Are You Happy?

As many of you know, our coaching process includes much more than just evaluating your law firm operation. Many attorneys have participated in a Backyard Dreaming session with us. We don’t start by talking about the practice, but by delving deeper into the reason we’re on the porch chatting at all.

In many cases, the attorneys who have come are stuck and not sure how to move forward. Even when a practice is financially successful, there can still be something missing. Life is about balance. We want everyone to be happy and satisfied not only with their law firm practice, but with their life. If you cannot answer the question, “Are you happy?” with a resounding yes, maybe it’s time to talk with us and find out how you can change that.


What’s Important

As we all continue to watch the damage from Florence unfold across the Carolinas, it reminds us what is important in our lives. We focus on family, friends, health, and faith. Everything else takes a back seat. If you made it through the storm without any problems, hug your spouse and kids, then see how you might help others. If you were impacted by the storm, ask for the help you need. Remember, the Catalyst team is here to help you get back on track.


Are you aware?

Successful leaders tend to be excellent planners, and that requires a good track record of predicting the future. I worked with effective leaders to find out how they go about predicting the future? They observe the trends that have occurred and what is going on around them.  Back, when I was in corporate America, they called this management by walking around. Today I am no longer in a corporate position and have observed that this lesson applies to much more than business.

If you look at a business, you would see that it is more than leaders, it is something about people that get ahead.  I have seen the most skilled worker in an office get skipped over for a promotion.  When I examine what happened, I discover that this person had great skill in their chosen field but had no expertise outside of that environment.  They could be a skilled Paralegal but unable to put paper in a printer.

I began to realize that this is tied to expectations.  The business owner expected the whole job to be done, no matter what it took to get it done. This idea transferred over to life outside of the office.

We all develop expectations and broadcast expectations every day.  I may say; In three days we will go to the beach.  This statement both develops and broadcast an expectation.  Your leadership ability will be judged on how well you coordinate the four primary skills to deliver on the expectation.

  • Awareness
  • Ability to predict the future
  • People skills
  • Flexibility
  • Ability to deliver


Leadership is about being able to stand back and view the bigger picture so that you realistically appraise the situation. Once you develop this picture of what you want, you set goals that are realistic and take sensible actions toward meeting those goals. I have heard this referred to as common sense, but I believe it is based on awareness.  You can not see the big picture without some awareness. Common sense builds on your understanding of past experiences, enabling you to refine your understanding of the world and how it works.

That is great, but without some awareness, you will miss what is going on around you. You don’t catalog past experiences. Without awareness, you fail to build your skill base.  Simple things that may become important when making future decisions are missed. Going back to our beach trip;

  • How will we get to the beach?
  • Who wants to go to the beach?
  • What should we wear?
  • How much time will we need to prepare?
  • What could go wrong?

Ability to predict the future

Just knowing stuff is not enough, you must be able to use that knowledge to form an opinion.  I have met people that are in the moment and have no idea what will happen in the next few minutes.  If you ask them to commit to a plan – say a beach trip in a few days, they may agree because they like the idea but have no idea what that means.  In a few days or even a few hours, they could develop an unrelated expectation that overlays any plans for a trip to the beach.  On the day of the trip they will not be prepared and may even have no idea that a beach trip was scheduled.

Without some awareness of future possibilities, you are stuck in short-term discussions all the time.  You tend to be in react mode most of the time.

People Skills

Understand that people all come with their expectations and experiences.  If they are part of your team, you need to be able to factor in their contribution to the project.  What are their skills, what is their focus, and how excited are they about this project?  They may have no interest in going to the beach but said yes because they wanted to be part of the group.  You could ask them to fill the car with fuel, but they have no idea what that means or why it is important.


There is a Kenny Rodgers song about a gambler; you got to know when to hold them and when to fold them.  Good advice for any project.  Even with the best plans, there will be circumstances that come up that you have not considered.  Learn from those to be better in the future and decide if it is enough to cancel the project. Another lesson I learned when I was going through management training, in the long run, it makes little difference if you were right or wrong if the project ends well.  What makes an impact is how well you played the game.

If you can predict correctly all the contingencies, you are a winner.  If you have a good plan and can react positively to events, you are still a winner. If you have no plan, have no idea what is going on or do not react to change, you lose.

