eyes open

eyes open
"know thyself" is the cure, the answer, the process, the goal, the result


Carrot and Stick: Why You Have No Choice But To Lead from the Vanguard

I am not a determinist, really. But I do believe that movements within societies are inexorable, ineluctable, unavoidable. That means that new ideas and new values and new social morés come about seemingly of their own accord; and they cannot be stopped, cannot be forestalled, cannot be ignored--at least not ignored without risk.

Don't Get Caught With Your Pants Down

In short, a leader can never be comfortable in his/her own skin. A leader can never believe that s/he has "found" a mode of being that will maximize his/her personal reputation, fortune or standing. Rather, a leader is always open to perceive needed changes in his/her approach, philosophy, and style of implementation. A leader realizes that what is acceptable, even laudable one year, may be actionable or even criminal the next.

I can't help but bring up a startling example of this type of "sea-change" in outlook from the early 19th Century. Lord Nelson (once again), shows us that a true leader always leads from the cutting edge of society's cultural milieu.

Yet Again, Nelson as Management Guru

Nelson is famous for his approach to battle. In case you aren't familiar with it, he was known for the shocking proposition that the enemy existed merely for him to annihilate. In short, he did not believe in "saving" his men or material for a later day. He did not believe it advisable or permissible to consider how much he might lose in the relentless pursuit of his enemy. Rather, Nelson thought only of how he might destroy his enemy, and utterly remove his enemy's ability to carry on a fight.

While the above description sounds blood-thirsty, it is does not sound terribly innovative to our 21st-Century ears. After all, the entire last Century is full to overflowing with examples of "total war." But in Nelson's time, nearly precisely 200 years ago, this was a new way of thinking.

A Bygone Era of Manners

In the prior century (the 17th), naval tactics had favored equipoise, balance, synchronicity and even beauty to be higher values than destroying one's enemy. The ruling paradigm was that of courtesy, sensitivity and prudence--and prudence to the exclusion of action. In the extreme case, it was thought more gentlemanly to dissemble, even prevaricate, rather than to offend.

Moreover, there existed rules of engagement so intricate as to seem laughable now. Ships in a line were disallowed from engaging their enemies any closer than that of the flag ship engaged its chosen target. Movements of ships were timed not for efficiency, but for perfect uniformity of motion. Basically, the movement of ships in battle was dictated more by the artistic flair of a choreographed underwater swimming routine than of the hurly-burly and quick-decision-making required (now, at least) in battle.

Nelson Smashes the Paradigm

Imagine then what a dashing figure Nelson made. He routinely gave orders to his captains that specifically authorized them to take decisive and independent action; to react as they saw fit once the chaos of battle began. He gave few guidelines. Basically, once the ideal alignment of the fleet was achieved, captains were to simply get a close as they could to an enemy ship of their choice and blow it to kingdom come. The beauty and symmetry of "the line" be damned. This new approach took root quickly in the officer ranks.

Politics and Public Sentiment Dictate the Terms

But the swiftness of the shift among the naval community was nothing compared to the swiftness and abruptness of the shift in mood of the populous back in Britain. One of Nelson's colleagues, admiral of a different fleet, took the standard approach in attacking a Spanish armada. After engaging the enemy and decisively trouncing it, Nelson's fellow admiral decided not to follow up the battle the following day. Rather, the admiral allowed his enemy to limp back to port, and took his fleet to a safe harbor nearby. His reasoning? A very 17th-Century concern that he not lose a single ship (basically, why tempt fate?), and also, that he preserve those ships that he had taken from the Spanish and were now his by right of conquest. This sort of gentlemanly and rather passionless take had been doctrine just a few years earlier.

Notably, however, these actions, sanctioned and approved for a century at least, now became the subject of a court-martial, and end of this admiral's career in ignominy. After a bloodbath in the press and a strongly worded reprimand by the Admiralty, he was never given another command.

No "Comfort Zone"

Just what was the "crime" of this very stately admiral? Only this: that he did not keep his eyes to the horizon. He did not feel it necessary to push the boundaries of his own experience and read the writing on the wall. In short, he was smug with his own (quite vast) success, and sat on his laurels.

