HR professionals, and I hope most lawyers, have at some stage asked themselves what the key ingredients are of a high-performing lawyer. There must be some critical elements of skill, knowledge or motivation that mean some lawyers find success more readily than others.
Recent research suggests that the most successful senior people have a high level of flexibility of thinking. This flexibility allows them, for example, to switch readilybetween the detailed thinking required when handling matters in their specialist area, thinking strategically about how they are developing market presence, or thinking collaboratively to build rapport with prospective clients.
However, it is notoriously hard to shift thinking patterns. A lawyer who has built their reputation with clients by being a detailed thinker, spotting the minutiae that makes all the difference to a legal matter, may struggle to develop a more strategic set of thinking patterns to create a vision for their team or firm.
Often, the type of thinking lawyers need to handle their professional work does not equip them for the demands of business development at partner level. In developing a programme for lawyers on a structured pathway towards partnership, a focus on core thinking will bring success.
It is necessary to move away from a reliance on behaviour-based development. Training that aims to change people’s behaviour may not succeed if people’s basic thinking is left untouched so that, for example, a person may know what is needed to work strategically on their business, but long-imbued thinking styles will tend to drag them back to concerns of detail and caution.
Thinking styles may best be defined as the thinking preferences that each of us show from an early age. Author Fiona Beddoes-Jones, who has created a psychometric test to identify thinking preferences, has defined 26 different thinking dimensions. She says that the way we think determines how we behave, which in turn impacts on our success as professionals. To overplay a limited repertoire of thinking styles could limit a lawyer’s potential – for example, a strong preference for ordered, logical thinking may be seen as useful in a client meeting, but if the client is a successful entrepreneur, the lawyer’s success may depend as much on their ability to build rapport with the client by flexing to a more creative, right-brained, spontaneous style of thinking. The ability to tune in to other people’s thinking wavelengths and react accordingly comes with familiarity with what thinking styles are available.
Another example of a thinking style is ‘internal thinking’. This is typified by the degree to which a person relies on their own judgement for decision-making, whereas ‘external thinking’ would be typified by someone who goes to others for feedback and confirmation before coming to a decision. Of course, both are valid styles, but you may expect an experienced lawyer to be doing more internal thinking.
You may use ‘collaborative thinking’ more or less than ‘competitive thinking’. Almost all partnerships have to work hard to get their leading partners to work across the internal boundaries of their firm so that they can maximise the potential of their expertise and sell their full capability to clients. Firms may take the initiative to organise themselves according to industry groupings or client sectors, but if the thinking of partners remains competitive then they may struggle to really reap the benefits of working across practice groups. Flexibility of thinking would allow you to be competitive or collaborative, strategic or detailed in the right places for the best results.
Paul Conway is a director at consultancy Sputnik Development Training