Precedent figures heavily in most law practices, so it’s understandable that lawyers would rely on past experiences and belief systems in the running of their lives as well.  Life experience can create wisdom.  It can also lead to our greatest weak spots.  In over twenty years of coaching lawyers, my primary goal has been to help them to identify and overcome old belief systems that are no longer working for them but that they continue to use to the detriment of their careers.

For example:

  • A lawyer who is held back from partnership because of a lack of delegation, but can’t help it as they believe they are the only one who can do the work properly;
  • A lawyer who is not meeting their target because they believe that the firm charges too much money for their services, so they continually write down/off the bills;
  • A lawyer whose practice is dwindling but they do nothing to revive it as they aren’t skilled in business development, have never had to do it and actually, don’t believe it should be part of their job.

Belief systems are our brain’s shortcut to rationalizing our actions.  Our brain is a marvelous processing device but it simply can’t keep up with the stimulus and decisions we’re required to process on a daily basis.  So, it filters heavily and decides what we will focus on.  Then it reacts, like auto-pilot, to many situations based on past experience coupled with our declared value systems. (For more on this, see my previous article “Why Branding Works and Why Law Firms Should Care”). It’s an efficient system that works for us, most of the time.  But every so often, that system fails us. Why?  Because the success of this automatic reaction is base on the premise that the underlying experiences, values and belief systems for that issue are still valid.  Sometimes, they aren’t.

Old belief systems can be as detrimental to us as a lack of skill.   Not that all old belief systems are problematic.  Many continue to serve us well. But the ones that don’t can trap us, stop us from progressing, form out blind spots and otherwise mess up what could be a brilliant career.  The trick is to learn which beliefs are serving us, and which are causing our pain.  In fact, that’s the first test: is my life working right now or is something incredibly hard and just doesn’t seem to be improving?  That might be a sign that an old belief system is getting in your way.

Scenario #1: Are You Leading, or Just Parenting Badly?

One of my clients is in the process of taking over the family legal business from his retiring parents.  He’s noticed that every time he gets particularly engaged in an element of the business, his father will swoop in and tell him how it should be done.  Often, the father will then simply take over the project.  There was a time in the son’s youth when, admittedly, he flitted from project to project.  He didn’t finish things, didn’t have much of a sense of commitment to anything, and lacked confidence in his actions.  That isn’t the lawyer and businessman of today, which the father realizes or he wouldn’t want his son to inherit the business.  But the father hasn’t caught up with this new reality because he’s clinging to an old vision he has of his son. In so doing, he’s tearing away at his son’s enthusiasm for taking over the law practice which is sabotaging the very thing the father wants to achieve.

Partners in law firms do this all of the time.  They purport to be mentoring another lawyer but really, they’re teaching that lawyer that the only way for them to progress in their career is to get as far away from that Partner as possible so they can start to learn.

There might be history there where that Associate messed up, so the Partner feels they have a valid reason for their heavy-handed approach.  If that’s the case:

  1. Consider whether that reason might actually be ancient history. Was the incident more than a year ago?  If so, lawyers are bright.  My guess is they probably learned from their error and are operating much more effectively now.
  2. Remember your goal which is to ensure the Associate can effectively do a particular task. They aren’t going to get there by having you pull the document out of their hands and doing it yourself.  Remember the saying “Give someone a fish and they eat for a day.  Teach someone to fish and they eat for a lifetime”.

Take a step back and examine your behaviours and what might be motivating them.  You may find that your auto-pilot belief on the issue is based on either an outdated information or an unclear goal.

Another autopilot we use is in the selection of our leadership style generally.  We tend to lead the way we were led, even if that was cruel or abusive (or ineffectual in another way).  I had a boss who liked to tear down the confidence of those around her and try then try to build them up again in her image.  It was toxic.  Consider the culture you are establishing around you by your actions.   (For example, if it’s unsafe to fail around you, then you may create or attract lawyers with a combination of the following personality traits: secretive, egotistical, fearful to take action, obstinate or inflexible, untruthful, untrusting of others, the list goes on).  Question whether the style in which you were mentored truly was effective, or whether you excelled despite that treatment or in determination to prove that person wrong.  That mentorship style might have made you the person you are, but from a very bad place.  That doesn’t need to define how you operate today.  Let go of those old, embedded beliefs and decide how you want to do things differently and better.

Scenario #2: Are You Sabotaging Your Own Career?

I’ve coached hundreds of Associates over the years and part of my coaching process is to have them articulate what a wonderful, inspiring, financially rewarding career would look like.  “But I can’t have that here” they moan.  Why not?  Because they have developed a belief system about the firm’s limitations for them.  “This firm won’t let me change practice areas/stop working with this Partner/work part-time/get coaching/support me financially to do more business development”.

