THE keystone habit for law firms

”We understand The New Normal and know that we need to change our way of working, but where on earth should we begin??” Many lawyers and law firms have asked me this. Charles Duhigg´s very informative and enjoyable book The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change offers some advice: he recommends organisations to identify and focus on keystone habits, i.e. habits that “matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives”. Keystone habits have the power to move and remodel other habits because they start a transforming process, a chain reaction.

In my view, doing post-matter evaluations is THE keystone habit for law firms. Those evaluations will remake other patterns such as focussing more on the clients´ needs, driving professional and personal development of employees and quality focus, as well as making the handling of matters and the delivery of legal advice more effective.

How do we start implementing post-matter evaluations? Let´s start by asking us, after each(!) matter, three simple and straightforward questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. How can we do this better?
  3. How did the actual costs of this matter compare to the budget or the bill?

The fact that the questions are only a few and rather simple is deliberate, because keystone habits create small and early wins. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive for lawyers whose DNA includes a strong preference for perfection. Striving for perfection is part of our training and, at least in some parts of our work as legal advisors, is required behaviour. However, “perfect is the enemy of good” (Voltaire) and striving for perfection is downright counter-productive when it comes to making necessary adaptations to a changing and complex environment. Adaptation works by way of experimenting and adjusting. Focusing on perfection in those circumstances will paralyse any organisation.

Those small wins, on the other hand, will over time create big wins. Here are a couple of examples: The answers to questions no. 1 and 2 will lead to a large toolbox of best practices. Asking clients question no. 2 and providing feedback to them on any measures taken as a consequence will strengthen client relationships. The answers to question no. 3 will pool into a database that can be mined for more accurate cost estimates. Thereby the law firm creates a culture that has client relations, constant improvements and law firm profitability at its heart. Because “cultures grow out of the keystone habits in every organisation” (Duhigg).

The operative term here is ‘over time’, since any change and the creation of any new habit requires a strong will and perseverance. A large body of research has shown that the single most important keystone habit for individual success is – willpower (the most famous research is probably the Stanford marshmallow experiment on the ability to delay gratification). Further research has shown that willpower can be trained, not unlike a muscle. In one of those studies, students enrolled in a course that taught studying habits. The students not only improved academically, they also smoked and drank less, exercised more and ate healthier – the training of the willpower muscle even had a spill-over effect into other areas of their lives. (There are schools today who give out t-shirts to their students that read “Don´t Eat the Marshmallow!”)

In my experience, there certainly is no shortage of willpower in any law firm. Without an extraordinary dose of willpower, you will not make it through law school, bar exams or any other form of legal training. So any lawyer´s willpower is a muscle that has been exercised long and well during our legal training. Let´s put this muscle to use by focusing on post-matter evaluation – THE keystone habit for law firms!

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Marion Ehmann is a lawyer as well as the founder and owner of kiMEru Coaching & Consulting AB. She uses up-to-date research and best practice plus her almost 20 years of experience in the legal profession to support lawyers in their professional development.