(This article first appeared in SLAW)

These days, I’m being asked to do a lot of presentations and training on law firm leadership.  People with a marketing background tend to gravitate toward this area because so much of what we do focusses on helping to improve the leadership skills of the lawyers we work with – be if for practice groups, client teams, or simply to improve management of their own practice.

I’ve been focused on this for years, but it’s taken a while for law firms to get here…to understand how critical strong leadership is.  Back in my days in a national firm, I created a comprehensive client team program.  Six months in, I analyzed group productivity, and conducted a survey of team members to learn more about how the teams were running.  There was a direct and undeniable correlation between productivity and leadership. The better the leader, the better the returns and the happier the team.  The worse the team leader, the less productive the group was and less committed its team members were.    Its was great confirmation of what I already suspected, but it made me wonder how we could seek to create better leaders.

Late last year, I was asked to speak at the Arizona State Bar Women Lawyer’s Conference, on the topic of leadership.  As a result of that engagement, I was invited to take part in a 21-day grit challenge.  One of the key lessons for me in this program was the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

One of my services is as a coach for lawyers.  I’ve had literally thousands of coaching sessions and clients over the past twenty years.  I’ve heard it all.  I’ve seen it all.  I’ve helped where I can.  By nature, my coaching clients have identified a challenge and have a desire to overcome that challenge.  They want to change.  And with help, most of them do, to some degree.  My clients follow the rule of thirds: a third give up too soon.  They simply aren’t prepared for the discipline required for actual change.  A third do an OK job but would probably benefit from check-ins for the rest of their lives.  And a third absolutely blossom.  They just seem to get it.  This isn’t to say that things are easy for them.  Change is hard for everyone. But they somehow overcome all challenges that come their way and go on to truly embrace what their new self can accomplish.  I now realize that these individuals are the ones with a growth mindset.

This concept was developed and articulated by Carol Dweck, who studies human motivation.  (For more, see her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success).  It put a language to what I’ve seen for years but couldn’t quite explain.

Dweck’s work shows that our belief system has tremendous power over what we want, and our degree of success in achieving it.  In this way, our mindset can help or hinder us in reaching our goals.  As I go through the two mindsets, imagine your Partnership and who would fit into which camp.

Someone with a Fixed Mindset believes that intelligence is static.  And they want to look smart so…

  • They don’t like challenges.
  • They give up more easily when faced with obstacles.
  • They see no point, therefore, in making an effort.
  • They are fearful of criticism.
  • They can feel threatened by the success of others.

Although they may be extremely intelligent, they can plateau earlier than necessary and never truly reach their full potential.  This results in a deterministic view of the world.

My own addition to this list is that fixed mindset individuals often believe that they are growth mindset individuals, and (ironically) you won’t convince them otherwise.  The problem arises when they are attempting to lead a law firm.  They believe they are creating a much better environment or culture than they are.  In some instances, they actually creating the opposite culture that they were intending.  But they can’t see it, because to suggest it would be threatening and critical.  These individuals also tend to avoid obstacles by giving in to pressure. They call it being flexible, but it’s actually avoidance of conflict, and leading by exception to the rule which creates very challenging cultures.

I also want to note that fixed mindset individuals don’t necessary think this way at all times.  They can have periods of time where they can be very flexible, open to ideas, seemingly dedicated to change.  But if you look at the entire body of their many decisions and beliefs over the years, it becomes clear that their predominant mindset is fixed.

On the other hand, someone with a Growth Mindset believes that intelligence can continue to be developed.  This leads to a desire to learn so that..

  • They actually embrace challenges.
  • They meet obstacles with persistence.
  • They see effort as a pathway to learning and accomplishment.
  • They seek to learn from criticism.
  • They learn from the success of others.

These individuals reach for higher levels of knowledge and achievement.  They believe anything is possible with enough effort, and this gives them more free will.

I believe that most lawyers would say they have a growth mindset but, in my experience, most in fact have a fixed mindset.  That’s because too often in the law firm environment, we give more credit to anyone who shows knowledge than curiosity, expertise instead of a desire to learn, answers instead of questions. Most law firms would suggest they are a wonderful training ground whereas many Associates would say they feel like they’re walking on eggshells within the firm, terrified of what will happen to them if they make a mistake.  Most lawyers would rate themselves as great mentors, but few really are.

This is not to say that those lawyers never had a growth mindset.  But over time, I’ve seen too many of them form into their beliefs like setting cement.  Younger lawyers who start out excited to learn and bold in their suggestions eventually realize that to be successful at their law firm, they must learn to be calm and ungiving, judgmental and careful.   In this way, most law firms actually seek, through their actions, to create fixed mindset individuals over time.

I’m lucky. When law firms contact me it’s because they know they need to change.  They are in trouble, or they are frustrated that they aren’t doing better than they are.  They want to be in a growth mindset.  And the ones that learn how to get there, and how to stay there, do amazingly well.

