being the most successful were those who were able to explain what they had learned or how they had grown from their challenges and failures. Using this information, law firms can teach their lawyers how to ask more effective interview questions so they can better determine whether a candidate has a Growth Mindset. By hiring more growth-oriented lawyers, law firms can not only reduce attrition, but can ultimately cultivate more of a Growth Mindset culture within their organizations.

  4. Don’t be a Superhero. One of the simplest ways to promote a Growth Mindset is for more senior lawyers to share their “war stories” of mistakes made and lessons learned. One thing my colleagues and I hear repeatedly from our coachees is that the more senior partners (and even the firm’s leaders, as the case may be when we coach newer leaders) “don’t remember what it’s like” and that those people “never made mistakes.” By debunking that myth and showing what was learned from those mistakes, new lawyers/leaders can more easily envision themselves as successful in those roles.

  5. Invite “Dumb” Questions. The idea that there is no such thing as a dumb question is an organizational cliché. However, there is power in encouraging (and honoring) a “no question too foolish” policy. Undoubtedly some senior lawyers will hate this idea…but that’s a subject for a different post. In the meantime, law firms can reward their senior lawyers who encourage and respond positively to questions. Firms might also consider offering a regular “No Dumb Questions” lunch where junior lawyers can ask all their questions in an educational and non-judgmental environment. (This obviously requires a “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas…”-type pact and enforcement to the extent possible.)

  6. Differentiate. “Differentiation” is a key component of progressive child education; good teachers know that not everyone learns in the same way so they teach material in multifaceted ways. Law firms can learn a lesson (pun intended) from teachers. All people – including lawyers - have different learning, processing, and communication styles. By fostering both self-awareness and awareness of these differences in individuals (for example, by using assessments and team workshops), law firms can gently dispel the myth that there is “one right way” to do things and that people who do otherwise are either “wrong” or less capable (i.e., a Fixed Mindset). As just one example, the gregarious rainmaking managing partner who views his more introverted colleagues poorly because they do not successfully navigate (or, in some cases, even attend) major networking events might change his perspective and observe more success if he were to appreciate their differences and encourage them to do BD-related activities that are more in keeping with their personalities. (For more on this topic, I recommend the excellent book, “Quiet,” written by former corporate lawyer Susan Cain, about her experience as an introvert in a world dominated by extroverts.)

  7. Manage the Partner Talent Pool with Voluntary Career Coaching. In my experience coaching lawyers through career transitions, once the door is cracked open for a lawyer to consider the possibility that he/she has viable career options besides law firm lawyer, that lawyer can be nudged out of his Fixed Mindset through coaching. At least three positive results often flow from this: (a) the lawyers who remain at the firm are the ones who want to be there, (b) “rightsizing” for the firm as inertia is set aside and lawyers who deep down want to move on, do so, and (3) more connected alumni who feel positively toward the firm for its role in facilitating professional fulfillment.

  8. Build a Coaching Culture. The raison d’etre of coaching is to help people develop Growth Mindsets and then to take actions accordingly. Organizations with a “coaching culture” understand this. Law firms are increasingly embracing coaching as an important professional development tool and some are moving toward creating coaching cultures where partners and others are trained in basic coaching skills. The result is a more growth-oriented, less fear-driven, more intention-based culture that ultimately benefits both the organization and the people who work there.

Building a Growth Mindset legal organization won’t happen overnight, but steps such as those listed above can set the wheels in motion.  


[1] In one experiment, Dweck showed that workshops teaching students the neurobiology of Growth Mindset – that the brain is like a muscle that changes and strengthens with use -- created even greater improvement in academic performance than a study skills workshop of equivalent time. She concluded that because the students were not taught to think differently about their minds, they were not motivated to put the skills into practice.