Earlier this year, surprisingly inspirational blogger James Clear made a connection between Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and the principles of getting things done.   With huge kudos to James for the original content, I’ll now translate for law firms.

Newton published the three books that comprise this work between 1687 and 1726.  The work primarily deals the study of massive bodies in motion and under a range of conditions.  Through mathematical calculations he was able to declare three fundamental scientific rules as follows:

  • First Law of Motion:  Unless acted upon by an external force, objects in motion stay in motion, and objects at rest stay at rest.

We see this law at work in individual lawyers and practice groups.  Partners who seem to be good business developers don’t wait for extrinsic motivators (such as bonuses or other rewards) to do what they love.  They just plow ahead.  Highly motivated practices groups keep momentum going and ask for permission (or forgiveness) later.  On a more negative side, we’ve all know certain partners who are aware of the spoken or unspoken “rules” in a firm but openly operate against them.  We’ve also known lawyers who watched as their practice drifted and seemed incapable of doing anything about it.   So how do you light a fire under under-achievers?  James suggests that it’s all about getting them started.  I agree, but I think the most important element here is the external force and by external, I mean from outside of the firm.  If Department Heads, Practice Group Leaders and Managing Partners could fix under productive lawyers, they would have.  Been in my experience that either won’t (that’s not our culture); or can’t (I’ve told them they have to get with the program, what else can I do?).  Partnerships are, for the most part, very bad at policing their own.  Understandably, as law firm partnerships are very flat structures so the authority one partner has over another is limited to that authority which is given.  Partners don’t have to work well together, they don’t have to like each other, and in some firms they don’t even have to be responsible for pulling their weight.  So how can a firm – under such conditions – create motion in a motionless partner or practice group?  Bring in an outside expert, to whom the firm is investing, to tell the firm what it already knows already.  Bonus points if the outside expert can also take the firm through the clean up process.  This isn’t wasted money; it’s a realistic maintenance and improvement strategy because when partners are paying an outsider for advice, they are more likely to listen to it.  And an outside voice isn’t limited by historical attempts.  They aren’t threatened by future repercussions because they’re only there temporarily.  They can make things happen that even Managing Partners can’t.

  1. Second Law of Motion: F=ma or force = mass times acceleration.  For those who are already lost, here’s how James Clear describes it: “The force, F, is a vector. Vectors involve both magnitude (how much work you are putting in) and direction (where that work is focused). In other words, if you want to get an object accelerating in a particular direction, then the size of the force you apply and the direction of that force will both make a difference….so if you want to be productive, it’s not merely about how hard you work (magnitude), it’s also about where that work is applied (direction).”

In other words in additional to action, clear intent is critical.  I’m always shocked by the number of law firms I come into contact with where the partners believe they have a strategy that they are working toward, yet it is undocumented and they can’t articulate it.  I’ve seen these same professionals argue over the catering order for a client event, or fight for a different font or image on an invitation.  Lawyers tend to be so careful about everything else they do: why wouldn’t they ensure that all of their carefully orchestrated smaller actions are feeding into a clear, logical master plan?  Yet truth be told, there is often no master plan.  Not really. Action – especially intensive action – is wasted without clear direction.  All PR is not good PR.  All marketing is not good marketing.  All action is not purposeful action.  Get a plan already.

  1. Third Law of Motion: When a body exerts a force on a second body, that second body then exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to the first body.

James uses this law to describe the effect on an individual when productive and unproductive forces are acting on them.  He suggests two options for overcoming the resulting paralysis: power through (drink more coffee, take drugs, so things that give you a short-term edge); or limit the unproductive forces by saying no, changing your mind set, getting rid of bad habits, etc. Obviously, he suggests the second option is much better for us.  But I have a third option: coaching.  Most of the individuals I work with – lawyers included – struggle with what they believe to be highly variable outside forces.  In time, they learn that they have much more control over the world around them than they ever believed possible.  In fact, we often shape the world around us to be unproductive as a way of self-sabotaging ourselves (but that’s a different post).

In all three laws, you’ll notice that the common ground is the requirement of motion.  Situations don’t change on their own; they need an instigator.  That instigator can come from within the firm, or from outside of the firm.  As this year comes to a close and we begin to think about our ambitions for the New Year, consider where and how you might be a positive instigator of motion, creating greater productivity within your practice, and within your firm.

(BTW, for those interested, James Clear writes a weekly newsletter about the science of habit formation and how to use behavioral science to improve your health, creativity, and productivity.  You can find him at www.jamesclear.com).