I recently read a sentence (in a non-public email, so I won’t cite the source) suggesting that most lawyers and law firms are opportunists, not strategists. That brought me to a dead stop. Lawyers are trained (and generally self-selected as well) to think logically and analytically, and most lawyers put a high stock on strategic thinking. In our own businesses and lives, though, does strategy get more play than opportunity? Should it?
My first stop in thinking about this topic was to visit a dictionary, where I was reminded that (at least according to the American Heritage Dictionary), opportunistic means “[t]aking immediate advantage, often unethically, of any circumstance of possible benefit.” Other definitions of related terms (opportunist, opportunism) had the same taint of shady dealing. I don’t know whether that connotation was intended by the author of the original assertion; for the purposes of this discussion I’ll assume not and will interpret the comment to suggest that lawyers and law firm rely on favorable circumstances that present themselves more than strategy.
In January, I spoke on a panel at Duke Law School’s Leadership Symposium. Our topic revolved around leadership development, but each panelist commented on the opportunities that presented themselves along our career paths and suggested that the ability to recognize and grab opportunities led us to where we are now. That’s opportunism (again, without an unethical bent), though with a strategic underlay: “Chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur lectured.
I recently talked with a coaching client about her plan to attend a particular bar meeting. Although she isn’t actively looking for a new position, she’s sensing that she doesn’t want to stay with her current firm in the longterm, so she’s seeking alternatives. When I asked what her intentions are for the meeting, she said she hoped to meet someone who might be a good future contact. Again, that’s sort of a blend between strategic and opportunistic; strategic in putting herself in the right place to meet potentially helpful contacts, but relying on opportunity as it emerges in who those contacts might be and how the meeting might unfold. And interestingly, I’ve observed that although it’s helpful to identify particular people to meet, it’s often even better to identify characteristics of people to meet and to see who presents themselves.
Another client was in the process of mapping out her career plan. We defined her goals, identified what she wanted her life to look like both professionally and in work/life integration, and planned the next steps that would prepare her for her goals. And then a recruiter called, describing a position that was entirely outside her plans, but 100% compatible with her goals. She applied, landed the job, and is completely satisfied even though she’s doing something completely different from what she’d expected. If she hadn’t done the underlying work, she very well might not have recognized this terrific opportunity for what it was.
I occasionally receive calls from lawyers who are curious about coaching but don’t have any particular goals. These lawyers want “a good career” without putting many limits on what that might mean, and I sometimes have a vision of them as sticks floating down a river, carried on a current that would exist with or without them. Some lawyers do drift through their careers, moving reactively but not often proactively. Happily (and, I suspect, not coincidentally) those who take a more strategic approach to their career are much more likely to find satisfaction and success.
It’s true as well for business development. Any lawyer can stumble into an opportunity — being at the right place at the right time and having the right conversation with the right person. Such flukes don’t occur often, though, and they certainly don’t form the basis for a full client roster. Instead, a rainmaker must learn how to create favorable circumstances (another way of saying opportunities) that are likely to lead to new work.
What I notice over and over is a blend of strategy and grabbing opportunity. The strategy is the foundation that allows appreciation of the opportunity. I don’t doubt that some lawyer rely more or less solely on opportunity; I also don’t doubt that those lawyers as a whole experience less success and lower satisfaction than lawyers who have some strategic underpinning for their actions.
Take a look at your own career plan, your business development goals, your work/life integration. How much of what you do is grounded in strategy? If your answer is not much, try an experiment and set some intentions for your work (perhaps to acquire a new professional skill) or your professional branding (perhaps a new approach to serving your clients or a new way to approach potential clients) and see what happens with a month or a quarter.