For years, many have discussed the skills needed to succeed in today’s rapidly changing legal environment. Traditional legal expertise is not enough. Understanding business management, project management, and process improvement has become essential for professional growth and success. Equipping yourself with these twenty-first-century lawyer skills will set you apart from the competition in today’s marketplace. However, even in these areas, current thinking soon may become obsolete. Accordingly, the most important skill to develop is an innovative mindset. Cultivating the proper mindset will enable you to navigate the constant change you will face throughout your career.
These traits are not merely of personal benefit. You can and should use them to serve the broad range of often-overlooked client needs. In short, you need to take twenty-first century lawyer skills, combine them with an innovative mindset, and apply them to serve your clients. We begin this process with empathy: the ability to understand others. Understanding others requires us to set aside our view of things and assume the perspectives of others, especially the wants and needs driving their goals. The six human needs that drive people have been identified by both Abraham Maslow (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and Tony Robbins (The Driving Force: The Six Human Needs). These needs, reflected in a client’s goals, include certainty, variety, growth, connection, significance, and contribution. Our goal is to show how an innovative mindset helps lawyers fulfill those needs and best achieve their client’s goals.
Lack of certainty causes stress; the more serious the causes of uncertainty, the greater the stress. Legal problems tend to be enormously stressful because they are typically full of uncertainty with much at stake. In seeking to understand a client’s goals, the need for certainty is too often assumed an inevitable casualty of the process. Lawyers may clearly understand what the client wants to achieve (strike a deal; prevail in litigation) and the uncertainties involved with a successful outcome; however, it is equally important to know which processes and resource commitments the client is comfortable with to achieve that outcome—this is an area in which lawyers can achieve certainty.
Lawyers rarely control most factors that determine the ultimate outcome. We have considerable control, however, over how we go about achieving the client’s goals and eliminating uncertainty about the process. Delivering a degree of certainty can be as simple as removing the elements of a surprise from a client’s workday. The elements of a bad surprise are not just a bad ruling or a frustrating negotiation. Delayed delivery of work or learning a matter has gone way over budget also creates uncertainty. Uncertainty may lead the client to lose confidence that her lawyer can meet her needs in a way she expects. In each instance, proactive communication about the issue is a way to address uncertainty inherent in the legal process.
Planning and project management aid in the problem-solving process and provide a client certainty that the work set out has an attack plan. While the occasional client may not want to know “how the sausage is made,” most take comfort in understanding what the strategy and tactics will be, who will be executing them, when, and especially, at what cost.
This is particularly true about the price of legal work. An innovative mindset helps us recognize that pricing is not merely about cost, but the ability to price a matter that addresses the client’s goals and enables a client to feel in control. This requires creativity and flexibility. Pricing created through a non-hourly model may sometimes be an answer. Nevertheless, changes in the scope of work make even forms of pricing that appear to guarantee certainty fall short. Here is where a mindset seeking to address the client’s needs is needed. Regardless of the form of the fee agreement, combining careful budgeting with transparent communication addresses the issue most directly. Create a realistic budget with the client and fully discuss the assumptions that go into it. This will give the client a sense of control over legal spend and allow the work to be focused, efficient, and more certain. Maintaining that certainty remains an ongoing task. Constantly monitor the budget against the actual performance of the work to understand when it may be time to reevaluate the initial plan. After all, things are always changing. Proactive preparation for change is essential in providing certainty.
Ironically, the need for certainty also comes with a need for variety. This often involves taking risks and embracing change, such as trying alternative processes and approaches, to help move toward a goal. Business clients understand the need for continuous improvement and expect their lawyers to implement modern methods in their work. While they may not expressly articulate it, clients will assume their lawyers share their need to accomplish things better, faster, and for less cost than in the past. The failure of lawyers and law firms to perceive this client goal is a constant source of frustration among clients.
Napoleon once said, “One must change one’s tactics every 10 years if one wishes to maintain one’s superiority.” Never become too attached to processes or methods; it is critical to be on the lookout for ways of doing things better. Today, tactics may need to change twice a year, not once a decade. In the legal environment, however, following this advice is often easier said than done. The “if it is not broke, don’t fix it” attitude is common. The innovator’s response is not to argue whether “this has always been working,” but rather to ask, “can we make this work more efficiently?” While using precedents for commonly used documents may work well, a document assembly solution might work faster and with fewer chances for error, with shared cost savings by the lawyer and the client.
Growth involves intellectual development, providing new perspectives in uncertain moments, and expanded knowledge allowing for greater variety. With an innovative mindset, lawyers see improving service to clients as a possibility in everything we do.
Process improvement illustrates the idea of growth for the client’s benefit. Process improvement involves analyzing a process, obtaining client feedback about whether the product met its needs, embracing change, and making incremental improvements. Take a software program for example. The developers started at version 1.0, revised it by identifying the negative and positive aspects of that version, sought user feedback, eliminated the negative aspects, kept the positives, and created version 2.0. By continuing to change and enhance each new version, successive versions became a better product and led to more satisfied clients. Legal clients are all familiar with this process as software users, so they assume their lawyers are too. An innovative mindset understands the more feedback one obtains about how a client’s needs are being met, the better the outcome.
This is not to say process improvement is a perfect fit or solution for every situation. An innovative mindset recognizes the importance selectivity plays in determining which processes to improve. Processes do not magically change overnight. Most clients are reluctant to risk widespread disruption. Process improvement is not about developing the best solution on the first try. Rather, it is the flexibility to experiment with efforts at improvement, whether incremental or substantial, while maintaining a positive attitude in the process.
