What leadership really means

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I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Kain, managing partner of Kain C + C Lawyers in Adelaide, Australia. John’s company (it’s an incorporated legal practice, not a firm), which specializes in high-end corporate, commercial and M&A work, is one of the more progressive and innovative legal service providers that I’ve come across in a while.

Among the interesting features of Kain C + C Lawyers is a short-form advisory memo that lawyers are sometimes asked to give clients. This memo, which can run no longer than two pages, must contain one of four recommendations concerning the client’s proposed course of action: “Very Good,” “Good,” “Poor,” and “Very Poor.” When John relayed these measures to me, I immediately identified what was obviously missing among the choices, and I’m sure you have as well. And then I realized why it was missing.

John does not offer a middle choice, a “Fair” or an “It Depends” between “Poor” and “Good.” He does not permit his lawyers to be ambivalent in their advice to clients. Either recommend something or recommend against it, strongly if you so choose; but you must take a stand with your advice and you must sign your name to it. Invariably, every new lawyer in the company, when first confronted with this memo, comes to John asking for the middle-way option, and he always refuses. The client, he tells them, is paying us to advise them. So: advise — and be ready to live with the results.

I found this a really interesting practice, because it forces the lawyer to shift from the easier role of “analyst” into the more perilous role of “advisor.” We’re quite comfortable, as lawyers, with analysis: it’s an intellectual exercise that allows us to occupy a safe, low-stakes position. The “reasonable person” that we fetishize in the law is an analytical construct, an imaginary neutral against whom we measure actual human behaviour for fun and profit.

Advice is a different beast. Clients act on advice, making decisions that carry consequences for which we bear at least partial responsibility. It’s the difference between “What does the law say?” and “What should I do now?” There’s a good argument that advanced technology (e.g., expert applications, IBM’s Watson) could provide sound legal analysis; but nobody seriously argues that technology can render trusted counsel, or that any client would act on such counsel even were it offered. To my mind, a lawyer “grows up” the first time she gives actionable advice to a paying client. You’re not just writing a memo anymore; this time, it counts.

Every practicing lawyer can probably recall the thrill of her first real “advisory” moment — and the deep anxiety that accompanied it. Because the flip side of advice is responsibility: the possibility of error, the risk of failure, and the finger of blame pointed at our heart if it all goes wrong.

Everyone suffers from a fear of consequences for a wrong decision, but I sometimes think lawyers are unusually prone to it. We talk about our “risk aversion,” our overabundance of caution and hesitancy. I’ve written before that lawyers are more properly described as “embarrassment-averse” — we hate looking bad in front of clients and colleagues, and nothing looks and feels worse to us than failure.  The nadir of this phenomenon is what you might call “responsibility aversion”: the desire to avoid any action with more than a nominal amount of uncertainty and a corresponding probability of failure.

The antidote to all these aversions is the same: it’s courage. Courage is not simply one of the virtues, as C.S. Lewis has written: it’s “the form of every virtue at the testing point.” I would argue that no characteristic is more important to a good lawyer than courage: it’s what allows us to stand up for our opinions and to stand by our clients as they implement those opinions and change the course of their lives. The best lawyers aren’t just the smartest or hardest-working or the most caring: they’re also the bravest. The worst lawyers, by contrast, are the most timid and the most easily led away from their instincts and standards.

That’s all well and good. As I see it, though, our profession has something of an issue with courage these days. Specifically, I think we need to start showing more of it. Here are four examples of what I mean.

Our advisory role. I’ve only been part of this profession for 20 years, so I can’t give first-hand accounts of the “old days.” But I have the distinct impression that lawyers used to be firmer and more direct when giving advice than we are now. Conditions and reservations seem to be a more common feature of legal advice these days. Clients complain that we frequently default to “No” (if there’s a chance something will go wrong, don’t try it) or hedge our bets (do this, unless any of these seven things are present, in which case don’t). Clients seeking our counsel about what to do often receive advice about what not to do instead.