How much less can leaders today afford to rest on any laurels? Our markets and our style of business are changing beneath our feet. It might be risky, yes, to take a new direction, but it is very likely more risky to adopt the status quo. It is often more prudent to continue on a path where the end is not in sight, than to wait for the press of the known inevitably to crush you.

Thus, leaders of all levels of honor may do well to heed the conflicting and changing movements within our society and the emergent, (developed) world zeitgeist. If one is small-minded and petty, one can at the least realize that to protect oneself one cannot simply do what worked before. If one has the desire to create something new and lasting, he must take the same course. The seas may be choppy, but there is only shame and death for the captain that hides his ship from the battle.

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Seize the Fire!: Lord Nelson, Passion and Radical Dedication--to Colleagues

A regular reader gave me a ring today to ask what he could do to get his own career kicked up to the next level. He likes where he is, but he opines that as an associate with a subject-matter expertise and clientele that do not lend themselves to incorporation into some global, über-Nietzschean, $1000/hour practice: does ad arguendo still have any thoughts?

Well. There is a saying that masters in a field do not so much have learning that their neophytes to not have access to, but that instead they are masters at the basics. I'll share one of those basics now: build a network.

Seize the Fire!

I am having tremendous fun listening to Adam Nicolson's "Seize the Fire", a fantastic and really ingenious look into the battle of Trafalgar and what it had to say about naval history, the English (not the British!), leadership, and genius. I'm sure I could fill a dozen posts with the insights that Nicolson brings to bear, but one will suffice: Lord Nelson was insanely commited to his network.

Nelson As Leader

Nelson built an entire career around building and sustaining trust in his subordinate commanders, and by extension with all of the men under his command. Like some sort of 19th-Century Achilles, Jack Welch and Tony Robbins rolled in to one, Nelson expected the world from those around him, but also paid scarce resources of time and energy to ensuring that the needs of these men were satisfied.

Lord Nelson and Radical Commitment to Colleagues

This was not a mere matter of logistics, tack bread and lemons (read the book). Rather, it was a monomaniacal dedication to the soul-life of these men. He appealed to their honor, their avarice and their deepest drives. In short, Nelson became the most famous sea-captain in British naval history not by dogmatism and distance (although both were present) but by dogged and undeniable dedication to a network of trusted advisers and subordinate commanders. By means of that dedication, he was able to lead, mobilize, demand and expect respect, total loyalty, and crushing victories.

It All Begins with a Thought

But it had to start, my friends, with a philosophy of valuing and a practice of implementing an ever-increasing network of contacts, confidantes and colleagues. And that work, I can tell you, can never be shortcut. It takes painstaking attention to detail and determination to keep on meeting new prospects, for investing bit-by-bit in relationships that may or may not pan out, and to continue to dedicate oneself to the realization that the value of a man or woman is not in his or her individual successes, but in the aggregate value they can bring to bear in service of some greater ideal.

Start small, dream big, implement like hell. If you want more practical tips and a step-by-step on building your network, click here.

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Zen and the Art of Deciphering Law Firm "Culture"

Deconstructing the Communication

For associates, picking a law firm is like picking a mail-order bride, only worse. You start with a healthy number of glossy marketing fliers in your hand; you see a hundred smiling faces; you read a hundred vapid, nearly identical descriptions of each firm's "culture" and how "nurturing" each is. Just as untrustworthy as you may conceive of a "bride" (or "groom"!) catalog to be, don't believe a word of this nonsense.

Worse, neither should you take at face value the bracing assurances from third-year associates who promise the firm isn't too harsh and the partners are really great people after all (even if a few do scream just a little). Likewise, take with a grain of salt what interviewers say about firm training and "development." Nor should you put stock in the dark and usually spurious rumors spread by disenchanted senior or mid-level associates that their firm (otherwise stable and highly respected) really has some deep flaw or is about to "go under." None of these sources can give you the information you really need. At best, this information is irrelevant to a proper analysis.

On the other hand, neither do I suggest that you pick at firm at random. Instead, I suggest that you take an entirely different look at what "firm culture" is and apply this new paradigm to your analysis. Doing this is both easier and harder than you may think.

Whatever Happened to "Culture?"

