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Adventures in Magical Thinking – Part II

Posted in Law firm practices

In the last post we discussed “magical thinking” – the wishes and hopes of firm leadership that the lawyers they lead will exhibit certain desirable behaviors just because leadership wants them to or hopes they will.

Magical Thinking Building Blocks

There are five common components to magical thinking:

1)      Reality Disconnects: Leadership may “get it,” that is, comprehend the economic shifts and realities that drive today’s “New Normal” in the legal profession, but a lot of rank and file partners believe that the old days will return so that it will be sufficient to keep doing what they have always done.

2)      Mind Reading: Firm leaders often assume that rank-and-file partners can and will divine the will and reasoning of the Executive Committee and will make the effort to keep abreast of firm economics, strategic decisions and operational guidance. Neither leaders nor followers are well-served by making untested assumptions about the other’s motives and priorities. In fact, however, many individual partners just don’t seem much interested in their firm’s overall well-being – it’s just a place to “do their thing.” Several firms have told us that they have stopped making comprehensive firm financial performance data available to all partners because no one was bothering to read it.

3)      Cloudy Communication:  Just because followers don’t crave clear and explicit communication does not mean that leadership should be exempt from providing it. All too often strategic and tactical decisions and policies are communicated in vague generalities and without clear and convincing authority. Goals are expressed in sweeping overgeneralizations, and performance standards and consequences are subjective, unclear or non-existent. Once-a-year strategic updates and policy summaries at the firm retreat are not enough either to spread the news or build broad scale buy-in.

4)      No Consequences: If changed priorities are not accompanied by clear performance standards and clear consequences for substandard compliance, partners have no incentive to alter their behavior or their personal priorities.

5)      Responsibility and Authority Muddles: Change initiatives bog down and suffer from “friction loss” where there is: a) a lack of role clarity that defines which lawyers bear particular task responsibilities, and b) fuzzy, “gentlemanly” or inconsistent lines of authority.  This results either in org charts that do not adequately reflect real pathways of power or individuals who cavalierly ignore the org chart and go their own way.

In our next post we will have a deeper look at the practical implications of Magical Thinking and some suggestions for escaping Magical Thinking mind traps.


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  • Last Honest Lawyer

    Perhaps in the past glory days this kind of “magical thinking” would not be fatal, but the threat to traditional law firms is now beyond critical. Firms no longer have the luxury of any delay. The alternative service providers like Axiom, Riverview and Novus are already, as the recent ABA journal article noted, eating law firms’ lunch. Hopefully the partners you talk about in the last two installments have good retirement options.

  • pwoldow

    It remains remarkable that there are still any firms and partners who still cling to the idea that “we can keep doing what we have always done.” But, there are more such firms and partners than any of us could imagine. Their PPP and top line revenues are beginning to force reality on them, and we will have to see if desperation leads them to reality or extinction.