Ability to Deliver

This is the ability to take all you know and predict the probability of success.  This is planning.  Gathering all the resources and skills you need, developing contingency plans and assigning the task. Your reputation as a leader will be influenced by what you deliver. It is not just a trip to the beach.  A job well done is a positive impact.  Did you deliver a great trip to the beach?  If not, did you provide a positive experience to your audience?

I have talked with business people who have said; if you want a book published get dave but if you want a pot of coffee don’t ask him.  Why is that?  We tend to focus on different things, so learn to plan and delegate areas you are weak. A good leader can handle many situations and knows how to delegate when needed.

Probably a skill but I think more of a characteristic, a good leader will accept the responsibility for the failure of a project but will spread the praise for success over the team. We will talk about that next time.


Am I at Acceptance yet?

What is the difference between being positive and having acceptance when dealing with a crisis? After I was diagnosed with a muscle disease, I went to counseling where I was told not to be so negative.  At the same time, I was told that I needed to work on acceptance.  However, in order for me to do that I needed to be more positive.  I decided I was in a loop and needed some time to think about all this. Actually, I was ready to say that I was positive that my life was ruined.  Perhaps a little dramatic but still I was ready. Just to be nice, I decided to give counseling more than a few minutes.

Early on I heard a new term, radical acceptance. This I was told was acceptance without judgment. Another view is, radical acceptance is accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. It’s difficult to accept what you don’t want to be true.

I thought, okay, now we are starting to get into it.  To do this, I was introduced to the concept of Mindfulness Meditation, which opened a whole new world of questions for me. I was told that mindfulness should focus on gratitude and being positive. This was an awareness of the present moment without judgment. Instead of judgment, I should react according to my values. This sounded a lot like judgment to me. This was a lot to take in, but so far so good.

I was not going to give in that fast and slipped over to the negative side, just for a moment.  In my mind, acceptance was passive and accepting things as they were was giving up.  At this point, I was told that acceptance doesn’t mean passive resignation. It takes a huge amount of courage to accept what is, especially when you don’t like it. We quickly got back to radical acceptance.

Alright, so it is not passive, but I still feel we are going in a circle. I think I have acceptance down and I am working on not being negative. Perhaps I am over-thinking this. It is the end of session one, and I decide to give this Mindfulness a try.

After a few weeks, I started to realize just how much positive was in my life.  I got a few points for that. Starting my next session and it was suggested that I add gratitude. The suggested path to take for this was to note things I enjoy while going through my day. The idea was to slow down and recognize enjoyable moments, rather than running from one thing to the next. This took a little practice before I started to see results.

For a minute, think about what you appreciate. Slow your life down and appreciate all that you have.  Even in the worst scenario, there can be periods of joy: a spring shower, a sunset, the taste of your favorite food.  I discovered that slowing down, being mindful, and expressing appreciation actually worked. Over time, I found myself happier, calmer and experiencing more joy. Of course, my counselor told me that on day one.

Perhaps you have never had a major event in your life. Based on my journey so far, I am saying that you will go through all five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).  Nothing good happens until you get to the acceptance stage.  Remember that song “Don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble – But when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy” by Bobby McFerrin? Feel like you are stuck in the earlier stages, well start singing.


How well do you communicate?

So often we try to be politically correct and do not say what we mean. How many people do you know who say what they think you want or expect? Then there is what we are calling “fake news” today. Don’t even get me started on that. It is not about the facts or even what you want; it is about feelings. When this happens, the facts are not presented. The result is, we try to interpret what the person is trying to say. It is not only inefficient; it is exhausting.

By saying what you mean, you present the facts or your opinion so that things can be discussed meaningfully without going through this interpretation stage. It saves a lot of time but also introduces another concern. What about the feelings of your audience? I know we were trying to avoid getting tangled up in feelings, but I doubt that this is possible.

OK, we want to speak the truth and at the same time be aware of the feelings of others. Not easy, but in business and relationships, that is what we need to do. It takes a little thought and some awareness. A good leader learns how to do it.

This is only the first step, and you thought this was going to be easy. Once said, you must mean what you say. If you say what you mean, but you don’t follow through, what have you accomplished?

If you say what you mean, and mean what you say, you can build a foundation of trust. People will recognize that while they may not always like or agree with what you say, they know they will always get the truth. In business and relationships, building trust is important. By saying what you mean and meaning what you say, you’ve gone a long way to building trust. If you don’t follow through on your commitments, that trust will evaporate.

