Back to blogging; finding opportunity in chaos

It’s been quiet here at the Life at the Bar blog recently.  I’ve been updating the blog platform, which pretty much brought the blogging itself to a standstill.  The new blog is up and running now (though it will be difficult to see any noticeable changes, I promise, they’re running in the background) and so it’s back to the regular schedule here.

I don’t imagine it’s news to anyone that our economy appears to be in financial crisis.  Despite a few rallies here and there, the trend goes in one direction: straight down.  I’ve noticed quite a bit of fear in the lawyers with whom I’ve been talking: fear of layoffs, fear of firm dissolutions, and the like.  There’s little doubt that we’re in uncertain, turbulent times, but I’d like to present the other side of the story.

While I was on my Wyoming retreat, I spent an afternoon by a remote lake.  (The photo to the left shows the view I got to enjoy.)  At one point, I looked across the lake to see a man fishing, with his dog at his side. The only sound I could hear was the peaceful lapping of water and the wild Wyoming wind.

And then, the dog’s bark broke the peace.  Just a double or triple “woof,” not a big deal.  Because of the mountains encircling the lake, though, the dog’s bark echoed.  And when the dog heard the echo, he barked again, clearly thinking that another dog had dared to trespass on “his” lake.  The barking escalated, as the barks and their echoes crossed, and the dog worked himself into quite a frenzy, despite his owner’s best efforts to quiet him.  The dog faced no threat, but he was ready to fend off an army of intruders.

The economic news over the past month in some ways reminds me of that afternoon by the lake.

There’s no question that today’s economy is difficult.  The U.S. (and much of the rest of the world) is experiencing a significant downturn.  People are losing jobs and homes and savings, and I would never suggest that anyone in that situation is imagining the trouble.  I suspect we’ve all held our breaths as news circulates about 400, 600, or 800-point drops in the Dow.  What’s happening is not an illusion.

At the same time, I’ve noticed some hints of the backing echo.  Those of us who haven’t been affected (or affected much) worry that it’s just around the corner.  We start talking about the fear, it gets echoed back to us (from worried others or from the media), and then the fear grows even bigger and stronger.  I have to wonder to what extent our fear is exacerbating the economic situation that’s caused the fear.

Leaders will be taking another view of the crisis.  By leaders, I don’t necessarily mean those at the helm of business or government, but those who possess strong leadership competencies and hold or assume a position to lead others.

The leaders’ view of the economy will be realistic – pain and fear exists, and so this isn’t the time for mindless acquisition – and it will also be realistically hopeful.  I’m not an economist (nor do I play one on TV) but I’m aware that when people and businesses quit spending money because of economic fears, the result is more lost jobs and more economic trouble, not less.  A meeting point must exist between the practices that led to this crisis and the practices that (in concert with many other factors) will help to pull the economy out of crisis.

Leaders know that opportunity arises even in chaos, and they’ll be watching for sensible ways to spend money.

What does this mean for lawyers?  This is the time to invest in your practice and your professional development.  Skeptics may roll their eyes and think that of course I’d say this is the time to spend money on development, since I offer services and products that support professional development.  I can’t argue!  However, the truth is also that I’m investing heavily in my own professional development now.  I’m practicing what I preach because I believe it to be a solid approach.

If you’re going to spend money, ask what expenditures will make sense over the long run.  I’ve observed a lot of  “comfort spending”: dinners out, new electronic gadgets, and the like.  I have nothing against those consumer items, but unless they bring real pleasure or are used in some way to develop a relationship (for instance, taking a current or potential client to dinner), they’re of no ultimate, lasting value.

Notice your reaction when you have an opportunity to invest time or money into something that will strengthen you personally or professionally.  Is your immediate reaction that you don’t have the time, or you don’t have the money?  If so, the message you’re broadcasting is that your professional or personal life doesn’t merit the investment.  Without an investment of time and/or money, it’s tough to develop professionally, and the justification becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Like the dog at the Wyoming lake, the echoes of the bark become the threat, and they appear to be absolutely real.  Remember the words that appears in the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  That isn’t the whole story, but it is a part of the story.