Our procedural habits. The apocryphal story of the in-house counsel, who asked his law firm for a chair and got a dining room set instead, illustrates our tendency to employ diligence far beyond what’s often necessary. Lawyers are infamous for turning over every stone and tracking down every possibility, which prolongs legal matters and increases costs. We like to say this is because we’re thorough and perfectionist, and we are. But it’s also because we fear the remotest possibility of a bad outcome and seek to eliminate all uncertainty, which is just not practical. There’s a cost-benefit line at which reducing uncertainty any further ceases to pay dividends, but we often lack the courage to stop at that line and say, “Enough. We’ve got what we need.”

Our business practices. We price our services by the hour because we want clients to bear 100% of the risk that something unexpected will happen (as if often does) during the course of a retainer, rather than having the gumption to calculate that risk as best we can and explicitly share it with our clients. We resist changes in our firms’ practices and procedures because we fear the consequences of failed innovations, and so we timidly wait for a dozen other firms to go first and thereby miss our chance. We dwell more on the personal and professional risks of adopting new methodologies and technologies than on the rewards they could provide to our firms and our clients.

Our regulatory approach. Lawyers do not permit competition in legal services from anyone outside our profession, even in the face of the clear failure of our present system to provide affordable legal services to more than a handful of potential clients. You can call that many things — protectionist, paternalistic, callous — but it also comes across as a lack of conviction that we could hold our own against “non-lawyer” providers. If lawyers are so convinced of their superiority, these entities argue, why are they afraid to compete against us in an open market? Where is the courage to take on new comers, or to take a measured risk of liberalization that could improve access to the law?  

Evolutionary Road

Please understand: this is not an attack on the moral backbone or personal courage of individual lawyers. This is an expression of growing concern that our professional habits have driven us into a culture of doubt and apprehension, a general meekness and conservatism in how we view our world and act within it. That world is undoubtedly riskier and more perilous than it’s ever been: the mind-boggling complexity of the law, the challenges of sustaining a viable practice, the savagery of competition between lawyers, and the spectre of client retaliation in court for mistaken advice all play a part. How much easier to reduce our exposure, stay the familiar course, adopt defensive postures, and reinforce our strongholds.

But when we bend to these challenges, rather than rising to meet them — when we spend too much time thinking about the worst-case scenario and how to avoid it — we miss out on so many opportunities and we accomplish so much less than we could.

Our ultimate value, to both clients and society generally, lies in our willingness to speak the truth and recommend the right course, regardless of the discomfort or pain that will entail, especially to ourselves. Our professional calling is to assess, manage, and recommend courses of action (and their attendant risks) that serve both our clients’ interests and the greater good, and to gladly accept responsibility for doing so. That’s courage, as manifested in the legal profession — and in all its manifestations, it takes one familiar form: leadership.

This is the time for leadership in the law, and I’m here to tell you that no one is exempt. Every lawyer has both the opportunity and the responsibility to visibly exercise leadership, in our firms and with our clients and in our profession, by acting courageously. Assess risks, accept them, and act accordingly; stand tall for what you believe is correct; look failure in the eye until it blinks; put yourself on the line for what’s right and necessary. We’ve become too passive, reactive, and defensive for anyone’s good, too reliant on what we’ve always done before. We can’t afford any more “it depends” or “wait and see.” It’s time to stiffen our collective professional resolve and show the world what a powerful, confident legal profession can do.

So: advise, and live with the results. Innovate, and stand by your efforts. Speak out, and welcome everyone’s eyes turning to you. Lead, and watch everyone else get out of your way.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.

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3 Responses to “What leadership really means”

  1. Andy Clark

    Using the Kain C+C rating system, I’d have to say this article is “Very Good”, Jordan. If “Excellent” was an option, I would have picked that. The profession needs more leadership in many ways, and redefining our role from analysts to advisors is one of the critical ones. Thank you.

    -Andy

  2. Tomasz Zalewski

    I agree. Being an advisor (not just an expert or analyst) is a must in the current world. The problem is that the most clients want this but they do not know how to describe this requirement and how to verify such skills. We still see contests where only fees and technical capabilities matter. There are exceptions (see e.g. one-page memo with conclusions concept by Tyco: http://www.legalbusiness.co.uk/index.php/lb-blog-view/2837-tyco-to-extend-evershed-s-sole-advisor-mandate-for-a-further-three-years-eyeing-further-price-innovation) but they still seem just exceptions from the rule.

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