THE MAGAZINE      October 2002
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Eight behaviors for embracing ambiguity. Plus, a wealth of practical pointers for use by every associate.


Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty: Lead the Way When the Way Is Changing

Philip Hodgson and Randall P. White. (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2001.) $27. ISBN: 0-273-652419.


We need to find new ways to plan our practices in the face of an increasingly complex and uncertain world. For the foreseeable future, we must learn to deal with political quandaries, stock market instability, technological turmoil and economic upheaval, to name but a few factors affecting lawyers and their clients. How will we handle it all? Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty is full of ideas and proposes a methodology to help professionals cope effectively. According to authors Philip Hodgson and Randall White, they have "identified the behaviors, skills and attitudes needed whenever rapid change produces high levels of ambiguity."

Their 10 years of research, the authors say, helped them identify eight learnable behaviors—called "Enablers" —that make handling uncertainty more effective. They also describe eight behaviors—called "Restrainers"—that prevent handling uncertainty at all.

The authors define Enablers as "the skills and capabilities that will enable you to embrace ambiguity and handle your own uncertainty." Learning those behaviors requires specific traits.

• The first is being motivated by mysteries. According to Hodgson and White, "Mystery-Seekers are drawn instinctively to the edge of their knowledge rather than the center of it."

• Second, you need to be risk tolerant. Although most lawyers tend to prefer the status quo, the authors’ research shows that "organizations that can’t face up to risks cannot shift gears easily."

• Third, you must scan ahead. "Future-Scanners" make connections between apparently disparate areas. They are then able to parlay those connections into a marketable product or a conclusion about the data that others don’t reach. (Don’t you wish you had this ability?)

• Fourth, you have to tackle tough issues. The authors call people who exhibit this behavior "Tenacious Challengers."

• Fifth is the ability to create excitement. Creating excitement requires two skills: You need to be enthusiastic and invigorating.

• Sixth, you must be flexible. "Probably the most useful of all eight Enablers," the authors write, "this skill is helpful in any situation."

• Seventh, you have to be a simplifier. This skill calls for lawyers, for example, to communicate accurately and simply without jargon.

• Eighth is the ability to be focused. People who possess this skill can say no. Perhaps Henry Ford said it best: "Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal."

Instead of bemoaning ambiguity, this book encourages everyone to embrace uncertainty as opportunity. It not only delivers a message of hope, it draws on case studies for examples that tell us how to be leaders in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty causes stress that, in turn, impairs performance. This book, however, is proof that there are ways to deal with the factors that cause such stress.

The eight needed behaviors, the authors believe, call for a new leadership style: "Its defining feature will be leaders noted for their tendency to head toward uncertainty and ambiguity." To that end, lawyers should understand and apply this message: "Expertise means an ability to learn by doing things different and doing different things each time." This book can help you add or expand this ability.


Making Partner: A Guide for Law Firm Associates

John R. Sapp. 2nd ed. (ABA Law Practice Management Section, 2002.) $49.95; LPM Section members: $39.95. PC: 511-0482.


I am a named partner in a small firm, so I’m always interested in finding and mentoring good associates. They are my future, so I want them to think like owners of the firm. However, I’ve never been comfortable with the way I’ve expressed this idea to them. I found the perfect solution to that quandary in the new edition of Making Partner: A Guide for Law Firm Associates.

Author John Sapp is the managing partner of a 350-lawyer firm in Milwaukee. He aims this book at associates who want to prepare themselves for partnership. Yet it is also essential reading for partners charged with the responsibility of hiring and managing associates.

In Chapter 1, Sapp urges associates to be well informed about the firms that hire them. He gives readers a list of questions to ask. One question that he urges is: "Will I have regular and meaningful client contact?" Wearing my hat as a partner, this question, for me, translates to: To make associates feel like owners, what meaningful client-contact do they need? This book shines with many other examples of why it’s a valuable resource for both associates and partners.

According to the author, "You must be a student of your clients and their industries. Being knowledgeable about the business trends affecting clients will enhance your ability to represent them and will endear you to them." This is advice that every lawyer should follow.

The author links the idea of "think like an owner" to the need to "Work Hard," the title of Chapter 3. He points out, "If you want to become a partner as soon as you can, you will have to work hard and make sure the partners know you are working hard."

In addition, Chapter 4’s title, "Superior Work Product," reminds us that lawyers must work long hours to meet client deadlines. This is the nature of ownership. Thus, the author writes, "One sure way to make points in the Partnership Sweepstakes is to be willing to change personal plans for the good of the client and the firm. Remember to do it with a smile."

I had to wonder if the author has some military training, because he titled Chapter 5 "Watch Your Flanks." In spite of the unusual title, every lawyer should read and follow the advice offered in this chapter: "You should pay as much attention to the support staff as the lawyers." I’m sure the people who fill these jobs in law firms everywhere could not agree more. As the author puts it, "You should be dedicated to the prosperity of the entire team—the staff, the other associates and the partners. In other words, you should do your utmost to engender harmony, to get everyone to work as a team, to make everyone look good." This is advice we all need to heed (and I can think of some who should make it their screen-saver). Sapp advocates that lawyers focus on what is best for the firm and its practice, clients, other lawyers and staff. This is how business owners think. It’s not hard, however, to find lawyers—especially partners—whose only focus is themselves.

Other chapters effectively cover personal behaviors, client communication, networking and the market mind-set. In all, Sapp has packed this 96-page book with the wisdom I was looking for in my search for the associates who will think like owners. I feel certain you will find that Making Partner fills similar needs, too.

Milton W. Zwicker ( is Managing Partner of Zwicker Evans & Lewis in Orillia, ONT, and the author of Successful Client Newsletters (ABA, 1998).