By definition, make or break decisions occur when we have the least amount of time and emotional control to make them.  How can we make the best possible decision in the worst possible circumstances?

Management is about dealing with people and things – including events.  We can’t possible manage every timekeeper, every moment of the day, so it can help to have policies and procedures in place that help manage for us.  But regardless of how well you’ve documented these on your intranet or on posters in your lunchroom, statistics tell us the 80% of incidents are caused by human error.  From an employer perspective, law firms also need to react to unpredictable variables such as marketplace or client shifts.   In combination, this leads to an uncomfortable percentage of critical decisions that often need to be addressed quickly.  So, how do you ensure you’re making the best possible decision?

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is a behavioural neuroscientist and fire fighter in London, England.  She’s responsible for a behavioural study on decision-making by incident commanders (ICs)in high-tension scenarios such as car crashes, bombings, and terrorist attacks.  In her study she identified decision traps that can cause ICs to make less than ideal decisions – usually the result of over-thinking the issue in the moment.  To offset this, she developed the “Decision Control Process”.  The process focusses on three information points:

  1. What do I want to achieve?
  2. What do I expect to happen as a result?
  3. Do benefits outweigh the risks?

In testing, this procedure was found to produce superior results, such that in 2015, her process was included in the National Fire Chiefs Council National Operational Guidelines.

How can this research be applied to the management of law practices?   We can actually use this three-step process to assist with our decision-making in both high and low-stress situations.

High-Stress Decisions:

Let’s say you just realized you missed a filing date for one of your clients.  This is bad…and it must be addressed with the client but you worry they might fire you once they find out.  To prepare yourself for next steps, go through the checklist:

  1. What do I want to achieve? I have to tell them and at the same time, I’m hoping that I don’t lose the client.
  2. What do I expect to happen? They’ll be ticked. But they may appreciate my honesty.  They’ll also want to know what I suggest to either fix the issue or make it up to them.   (So, I better have some suggestions ready).
  3. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? What happens if I don’t tell them?  If I further delay telling them?  If I tell them without a fix or with some way to make it up?   Telling them risks losing them but given the logical outcomes of the other options, telling them – and quickly – makes the most sense.  It provides me with the greatest opportunity to try to mend bridges with the client.

This is an imperfect example because in many critical scenarios, there may be several parties’ needs (and in some cases, competing needs) that should be considered.  This makes the third point critical, especially in comparison to the first point.  You’re probably not going to be able to keep everyone happy so keep toggling between the first and third point.  What is outcome you need the most….that will prepare you for the fact that you might not get everything you want from a solution, but hopefully you’ll get what you ultimately need.

Low-Stress Decisions:

As my readers know, I’m the plan queen.  I heartily endorse planning every chance I get.  The Decision Control Process fees into planning beautifully.

  1. What do I want to achieve? There is no point deciding what marketing actions you will do this year until you first decide where you want your career to head.  Too few lawyers think about this.  They believe they just need to show up each day and their career will take care of itself.  It’s possible that you’ll find yourself in a happy career ten years from now…but in this marketplace, it’s not likely.  You’re far better off declaring what you want your career to look like, and then systematically going after that vision. So, what do you want to accomplish?  Where do you want to take your career next?    Do you want to work toward Partner?  Become in the top three in your city for your practice area?
  2. What do I expect to happen as a result? Now’s the time to be specific with your business goals for the year.  Do you want to increase your revenues by 10%?  Land one or two select clients or referral sources?  Branch out into a new area of law?  Work toward being in the top three in the city for your area of law?  Better broadcast your abilities in a certain practice area?  Be specific.       I have set business goals for myself to achieve.
  3. Do benefits outweigh the risks? What are the chances of achieving those goals without this plan, or without fully implementing it?  You’ll have to spend some time doing non-billable marketing, so you need to think about the likely outcome of not doing this work.    One of the reasons I ask my coaching clients to review their plan on a monthly basis is to remind themselves why they are doing the task they are doing…to constantly put it into perspective so they can maintain the motivation needed to do their action items.

Essentially, using the Decision Control Process seeks to take emotion out of the equation as much as possible, so that the decisions chosen are the most logical for the outcomes desired. This ensures you neither over nor under-think these critical decisions, regardless of how much time you have to make them.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at