My top recommendations to weather this difficult time and position yourself to thrive when the economy picks up, as it surely will:

1.  Invest in your professional development.  Attend skills enhancement programs.  Read the books you’ve been meaning to read.  Find a mentor or a supportive peer group or a coach and lay a strategy for growing your practice and yourself.

2.  Strengthen your relationship with your best clients.  They’re worried, too.  Talk with them about their concerns, and explore how you might be able to help.  Ask what their plans are to move forward.  At a minimum, you’ll do service and develop a stronger bond by asking the questions and genuinely listening to the answers, and you may even pick up some legal work.

3.  Invest time and money in your business development activities.  This is not the time to pull back and wait for a restoration of balance.  The legal market is competitive.  Hiding from competition until it’s more convenient or affordable to participate is a mistake.

Follow the news, and look for the silver lining as well as the cloud.  What opportunities can you spot?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed this far more eloquently than I could ever hope to do, so I’ll close with his words:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

(Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933)

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Unhappy lawyer no more: Monica Parker visits Life at the Bar

Although many lawyers who read this blog enjoy practicing law, comments and emails I’ve received prove that not all readers fall into that category.  Studies show that anywhere between 20 and 70 percent of lawyers would like to leave the practice.  If you fall into that group, where do you turn?

Meet Monica Parker.  Monica is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former unhappy lawyer who now serves as coach and guide for lawyers who want to leave practice.  Thanks to her recently-published book, Monica’s assistance is now available to an even broader audience of lawyers.

The Unhappy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law is an amazing offering for any lawyer who’s ever wondered about a career change.  Down-to-earth, funny, with gentle but firm “hard truths,” Monica shares her own story along with case studies (for the notoriously hard-to-convince legal crowd) and exercises designed to help an unhappy lawyer make the leap out of practice into a satisfying career.  I’m delighted that Monica is “stopping by” today as a part of her blog tour, to answer a few questions I posed.

Julie asksI’ve received emails and blog comments from unhappy lawyers who can’t see a way to leave the law and maintain their income, and they feel huge resistance from a spouse or partner about making a career change. And yet, they’re unhappy in practice. What can you say to someone who’s an unhappy lawyer making a great income on which s/he and his/her family have come to depend?

Monica answers: You’ve got 2 major challenges here: one, you’re afraid you won’t be able to support your family if you leave the law and two, your family disapproves of you making a change.

Here are my thoughts about both challenges:

First you should know that you’re not alone in experiencing these challenges. These are the major hurdles for a lot of lawyers. And, yet, they do find ways to overcome them and pursue the careers of their dreams.

I’ve got lots of good tips about these challenges in my book but let me give you some quick and dirty answers:

Can you change careers and make the same income? It’s possible. It’s not the starting point for career exploration though. Why? Because as you’re experiencing, focusing on this issue is like a door slamming in your face. I have my clients start with a “check-up.” Where’s your money going? Is it going where you want it to go? For example, if you do this exercise for a few months and discover that a lot of your discretionary income is going out the door for “retail therapy,” well, it’s worth considering, are you buying all this stuff because you want it or because you’re miserable? Would you want it/need it if you were doing work you love? Probably not.

It’s about trade-offs really. What are you willing to trade for career satisfaction? Maybe it’s a portion of your salary (at least to start) but it may also be frustration, anger, stress, migraine headaches, ulcers, the list goes on and on. That might be a worthwhile tradeoff.

As for your family of “doubting Thomases,” of course these folks are worried. They want you to be happy but not at the family’s expense. It may take a series of difficult conversations but over time you can work to build understanding between you and your family that the move will be a good one for all of you. Your kids may be willing to forego ski vacations and fancy toys if it means Dad/Mom will be able to make their soccer games and dance recitals or heck, actually go on vacation with them for a change.

What you have to avoid is the temptation of trying to convince your family to agree with you that you should leave the law. You can’t make people agree with you, as wonderful as that would be. What’s really underlying that urge is your need to get permission to make the change. No one can give you that permission…but you.

