Leading Like a Psychologist

Topics: Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Talent Development

Artificial Intelligence

In my conversations with law firm leaders, I am hearing more and more concern expressed about their partners failing to meet expectations. Here are some examples:

  • “They’ve retired at their desks.”
  • “Everyone’s focused on their own work—no one’s reaching out and collaborating across offices or practices.”
  • “People are more irritable and less cooperative.”
  • “I need them to step up more to do the non-billable activities that will lead to our success.”
  • “Some partners are behaving badly.”
  • “They’re acting like knuckleheads!”

None of this is surprising. Organizational psychology literature is full of findings about the negative psychological consequences of rapid, exponential change. Because we’re trained to spot problems, lawyers actually are primed to suffer these known consequences more severely than people in other occupations.

Law firm leaders need to understand that these symptoms are not unique to your firm but are rather a widespread and well-known phenomena. More importantly, the same body of research has identified a number of simple solutions that can not only inoculate your lawyers against these ills, but can, at the same time, build psychological engagement, strengthen resilience, and increase collaboration.

Law firm leaders need to pay more attention to the psychology of their lawyers, and to the breakthroughs in the science of human performance. You need to lead like a psychologist.

First, let’s look at what doesn’t work to pull your partners out of this kind of slump:

“Convincing” doesn’t work. Giving your partners statistics, articles or data about the downside of their acting this way—in an attempt to show them the logic of changing their behavior—is not likely to make much of a difference.

“Incentivizing” doesn’t work. Money is not a very precise tool to regulate mood. See Dan Pink’s excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for details about why incentives often go astray.

“Importuning” doesn’t work. Nor does begging, chiding, cajoling, scolding, threatening, demanding or requesting that partners “change”—all are ineffective strategies because they don’t address the root cause.


When you witness a widespread pattern of partners acting passively, irritably, selfishly, etc., chances are good that they are reacting to the uncertainty of change and the stress and anxiety that it raises.


When you witness a widespread pattern of partners acting passively, irritably, selfishly, etc., chances are good that they are reacting to the uncertainty of change and the stress and anxiety that it raises. Here are some tips to help you deal with this more effectively:

  1. Take as many steps as you can to reduce uncertainty wherever you find it—Give people more information rather than less about finances, schedules, leadership changes, firm successes, new hires, advances towards the firm’s strategic mission, etc. Avoid co-leadership if you can. Don’t waffle or give ambiguous messages—be clear and unambiguous about what you want. Uncertainty is the enemy; clarity is the antidote.
  2. Cultivate a culture of positivity—That’s right, positivity. Let me explain: In the past 15 years, there has been a profusion of research showing that human beings naturally pay more attention to threats, problems, and bad news as opposed to opportunities and good news. Further, a steady diet of this negative mindset has really serious adverse consequences. (And lawyers are even better at hunting for problems than the general public, because of our training.) One implication is that we need to balance out our addiction to bad news with at least three times as much attention to good news. I’m not saying “Think positive instead of negative”—it’s vitally important that we continue paying attention to the threats and problems. And, it’s equally vital that we also make it a conscious habit to also celebrate wins, highlight opportunities, express gratitude for things that are working right, etc. Attention to the good needs to outweigh attention to the bad by at least three-to-one. One simple way to do this, widely used in corporate America, is to end every meeting with a “plus/delta” review: Plus: What worked well? What do we not want to change? What are we proud of? And what should we continue doing, etc.? Delta: What do we want to do differently or better the next time?
  3. Create a culture of gratitude—Research at the University of Michigan shows that organizations whose culture encourages people to be thankful for everyday things actually are more profitable than workplaces where an “entitlement” mindset prevails. Moreover, grateful people sleep better, are less depressed, are kinder and friendlier, more helpful, and more productive. About a dozen years ago, Rodgin Cohen, the Chairman at Sullivan & Cromwell, instituted a “Please/Thank You” rule. The mere step of asking partners to say “Please” and “Thank you” to associates produced game-changing behavior for the better.
  4. Encourage a strengths-based development mindset—Many law firms still adhere to the axiom, “The cream rises to the top”. The belief is that star talent will emerge, and you just have to sit back and wait. Worse, many firms employ an annual or semi-annual performance review that emphasizes fixing deficiencies. There’s no question that a lawyer who hasn’t mastered a critical skill needs to do so. But in the spirit of the 3:1 positivity research noted above, a parallel line of research shows that when your development model places the majority of emphasis on helping an individual to get even better at the things they already do very well (while still fixing those deficiencies that absolutely must be fixed), this primarily strengths-based approach produces dramatically higher levels of performance than a repair-your-deficiencies approach alone.
  5. Foster social connection among your lawyers—Perhaps the most compelling research of all shows the huge power of authentic human connection, something that makes many lawyers squirm. Squirm if you must, but the science on this point is crystal clear and growing in importance every day—informal connections, social networks, authentic relationships—these are your greatest potential assets. Here’s one practical reason why: When a lawyer represents a client, especially in a large, multi-country firm, in today’s complex environment, many transactions will require the expertise of more than just one kind of lawyer. The broader your informal social network, the more likely that you will be successful in identifying the right expertise and in successfully linking those other lawyers with your client. Research by Heidi Gardner at Harvard shows that (i) The more practices a client touches, the more profitable the client is for the firm—collaboration leads to greater profitability; and, (ii) larger social networks lead to greater collaboration. In one example, two partners joined the firm in the same year, had the same kind of practice, and had the same number of annual hours billed, but one had just a few connections, and the other had many connections. The latter’s book of business was 4 times that of the first partner.

There are many other research-based strategies that can inoculate against the stresses of change and uncertainty, and can build enormous potential for productivity and profitability at the same time. But if you start with these five tips, you can make an immediate positive impact in your firm.