First of all, just what "firm culture" is has changed in the last 10 years. It used to be that even the larger firms truly had unique approaches. There was a slightly different mix of perspectives, attitudes, and energies. Some firms just felt right; other didn't. That quantum of culture was never easy to describe, but "you knew it when you saw it." Things have changed. If I may rely on a rather humble analogy: Recall to mind your high school physics class.

You may have conducted a simple experiment of taking water chilled to below the freezing mark, but under pressure. Amazingly, although the temperature of the water was below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the pressure applied to it would not permit the water to freeze; it remained a chilled, uniform liquid. Something like that has happened to many law firms. While it is almost by definition that we could say each firm has a nascent cultural "feel," you often can't "feel" it anymore.

Previously, the pressures upon partners to manage cases, market existing clients, cross-sell with other departments, lecture and write, serve on committees, and, oh yes, "mentor" junior associates were not as great, nor as varied. Now, however, I perceive that the immense pressure on partners to perform all of these tasks (and well) has created an atmosphere of pressure so pronounced that what would otherwise coalesce into a cognizable firm "culture" remains cold, immobile, and sterile. Thus, I posit that an aspiring lawyer cannot trust whatever "cultural" signals he or she is receiving; they are being transmitted in a necessarily distorted way. Rely on these signals to your peril.

A New Paradigm

Next, what validity does "culture" still have in terms of law firm "fit"? I still believe that some firms are better suited to certain lawyers than others. But there is a better way to divine which is which. As alluded to above, partners (and by extension their firms) simply cannot and do not take the time and effort to put their individual stamps on their firms. Instead, these functions are being carried out by professional vendors. Marketing companies help write fliers; consultants help write mission statements; specialists are brought in to conduct training classes; coaches are brought in to groom the up-and-coming (at best).

With all these mixed and often disharmonious voices added to the mix, how does a prospective associate decide what is a good fit? By returning to basics. I hate to betray my deterministic leanings, but the best way to find out if a particular firm is a "fit" is by looking at the market forces that will inevitably shape the firm's practice.

Here are the criteria I look at:

What region did this firm originate in?
What are the component merged entities that have led to the current monster mega-firm you are considering?
What is the firm footprint (where are they now, and what has been the progression through markets)?
What are the firm's stated goals in terms of growth?
What are the last few "leaked" merger partners that may have fallen through?
Where did their managing partner come from (is she homegrown or a fairly recent lateral)?
What is the mix between litigation and transactional work? Who are the firm's clients (are they "mid-market," Global 50, or merely Fortune 500)?

A New 'Gestalt'

The above and other similar questions attempt to understand where a particular firm is going. This is all you can realistically hope to see as an associate. In reality, how the firm "feels" for the first several years of your career is not terribly relevant anyway. Junior associates are shielded from the forces that are really shaping the firm; and by the time associates do begin to discern the realities, they may be confronted with the necessity of a lateral move to find a better "fit"-or with the realization that one may have to shape one's career in a way inimical to his or her temperament if they want to continue to thrive. Thus, what I have tried to describe is more a gestalt of culture rather than seeing culture as a static state of being.

All firms are going through growth pains as the legal industry begins to catch up to the market realities that have been shaping corporate America for the past 25 years. Culture-as-process is the new paradigm. The insightful attorney is the one that understands her or his own interests, working style, and goals and finds a firm that has demonstrated through its market decisions the intention to create a practice that is in sync with those personal traits.

New Realities

Face it, firms are larger now; they are almost small societies in and of themselves. They are being shaped by individuals, but the totals are greater than the sum of their respective parts-and more complex than perhaps any one attorney can really get his or her arms around. Frankly, the realities of the direction of a particular firm may not be in sync with the "culture" exhibited by the current rank and file. If you want to succeed, you need to think a little beyond whether the firm offers margarita parties or yearly retreats. You need to think about a future practice.

The 'Zen' Part

Thus, my proposed "gestalt" of law firm cultural analysis becomes a nearly "zen" approach. This is because no matter how much you analyze a firm, it is hard to know whether the "right" firm is really the "best" for you. You are going to grow and change as an attorney: Your interests will change; your skills will change; your temperament will change; your personality itself is definitely going to undergo some realignment. It comes down to a gut-level decision-but a gut-level decision made after an appropriate analysis. Regardless, you have to make your choice and run with it-and be prepared to be flexible down the road.

Good luck!

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