Julie asks:  Some of the lawyers who say they want to leave the law don’t have any idea of where to begin to figure out what they want to be when they “grow up.” How do you recommend an unhappy lawyer might explore career options?

Monica answers:  Start with the basics. What interests you? One, make a list of career possibilities that appealed to you as a child, young adult, and what appeals to you now as an adult. Don’t censor yourself. Two, if you have absolutely no idea what you might like to do, go on a field trip for a couple of months. Keep a little notebook handy and jot down anything you see or hear that catches your attention. See a bakery and wish you could spend your mornings making exotic cookies? Jot it down in your notebook. After a couple of months, you should have lots of ideas. See if you can categorize them into 5 – 7 categories. Now you’ve got a sense of some of the areas that might appeal to you.

Once you know what interests you, it’s time to get out and start exploring! There are lots of ways you can do this without giving up your day job. Interested in owning a dirt bike racing shop? Take some dirt bike racing classes; see if a store owner will let you shadow him for a day. Fascinated by event planning? Offer to plan your grandmother’s surprise 85th birthday or a friend’s wedding. Your goal here is to “try on” the career and see how it fits. Let your gut tell you what it thinks. This isn’t the time for intellectualizing.

Julie asks:  Everyone has frustrating days at work, and sometimes when a job is a bad fit, the entire career can feel wrong. How do you know when to say enough is enough?E

Monica answers:  The answer is as simple as, when the bad days outweigh the good. I actually list 7 reasons you know it’s time to leave your career in my book. I’ll share the “Top 3″ here. First, if you’re fantasizing about everyone else’s job. I mean from the postal worker to the landscaping crew. In other words, you’re romanticizing their jobs. Second, if you’re doing the Sunday night countdown. That means every hour on the hour you’re watching the clock on Sunday and dreading the week starting. Third, you’re either consistently bored or overwhelmed at work. You’re not engaged or you can’t see over the piles at your desk. If this is happening to you all of the time, this is not what work is meant to be.

Michelle Obama, a dissatisfied associate?

There’s an interesting story in yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times, excerpting a new book that describes Michelle Obama’s dissatisfaction with the work she was doing as a second-year associate at Sidley Austin.  A sample:

Too monotonous for Michelle, who, White [the partner in charge of the firm’s advertising group, of which Obama was a member] says, complained that the work he gave her was unsatisfactory. He says he gave her the Coors beer ads, which he considered one of the more glamorous assignments they had. Even then, he says, “she at one point went over my head and complained [to human resources] that I wasn’t giving her enough interesting stuff, and the person came down to my office and said, ‘Basically she’s complaining that she’s being treated like she’s a second-year associate,’ and we agreed that she was a second-year associate. I had eight or nine other associates, and I couldn’t start treating one of them a lot better.”

White says he talked to Michelle about her expectations, but the problem could not be resolved because the work was what it was. He is not sure any work he had would have satisfied her. “I couldn’t give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world.”

 Those who dislike the Obamas will likely find a prima donna attitude here, and those who like the Obamas will likely nod and agree that she was destined for much greater activities.  Let’s set politics completely aside, though, and ask instead: What’s an ambitious young lawyer to do when dealing with work that appears to be unduly mundane?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, I suspect.  If I were to coach someone feeling this level of dissatisfaction, I would ask questions like:

  • What do you want, ultimately, from your career?  What’s the traditional path to get there, and can you identify alternatives that might be more pleasing?
  • What do you want your day-to-day practice life to look like?
  • With whom do you want to work?  (General descriptions of colleagues, though identifying specific individuals might be quite telling.)
  • What kind of organization will be a good fit for you?  How well do you work within a hierarchy?  How do you feel about firms that blend hierarchy and meritocracy?
  • What does it mean to you to “pay your dues” in your career?

Many others, of course, but I’d likely start with those questions.  The goal would be to figure out the end-game first (because if the lawyer in question wanted to be a partner at a large law firm, the path to getting there would likely look quite different from the path she’d select if she wanted to teach law, just for example.)

