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What would happen if law firm leaders placed a greater emphasis on the personal and professional development of a firm’s lawyers? What would it mean to the success of the firm as a whole? Those who believe in and promote learning and growth in others—and in themselves—are the ones who position their organizations to rise to their fullest potential.
I recently attended a conference in which the keynote speaker, a managing committee member at a large -international law firm, encouraged firm leaders to “invest in, inspire and help associates find their passion in the law.” This wasn’t just another speech about retaining lawyers longer so the firm can eek every possible billable hour out of them. It was about making lawyers’ professional development and growth a high priority for firm leaders. While this certainly sounded inspiring, I thought, could such an emphasis actually lead to greater success for the firm as a whole? After all, law firms are businesses and, like in other businesses, making a profit has to be a high priority, too.
In researching this idea, I came across a book titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, a leading expert in motivation and personality psychology. She describes a range of research that concludes that
a leader’s mind-set about people’s ability to continually grow and learn can have an enormous impact on an organization.
Growth versus Fixed: What’s Your Mind-set?
Dr. Dweck describes the qualities and effects of two types of attitudes or mind-sets: the fixed mind-set and the growth mind-set. While we can possess a combination of these mind-sets, she says, each one has a distinct impact on our success in reaching our potential.
A person who has the growth mind-set believes that people can improve their intelligence and abilities through their efforts. This mind-set focuses on lifelong learning. Someone with this attitude looks for opportunities to be challenged and to learn new skills, even in the face of not necessarily succeeding the first or even second time around.
In terms of fostering others, a leader with the growth mind-set believes in the human potential of his or her people and looks for ways to help them develop. Such a leader will view mistakes as part of the learning process and encourage taking risks as a way to build one’s skills and intelligence. Leaders of this type do not see abilities and intelligence as fixed—rather, a given individual’s IQ is only an indicator of where that person is at currently, not where he or she is going.
Those with the fixed mind-set, as you might suppose, see intelligence, abilities and personality as “carved in stone.” That is, people come with a certain level of intelligence, specific abilities, talents and character traits that cannot be changed. We are who we are, in other words.
In managing others, leaders who have the fixed mind-set believe that mistakes are an indication of an individual’s lack of abilities. They want to work with those who can prove their knowledge and skills on each assignment. Also, because of their belief that qualities are fixed, they themselves seek out situations in which they can succeed and once again prove themselves as intelligent and talented. While everyone wants to work with those who are talented, supervisors with this mind-set steer away from those who appear to have greater intelligence or skills than themselves. They judge others and themselves in every situation.
Can you see how each of these mind-sets would have an impact not only on your own work, but on how you approach supervising others? Which lawyer would you prefer to work with—one with the fixed mind-set or one
The Impact of Mind-set on the Work Environment
I have often heard associates say that a particular partner “wrote them off” after their first assignment. Well, consider that if a partner holds the conviction that one’s abilities and intelligence are fixed and cannot change with experience, it is all too easy to “write off” young lawyers if they do not prove themselves from the very first assignment. This type of working environment—where quick judgments are made about people based on their current abilities versus their potential for growth—presents obvious downsides.
People will be afraid of making mistakes.
A good example of this would be a young lawyer who was very successful in the academic environment, but fails to demonstrate progress within a fairly short period upon entering the law firm environment. In all like-lihood, though, the seeming “failure” is not because our young lawyer isn’t talented or smart, given her success in school. Instead, it could be that this associate possesses a fixed mind-set. And if she is, in turn, working for a partner with a fixed mind-set, the attitudes of both may conspire to prevent further growth and development, particularly in the demanding law firm world.
With the growth mind-set, on the other hand, the associate views new assignments as a way to build skills and abilities, with each new challenge presenting an opportunity to develop further. Likewise, the growth-minded supervising partner would view himself as a teacher, often giving immediate feedback that notes improvements and promotes learning. A growth-minded supervisor knows that giving individuals opportunities to develop helps motivate them to reach their potential and ultimate goals. And they know it’s not just good for the individual, but also for the organization as a whole. This attitude believes in learning, growing and moving the entire firm forward.
Creating a Growth Environment
Over and over again, studies show that environments that encourage the growth mind-set are ones that succeed over the long run. These are the organizations that can change as new information, opportunities and challenges arise. They understand the need to focus on long-term growth. And their leaders know that with coaching, training and practice, the qualities required for individual success can be developed effectively.
Remember the keynote speaker from the beginning of this column? Clearly her call for firm leaders to help associates “find their passion in the law” represents the growth mind-set. But which mind-set describes you? If you identify with the fixed mind-set, you may do well to look for opportunities to encourage the growth mind-set in yourself and others. Remember, inspiring, developing and investing in your people is the foundation for creating an environment that leads to ultimate success for the whole firm.
Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA, 2000).