Is Your Law Practice Evolving or Devolving?

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

Most lawyers evolve as they develop experience. They learn from mistakes and from observing other lawyers. Although every lawyer is different, most go through some of the same predictable stages.

Conscious Incompetence
You’ve just graduated from law school and passed the bar. Whether it’s your first client or your first assignment from a partner, your excitement is mixed with anxiety. You’ve never done this before. You don’t really know what you are doing. You’re scared that someone will find out.

Unconscious Incompetence
You have some experience under your belt. You feel like you know what you’re doing. In fact, in some circumstances you actually do know what you’re doing, but you don’t know what you don’t know.

As a young lawyer negotiating agreements, I carefully examined every aspect of the proposed contract. I was trained in a prestigious firm that expected perfection from its lawyers. I sought to achieve a pristine document that gave my client maximal protection from every conceivable mishap.

I was quick-thinking and articulate. I had good reasons why my client should prevail on every point. I approached the negotiations with what I regarded as healthy suspicion. Sometimes negotiations dragged on and tension developed. I gained most of the concessions I sought. However, they came at a price that I wasn’t really aware of.

Conscious Competence
With experience and maturity, I began to understand that some points weren’t worth fighting for. They might be standard concessions that someone in my client’s position would receive, but in truth, my client’s risk of loss was minimal, or there were other ways to protect against it.

I began to understand that, while a lawyer’s job culminates with signing the contract, the execution date marks the commencement of a new relationship for the client. My overzealous negotiation and counsel to my client could have a negative impact on the parties’ ongoing interactions, and ultimately the success of the deal.

As a lawyer, I climbed out of the trenches and sought a broader perspective on the transaction. I strove to manage my competitive instinct, reeling myself in when I got caught up in beating the other lawyer. I aimed to understand the real needs of my client, even beyond the legal needs. I started trying to uncover or create a solution that would serve everyone in the transaction.

Unconscious Competence
Today a few brilliant trailblazing lawyers have taken it even further. They are stepping into new territory that may make them feel like novices again. In reality, they have achieved a higher level of competence in understanding the needs of their clients. They are masters showing the way; sometimes forging an entirely new path.

Masters begin the process with helping their clients, and even the other parties, identify what really matters to them. They clarify what a successful transaction will look like for each party, and help them find the mutual ground. Contrast this approach to the lawyers who assume they know what is best for the client, and launch into beating the other side to get it.

An Illustration
By way of example, Linda Alvarez is a highly regarded intellectual property lawyer focusing on trademark and copyright law. Her client list includes best-selling authors, filmmakers, and businesses ranging from sole-proprietorships to corporations with internationally recognized consumer brands. She helps the parties emphasize their relationship in the transaction.

Before the drafting begins, through her “Discovering Agreement” process, Ms. Alvarez helps the parties enunciate their answers to fundamental questions, such as:

  • Why are we choosing this relationship?
  • When I think of success, what am I envisioning?
  • What will I need in order to be confident that what I expect to receive from this effort is worth what I expect to put in?
  • What are the consequences for me, for our endeavor, and for the working relationship, if the project does not succeed?
  • What elements do I believe are key to an ideal system for handling the unexpected, for meeting adversity, for adapting to change, for managing disagreements?
  • What do I think would help us minimize expenses and maximize benefit if we find ourselves in disagreement?

The Outcome
Sometimes, opposing counsel objects to the process. By exploring the concerns underlying those objections, Ms. Alvarez and her clients usually garner sufficient clarity and respect to make everyone comfortable with this innovative approach.

The parties achieve an agreement that they fully understand and take ownership of. The process does a better job of accomplishing three purposes: (1) facilitating a true meeting of the minds, (2) calibrating the alignment of the parties’ goals and values that affect their relationship, and (3) helping the parties be better prepared to resolve conflicts that may emerge in the future.

And…there’s a bonus from the lawyer’s perspective. Surveys indicate that a majority of attorneys are experiencing decreased satisfaction in the practice of law. By contrast, these trailblazing lawyers report increased satisfaction. Ms. Alvarez says, “Designing and sustaining good business relationships is more fulfilling than setting up weapons caches for future battles. That’s the only way I’m willing to practice today.”

Where Are You?
Which stage of evolution describes your law practice? Could changing the way you approach your role as an attorney bring you more fulfillment? Would it get better results for your client? Would it change your client’s perspective on the value of lawyers? What innovations have you developed in your legal practice to bring more value to clients and more enjoyment to you as a lawyer? I would love to hear your responses to these questions.


2 Responses to “Is Your Law Practice Evolving or Devolving?”

  1. Cathy L. Ribble, ACP on April 18th, 2012 1:11 pm

    Increased satisfaction is likely a conscious or unconscious goal for all law-related professionals, including paralegals. As I have interviewed virtual paralegals the past few years, time and time again I am told that the trailblazing experience of providing their services virtually has increased satisfaction both in professional and personal areas for them. I’m going to note the questions asked by Linda Alvarez to see how I can incorporate them in my paralegal business. Great post!

  2. Debra L. Bruce on April 18th, 2012 4:13 pm

    Thanks, Cathy. I hope to hear from you about how that goes. I’m even getting positive emails about this post from lawyers dealing with litigation, too. When we change our goal from “beating the other side” to “co-creating with the other side,” new possibilities emerge. They were always there, but we couldn’t see them until we changed our perspective.

Got something to say?