There may be circumstances that prevent you from being open like this. If that is the case, I would speak about why or not speak. If it seems like there is never a good time to speak your mind, I would look at your motive. Are you trying to communicate or mislead? If you are already in a trusting relationship, this should not be that difficult to do. Your partner should allow you the space to speak your mind. In business, this is what is needed to build a good working culture.

Now for that “fake news.” Often this happens because we are afraid to say what we mean and try to develop some credibility by referring to made up facts. When you use “fake news”, it is not our fault; it was the “fake news.” We are not accountable. These days I watch our culture of “fake news” and wonder where we will end up. It is so bad now that even some of the fake news is fake news and you have no idea what to believe. You know that two statements being made cannot both be correct, and you spiral into the interpretation pit. You attempt to put a meaning on what you have heard, and it is exhausting. Sometimes your interpretation inadvertently creates more fake news. Eventually, it gets to be too exhausting, and you just don’t believe anything you hear.

Want to be a leader, be accountable, say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say.


Living the Dream

I have talked about this before and time to do it again.

A life fully lived is one that has had its fair share of triumphs, failures, temptations, disappointments, and fake news. I believe that once I reached my mid-70s, I have discovered what works and what doesn’t. I have a better sense of what’s valuable and what isn’t. I may even have a few thoughts on how to grow old gracefully. Perhaps that was a little presumptive of myself, but what can you do at this stage of life?

Now that I have all this wisdom I was eager to share it. The first surprise I got was that nobody wanted advice. I could see that people around me had questions, but they were all focused on doing it themselves. The other surprise I found was that most people had the same number one regret once they realized that life had an endpoint. Not only people around me, but I found books on this subject with the same conclusion.

The big regret was this; they did not realize their dream. Most often I have seen it expressed like this; I wish I’d dared to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. All I had to do I look at my own life to see this. I got caught up in what well-meaning parents, children, spouses, mentors or bosses wanted. I have a very creative three-year-old in my life that gets just about whatever she wants.

When I was teaching self-mastery, I would say that little is more important than finding your path – and accepting the responsibilities and obligations that come with it. Most people understand this but rarely do it. It can take courage and determination to overcome the expectations of family, co-workers or that cute grandchild. Sometimes it is not others holding you back, it is you.

There are a lot of reasons that we don’t follow our dreams. One of my surprises in life was a health issue that was not diagnosed until I was 70. The people I have met in my support groups, as well as myself, have discovered that our time here is shorter than we think. Health grants us the freedom to pursue our dreams, and once it’s gone, we lose that ability. For years I postponed my dreams, deferring to the needs and wishes of others. Most often I was talked out of my plans and did not aggressively pursue my dreams. I always thought I had time until one day I woke up and discovered I was out of time.

Now I have another choice to make. I can give up, or I can start living. You don’t have to have some major event in your life to get this choice, you can decide now. You don’t have to be a jerk about it and go rob a bank, but you can start on the journey. If you are at a loss on how to start than step one is to ask for help.


It is all about why, not just how

Back in my college days, I was told that “If you know how you will always have a job but if you know why you will be the boss.” That advice has stood the test of time. Often I will meet someone new on the job making a long list of notes reminding them how to do a task. Often there is a complete process document available that describes all the steps, which is ignored. My granddaughter would say: what is going on here?

When you are new to a job or task, it is understandable that you want to understand all the steps. I even understand the creating of lots of notes. What I never understood is why many people never attempt to understand why they are doing something.

The problem with reams of notes documenting how to do something is if one step changes or something is added you have to start over. I would see people getting frustrated on the job because a step no longer works. They are lost. Not all the time, but depending on the complexity this can happen. Some combination of the two approaches seems to me to be the best solution.

The missing element to understanding why is an understanding of the big picture. Let’s say that you have been hired as a legal secretary at a law firm. Your assignment is to send out a letter to the client. You have a case management system that reminds you to send the letter, and in most cases, that same system will generate a letter for you. Built into this process are many steps that include pulling up a template, gathering information from the case file, sending a file to a printer, and mailing the letter. But what happens if a step fails? The template is missing, the case management file was not populated, the printer is offline, etc.

That legal secretary will have a job, but someone that understands the big picture will be the boss. Now, I am not the boss, but many times I will get called in when something does not work. I arrive on the scene, and after a few minutes, I say something like, turn the printer on. Everyone looks on in amazement. That was oversimplified, but not by much.