The article, though, and my imaginary coaching session with Mrs. Obama highlights one comment that I often hear from ambitious large-firm lawyers: making it through the first few years can be difficult and frustrating, and those who stay the course may need a clear reason for doing so, to keep in mind that the boring work ultimately serves a purpose.

Top delegation mistakes

I’m still getting swamped with questions about the free preview call I did a couple of weeks ago, discussing delegation skills and how to manage email.  So, I thought I’d share the five top mistakes lawyers make when delegating.  If you recognize yourself in any of these mistakes, it’s time to brush up on your skills!

1.  Rushing.  Making an assignment before thinking about the critical aspects of delegation (which are set forth in the next section) is almost a guarantee that you won’t get the end result that you want.  Without sitting down to think about what the finished product should be, you may not even know what you really need.  Rushing means that you may not select the best person to whom to delegate the task or that you don’t describe exactly what you need to know and/or how you want the results.  When you rush, you’re highly likely not to get what you need.  You end up frustrated and even more in the hole time-wise than you were when you started: now you have to do the work (or re-delegate it) and you’re starting late.

An example: Paula, a partner, asked Evan, a third-year associate, to draft a deposition outline.  She told Evan that she didn’t want the outline to include questions, and that instead she wanted a subject matter outline.  Evan took Paula’s direction literally and prepared an extensive outline organized by topic, with issues set out below each topic and supported by well-organized, highlighted, and flagged documents.  Paula was livid, however, when she discovered that the outline didn’t include any questions.  She had wanted Evan to skip the opening questions but to include questions that would get to the heart of the factual and legal issues – but because what she said was, “no questions,” Evan misunderstood.  Should he have clarified before completing the outline?  Absolutely.  Paula, however, bears responsibility as well for a problem that could have been avoided had she simply paused to think about how best to describe the work product she wanted to receive.

2.  Delegating too little.  Lawyers are highly skilled and self-reliant, and too many of us believe that we should be in control of every aspect of our practices.  But here’s some news: you are not the lone ranger.  Failing to delegate costs you time.  What’s worse, if you don’t give your staff and junior colleagues stretch projects that challenge and engage them, they won’t advance professionally.  They’ll get bored and probably move on to another position, or worse yet you’ll find yourself surrounded by “zombies” who show up to the office everyday but are completely disengaged from their work.

3.  Delegating too much.  The first problem with over-delegating is, of course, that it presents numerous ethical issues.  You cannot delegate legal work to non-lawyers without adequate supervision, and you should not delegate legal work to other lawyers without appropriate supervision.

Even when you’re delegating administrative tasks only, over-delegation results in poor practice management.  You should not perform the day-to-day administrative tasks required for your practice, but you must be able to do so if you find yourself short-staffed.  This doesn’t mean that you should be as skilled as your assistants at everything from filing to document formatting to mail room procedures, but you should know enough to muddle your way through.

4.  Micromanaging.  Micromanaging produces problems similar to those encountered with under-delegating, though the problems arise even more quickly and tend to be more acute.  Micromanagement undermines the confidence and/or morale of the person to whom you’ve delegated because it sends the message that you don’t trust their judgment.  That person may leave or become a zombie as previously described, but more likely he or she will become frustrated and resentful.  Micromanagers often have a reputation as being impossible to please, and those who cannot be pleased often find that those who work with them quit trying.

Equally troublesome, micromanagement prevents the person doing the work from exercising his or her own judgment and expanding his or her professional development.  Those who are micromanaged don’t have the opportunity to bring their perspective and ideas to the table, which means that the micromanager doesn’t have the chance to be wowed by what those who’ve been assigned the work could do if only they had the freedom.

5.  Not managing enough.  Failure to manage results in the same problems that rushing and over-delegation can produce.  You may encounter ethical issues that could have been avoided with proper supervision, and you may not receive the work product that you wanted and expected.

You can learn some delegation tips here.