I believe that the best organizations are comprised of a wide variety of personalities, belief systems, thought processes and knowledge bases.  These tend to result in the best decisions.  So, I don’t have a problem with there being a number of fixed mindset lawyers in a law firm.  But they shouldn’t be the leaders.  They probably shouldn’t be mentors.  There shouldn’t be more than one of them on the Associate hiring committee (which ultimately creates the culture for the future of the firm).

As more law firms move from a first to second-generation firm, I am seeing the challenges in fixed mindset individuals letting go and allowing the firm to evolve into whatever it needs to become to serve the next owners.   Transitioning leadership teams are having to serve as mediators and negotiators within their firms, helping to bridge the gap between growth and fixed mindset individuals while running a law firm and managing their own law practices.  It’s exhausting, and not everyone has the skills to do it all.

The good news is that growth mindsets seem to be a lot more common in the up-and-coming lawyers.  Which is ironic, because we certainly don’t hire and train for that quality.  We seem to look for intelligent robots who will do as we say and not over-reach, over-ask, over-aspire.  If I were suddenly in charge of hiring for law firms, I would do the opposite.  I would seek out the independent thinkers, the rule-testers, the truly ambitious. Then I would partner them with a lawyer who could put up with their energy while building in them discipline in thought process, logic and knowledge in legal practice, and slowly help to reveal the gem underneath.   But that’s just me: I’ve always said I’d rather tame a racehorse than put a fire under a donkey.

So, what do we do with our fixed mindset lawyers?   They should not be in senior leadership in a law firm.  That means not the Managing Partner, and no more than one of them should be on the Executive Committee.  The point of leadership is to take an organization forward, not to hold it back.  Fixed mindsets don’t believe real progress is possible, so they’ll spend the bulk of their time in those positions arguing for inaction, and avoiding conflict.

They should definitely be part of the Finance Committee and the Compensation Committee – just not the majority.  And place one of them on each of the IT and Marketing Committees.  They’ll be the naysayers, but they’ll force the requirement of strong business cases for each major decision, which is a good thing in those areas.  And their participation might cause fixed mindset individuals to eventually soften by realizing that things really can evolve and improve over time.

Encourage the development of growth mindset in the firm.  How?

  • Start by talking about the difference between the two. That gives people the tools to become more aware, and to self-assess.
  • In meetings where decisions are being made, ask aloud whether the conversation is focused on a fixed or growth mindset. “Are we just digging in our heels because we’re afraid of change, or do we really believe this a bad move?”
  • Become an expert at identifying fixed mindset responses.
    • “We tried this once and it didn’t work, so let’s not try it again”.
    • “Show me ten other law firms that did this successful and maybe I’ll consider it”.
    • “I know how my clients think and what’s best for them; there’s no point asking them in a survey”.
    • “I’ve seen lawyers like him before, they never change”.

When this happens, have the courage to suggest that rather than believe things can’t improve, let’s take the perspective that our purpose is to take action to actually make change happen.

  • When an issue is being discussed, actively assign someone in the room to take the growth mindset perspective. This might cause others to switch to that mindset and add new ideas to the table.   In due course you won’t have to assign someone to do this: everyone will learn to naturally look at issues form a range of perspectives including from the growth mindset.
  • Consider your hiring and training processes from a growth mindset perspective. As part of your Associate annual survey or review, ask questions about how they are being nurtured as a lawyer to reveal whether the firm is truly “raising” them in a growth mindset, or if the reality is quite different.

This isn’t to suggest that if everyone operated from a growth mindset, life would be rosy.  Good decision-making must still occur.  Follow-through must still occur.  You can’t defend an underperforming lawyer that a fixed mindset wants to fire, and then not support that lawyer to make them more productive.  The work still needs to be done.  But approaching things from a growth mindset allows for there to be hope, belief in progress and change, and can actually set the stage for that change to be able to happen. Interestingly, I was recently listening to a health podcast (The Mindbody Green) which featured an interview with an expert on gut health.  He was asked for the one best thing people could do to lose weight. He thought for a moment and then said that aside form the many actions that could be taken (diets, exercise, supplements, sleep), the biggest promoter he can think of to effective weight loss was mindset.  Take the time first, he suggested, to wrap your head around a commitment to weight loss and a belief that it can happen, and it will significantly improve your chances of losing weight, and keeping it off.

It’s amazing how we can effect change just with our mindset.  My first career (believe it or not) was as a modern dancer.  In that profession, I learned that painstakingly practising a dance piece in your mind was as effective as practising it physically.  Olympians have known this for years.  So have people who meditate.  It’s odd to me that a profession as cerebral as law hasn’t figured out this way to get more out of the brain.   But as a growth mindset individual, I choose to believe that by reading this article, many of them will learn the incredible power of this skill.

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