How can planning and budgeting be critical to an innovative mindset when, at the same time, it is essential to be flexible and embrace change? After all, it was famously said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”—a military axiom, but one with which lawyers involved in an adversarial system readily agree. There really is no contradiction. To innovate, one must have a goal in mind, and the ability to marshal resources to achieve that goal. Resources, whether of time, money, or people, are not infinite and need to be carefully employed in proportion to the goal being sought. This is especially true when they are the client’s resources. Careful planning is essential to move in the right direction with the right resources. Scientists and scholars do not proceed without a hypothesis or a thesis and careful methods for proving or debunking it. At the same time, as work progresses, the unexpected will happen. A surprising obstacle, a clever opponent, or hosts of other things are likely to occur. It is here lawyers must be flexible and embrace change to rethink and recalibrate their approach. It is also essential to remember that when growth is intended for the client’s benefit unless the client is a part of the process and sees its growth as the goal, even improvements will be unwelcome and resources spent on achieving them will be considered wasted assets.
Connection is one of the most important skills of the innovative mindset. In the legal world, communication drives connection. Connection also involves unification and approval. The greatest source of problems between lawyers and clients is communication. If there are three areas in which most lawyers need to innovate and improve, they are communication, communication, and communication. The fundamental issue is not a shortage of information exchanged. The amount of information may exacerbate it. Information without context often causes its own difficulties. Take the case of email or text messages. If you receive an unexpected message without knowing why or when the message was sent, you may misread it, no matter how clear the message itself may be. Alternatively, if an email is so long and discursive to cover every point, you may lose the thread or not be able to comprehend what is important. It is the same with clients when they read your messages; they need context, clarity, and concision.
An innovative mindset knows communication is the basis for relationships. Brevity is preferred where possible. Although, to be concise sometimes takes more time, as in the old lawyer joke. Client: “why did you send me a seven-page letter?” Lawyer: “because I did not have time to write a page.” Take time to be clear and concise in internal and external communications on the front end to save explanation time on the back end, thus creating a more efficient working relationship. Use the right medium to communicate. In situations where email and text messages may be misconstrued, the communication medium is critically important. Although a phone call or in-person meeting may be more time consuming, a unified understanding of the message will save far more time in the end. Conversation allows the lawyer to display far more emotion, such as enthusiasm and positivity.
Innovation and the achievement of client goals, especially in the legal business, are rarely solitary tasks. They usually involve multiple people or groups. Enthusiasm and positivity are essential to maintain the morale and enthusiasm of the group. To be innovative often means undertaking a leadership role, and to be a leader means inspiring others to do new things and take risks. We need leaders who give an example of confidence in achieving the goals and positive outcomes they articulate. A leader exhibiting confidence in achieving client goals helps give meaning to the work. Why are enthusiasm and positivity so important, both to innovation and meeting client needs? In part because over the course of a matter there is often more failure than success. Failure, mistake, and misunderstanding need to be understood as part of the natural progression of complex events, which are inherently frustrating and discouraging, especially to our clients. However, if we have a positive and enthusiastic attitude, all parties can learn and benefit from these types of disappointment, and we can make the human connection that is fundamental to a good relationship.
The definition of significance is to have meaning, pride, and a sense of importance. Significance on the personal level can be gained through building professional relationships and, on the intellectual level, by identifying relationships through harnessing data.
On the personal level, in a world of constant communication, it is easy to lose the skill of connecting with people through actual, spoken conversation. Meaningful conversation promotes strong relationships, which enhance productivity, promote trust, and provide a sense of importance and meaning. Innovation rarely comes about without positive working relationships. This is especially true in dealing with complex legal problems. To effectuate change, there has to be trust. In turn, relationships allow for lawyers and clients to work together effectively to achieve a common goal where clients feel their ideas and needs are important and have meaning.
On the intellectual level, harnessing data provides value and meaning to seemingly meaningless sets of numbers. Storytelling through a set of defined data is an invaluable skill because numbers often provide clarity and certainty that words cannot. Modern business tends to be numbers-oriented and data-driven, while lawyers usually are verbal. A lawyer with an innovative mindset will perfect the skill of harnessing data to highlight what is important to the client. Take, for example, a presentation to a client on the likely success of litigation. Is it more compelling to hear you have a “good chance of success” or that motions to dismiss before federal district courts are granted 68 percent of the time? With the skill to harness data, lawyers can bring more depth to the story in an idiom with which clients are more comfortable.
Contribution refers to the need to give beyond ourselves and serve others. An innovative mindset constantly examines how clients can satisfy their need to contribute. Most clients have broader goals beyond their own successes. They often see their problems in a broader context: achieving justice, setting a good precedent, or bringing housing to those needing it. Understanding the client’s need to contribute can help us understand and better articulate the goals we are helping our client achieve. It can also give us a deeper sense of purpose and satisfaction in the work we perform for the client. If you can perceive this holistic relationship, there will be an unmatched level of understanding between you and your client in meeting the business and personal objectives of both parties.
Developing twenty-first-century skills and an innovative mindset is valuable for career growth. They prepare us for the constant change that is the essence of today’s legal world and better prepare us to understand and meet the full spectrum of client needs. By equipping us to perceive, articulate, and achieve our client’s goals, they afford us the opportunity to gain more satisfaction from our work. Innovation is not just about doing things better; it is about having better relationships, a better understanding of our client’s needs, and a fuller and more satisfying professional life.