You want to be the team leader or the boss; you need to know more than just how to do the job.


Are we doing a strategic plan?

The other day we had a teleconference focused on strategic planning. The questions we were getting were all very detailed and focused on execution. These were not pre-planning questions. Before we got too far off course, I started asking questions, and I realized the audience was not focused on strategic planning. Most of the audience was focused on the execution phase of their business. We had a short session talking about what strategic planning was and what this teleconference was about. That kind of killed the mood, so we regrouped and got down to the basics of planning.

Often I hear the words “plan” and “strategy” being used interchangeably. The meanings of the words are similar; a method for achieving an end, however, I believe there are differences between these words as well. A plan is a program, or a scheme for a definite purpose. A plan is very concrete and doesn’t allow for a lot of deviation. If “Plan A” doesn’t work, you usually don’t alter “Plan A” and try again; you move to “Plan B;” something different. A strategy, on the other hand, is very flexible and open for adaptation and change when needed. When we do strategic planning for a client, the deliverables or output from the strategic planning is a set of plans: business plan, security plan, marketing plan, etc.

A plan is usually a list of steps taken to accomplish a goal. A plan tackles questions like how, when, where, who, and what? A plan is vital to the success of almost any effort. However, developing a plan should not be the first step in addressing a task. More often than not I see our clients rushing to develop a plan before they know what they want.

When planning for the future, it helps to strategize and consider the various scenarios you might be faced with and be prepared to modify your strategy so you can keep moving forward, rather than starting over at the beginning. Strategic planning is also a good way to prevent many iterations or variations of plans.

A strategy is bigger than a plan. Strategy tackles the questions of what and why? A strategic plan looks at the big picture as well as the many paths to the desired outcome. A strategy looks at every possible influencing factor and comes to terms with the big picture, not just one result. It is in strategic planning that we develop the mission statement, define the values and do the SWOT analysis.

A plan says, “Here are the steps,” while a strategy says, “Here are the best steps.” Strategy speaks to the reasons why, while the plan is focused on how.

In a perfect world, the strategy always comes before a plan and shapes the details of the plan. A strategy is the combined wisdom that coordinates all of the plans to effectively reach the goals. It is not uncommon to find a business owner operating under a business plan or marketing plan that has no match to the mission statement or to what the business owner said he wanted.


Time is a key resource

We all have abilities, resources and a role to play in this life. Sometimes we squander our resources, abuse our abilities and misunderstand our role. My experience has been that we eventually figure life out, or at least most of us do. Sometimes we figure it out too late in life, but we figure it out.

Our abilities include knowledge, wisdom, physical strength, dexterity, and skills. You can probably add to my list of abilities, but that is my top five. Then we have resources like time, money, family, relationships, and inheritance. Feel free to add to my list, but these are my top five.

I was thinking about these lists and had an interesting thought develop. Of the five resources, I have some control over 4 of them. I can make, steal, or earn money. I can change my family, develop or end relationships, and even influence an inheritance.   What I cannot do is change time. How about my abilities? I can obtain knowledge, develop wisdom, increase physical strength, improve dexterity and acquire skills. When all my theoretical talking ends, I realize that I cannot buy time and cannot control many of the hazards of life.

When my father was in his 80s, he would tell me that I would gain wisdom over time and would reach a point when I would realize that I should have listened earlier in life. Never knew what that meant until I reached 75 years of age. One day, I heard myself telling one of my children that same thing. I stopped with a slight chill thinking where have I heard this speech before. Yep, it was my father.

For 75 years I have been gathering information about life, and gradually I could see a stop sign ahead. I am not able to calculate how far away it is or what is beyond it, but for the first time, I can see it. With that clarity, I can also see a road out in front of me. Along the way, I met a therapist that told me an analogy of several roads that I could travel down. There are my road and several side roads where I can see friends and family traveling on. Sometimes I am tempted to divert to their road and often get lost. Now I have this clarity about my road.

Sometimes it takes a swift kick in the pants, my father would say, to wake us up. About five years ago I got that swift kick. When I look back on life, for many years I thought I had time to enjoy life. I thought I had all the abilities and resources I needed to make it up the next step. The swift kick was in the form of a diagnosis of a muscle disease. I spent three years going through the five stages of grief before I accepted several interesting challenges in life. My abilities and resources were no longer infinite, and they would diminish over time. Add to this the fact that I can now see a stop sign off in the distance and I develop a real appreciation of time.

