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Attorney Leadership Mistakes: 7 Ways Not to Wear Down Your Firm

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By Robin Enos on May 31, 2011 6:47 AM

Of all leadership mistakes, the law firm manager whose self-deceipt leads to an illusion things are going okay must surely be the most dangerous.

"Failing elegantly" is a sophisticated form of coping behavior to avoid, says John Hamm, Santa Clara University management professor and consultant.

Failing elegantly means a subtle shift in daily life, when your firm stops trying to win, and starts trying not to lose.

Everyone who has watched a football team sit on a lead, or a tennis player begin to sit back, or a baseball pitcher start walking batters, has seen "failing elegantly."

To avoid failing elegantly, the leader must sense when the firm has reached a critical fork in the road--when things get iffy and reputations are on the line, says Hamm.

That's when the leader needs to step forward and give direction.

Hamm lists seven ways leaders trap themselves into failing elegantly:

  • Setting impossible goals
  • Letting people get pseudo-wins by "majoring in the minors"
  • Tolerating "the dog ate my homework" excuses
  • Allowing sloppiness and imprecision
  • Encouraging editorialized data
  • Failing to measure what matters
  • Allowing an absolute commitment to winning to slip

The common element to these pitfalls? Self-deceipt, says Hamm.

Every experienced attorney can feel when a case, negotiation or transaction begins to "go south." The documents do not emerge. The numbers do not work. A witness recants. The evidence simply won't prove what you need it to prove.

So if you can see it clearly in a lawsuit or a negotiation, why not in your own law firm?

The way for a manager to avoid self-deceipt and leadership mistakes seems clear: Use your case-management skills to sense those forks in the road. Then step to the fore, just as you would when handling a case.

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