Here’s the thing: I’ve yet to meet a firm that wasn’t open to negotiating conditions with an Associate they wanted to keep.  Firms are looking for initiative.  They aren’t going to announce that they are looking for members of the firm to go part-time or to change practice areas.   But if a strong Associate came to them with a compelling business case and a strong proposal, in my experience they will support it.  Trust me.  A firm would far prefer that Associates (or junior Partners) speak out about their issues and propose viable solutions than to receive a letter of resignation from those unhappy lawyers.

Another way to self-sabotage with old belief systems is to under-value yourself.  It starts from childhood when we are declared as an expert or are weak at something.  For years, my two elder sisters were declared as the “smart” ones and I was the athletic one.  As a result, I thought of myself as the dumb one, or at least the not-so-smart one.  Imagine my surprise in University when I aced my classes.   I was forced to change my opinion of myself, which over time resulted in very different life and career choices.

OK, all lawyers are smart but what other assumptions are you making about yourself that stem from years’ back?  Do a new self-assessment/skills inventory every few years.  Ask friends to help you…they might see things about you differently than you do (in part because they are seeing you through a lens reality instead of the lens of history).

Law firms are also great at classifying people in the firm. That lawyer is good at this, that lawyer is bad at that.  Lawyers eventually take these beliefs on and effectively keep them true.   “After all, if I’m known for being bad at business generation/working with others/practice management, I won’t bother learning how to do these things better”.  As an alternative, let’s look at each career as a progressional pathway where intelligent individuals are in fact capable of improving in areas – even becoming an expert in those areas where previously they had a deficit.  With this subtle perspective shift, we’d spend less time pigeon-holing people into deficits and more time supporting their continued growth and development.  They would in turn sense that investment, which might cause greater determination in themselves to change their belief system about themselves in that area and harder on it.

There’s also the flip side where an Associate has the belief that they are worth far more than they really are.  This is particularly prevalent with millennials, as their upbringing was one where they were told they were incredibly valuable, could do anything they wanted and had immediate gratification.  (For more information on this, see “The Millennial Question” with Simon Sinek on Youtube.  In fact, every lawyer who works with millennials should take 15 minutes to watch this video – it’s well worth the time).   If their belief is that they’re not getting what they think they are worth, help them to test that theory.  Encourage them to examine objective data on someone in their position.  Help them understand where they are in the pecking order (i.e. our five-year Associates are billing the following range and earning in the following range.  Here’s where you sit).  Share information on what is considered during the compensation assessment process.  If the Associate believes they should be bringing home 2/3rds of what they bill, help them to understand that that math doesn’t add up.  They need help in obtaining better data and in developing a more realistic decision-making process.

Belief systems vs. goals

Belief systems are generally thoughts we have about our skills, capabilities or situation that we feel are true and unshakable.  Sometimes (but not always), a belief system is closely tied with a purpose or goal.  For example, I worked with a senior partner who wanted to prepare for retirement but felt they had to continue to serve as the primary lawyer for all of their clients and had to touch every piece of work for every single client.  After all, it had been an effective strategy for them for the past forty years.  We realized this came from a prior belief system that they had to successfully maintain a practice.  They came to acknowledged that this belief was no longer valid.  Their goal now was to retire rather than to keep working.  They realized that their present actions were in conflict with that new goal.  This in turn made them more open to changing behaviours by mentoring other lawyers into those relationships and onto those files.  They still wanted those clients to be managed as carefully and professionally as they had been in the past, so their mentoring took those goals into account.

When should we rethink our belief systems? 

We can do this when something clearly isn’t working, which is a sign that it’s a time for self-reflection.  The start of a project is also a good time to consider the belief systems on which you are basing the project design/process/goals.  I include a belief system challenge in my annual personal planning process by considering my belief foundations in each area in my plan including being a good partner for my husband, being a good parent for my children, running my finances and household, running my business well, and being a good citizen of the world.   It’s remarkable how often I find that circumstances have changed and I need to approach the area from a new perspective.  For example, my children are now young adults, not eight and ten-years-old.  They obviously require from me a completely different supportive approach.

How do we do this? 

Do this by considering the situation and declaring what your belief systems are about that situation.  Next, ask yourself if those belief systems still hold true, or if anything might have changed in the past one to ten years that might shift that belief system.  If you find the belief system has in fact changed, then re-defined what your goal is around that situation.

Obviously, this is a large topic and I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully you get the idea.  A decision is not a good decision just because you made it.  A reaction might come from a place of historical ratification, but it might be outdated and inappropriate for today’s situation.  These decisions and actions need to be based on the right data and that means that you should question the underlying belief systems on which your decisions or reactions are based.

(This articled was first published in SLAW)

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