I am luckier than many recipients of a swift kick. My kick in the pants was a gentle nudge. I still had abilities and resources. Not everybody gets that luxury. Now I add this to my wisdom bag, why wait so many years for the kick in the pants?

What are you waiting for?


Let’s do a Strategic Plan

Lately, I have started to see more focus on strategic planning and tools like the Balanced Scorecard when we talk about Law Firms. We started focusing on strategic plans about ten years ago when we started working with our first law firm. We have not found a lot of law firms that have a strategic plan they are following. The idea of a balanced scorecard frequently goes hand and hand with strategic planning, and it is still difficult to find that idea implemented. If these two ideas have become almost universally accepted why is it so difficult for a law firm to implement? Or, perhaps the real question is, do these ideas apply to a law firm?

Based on the law firms that we have worked with and the success we have seen, these two ideas apply. So, it is not that these concepts are difficult to implement or don’t apply that they are not being used. I believe the problem is that most law firm owners do not understand the value of the concepts. But even that is a bit of a stretch. When I look a little deeper, I find several reasons.

  1. By far the first reason on my list is that law firm owners have trouble defining their business objectives. It sounds crazy when you hear this, but I have found that most law firm owners cannot tell me what their vision is. In fact, even crazier, they cannot tell me why they are in business. OK, they can say “I want to make money” but why baffles them. The whole idea of having a well-defined vision for the business is the foundation of strategic planning.
  2. Strategic planning is all about defining the vision and then creating a roadmap to realize that vision. This is a top-down process. Since the “leader” generally does not know what the vision is, this is turned into a group effort. The resulting statement was sufficiently vague and so fragmented that it was doomed from the start.
  3. When the group finally starts writing the plan, there is a tendency to move or skip right to execution. Immediately jumping to an action plan without going through the process of clarifying the strategy sometimes has you going down the wrong path.
  4. I find that nobody is identified as the owner of the plan or the person accountable for the implementation. Everyone wants to contribute their ideas, but they are not the owner of the plan.   In fact, it should be the law firm owner that is accountable for the plan. This is a new concept for a lawyer/owner because they see themselves as a professional whose only responsibility is to their clients. They frequently separate themselves from the business.

These concepts have been around for many years in Corporate America but only for a few with law firms, so there is not a long history of success to point to as evidence of value. Where we have implemented these concepts, we see success. Often it has been between one and two years before we see measured success in the law firms we have worked with. The first year is all about planning and the second is gathering data from the balanced scorecard.

When the strategic plan is used to develop action plans, and the balanced scorecard is used to measure the results that can be used to improve the plan, we typically see a clear picture of the law firm. The four areas that are measured in our balanced score card are;

  1. Finances – those measures that measure financial success. This is everyone’s favorite because it is what they are used to. How much money did I make? How big is my bonus this year? This is real to everyone.
  2. Client Service – those measures that capture how well the firm served their clients. Law firms frequently focus on client service but never measure it. So, this is something all law firms want. The problem is leadership has trouble relating this measure to success or failure. If I improve client service by 10% what happens?
  3. Growth – those measures that capture how well the firm is doing to improve. This is the measure that will tell you if you will still be in business in a few years as the market changes. It is a measure of how effective the firm uses the human resources (staff). One of the problems here is that frequently staff is viewed as only a resource instead of being a key element of the business process. How do you relate training your paralegal to an improvement in the bottom line?
  4. Internal Processes – those measures that capture how efficient and effective the business process is. How are the tools, like the case management system, used? Do you have the right mix of skills, tools, workspace, and supplies? Frequently many steps in the process are skipped or ignored, so it is not easy to show how a quality review of a few process steps is beneficial. Most of the law firms I have worked with view their business as being skill based and not process based when, in fact, a high percentage of the business is process based.

Before we get to the execution phase, we need to have a good understanding of what we want to build and how we are going to measure success. Without this, we will be fighting fires every day and depending on brute force to make it through the day. Very little business improvements or refinements are going on. Is the law firm a business with business processes that react to the best business practices of the day? In the competitive environment we are in today, those law firms that are viewed as a business have a better chance of being here tomorrow.

One of my favorite stories I remember from our years working with law firms was a firm that was celebrating a million-dollar settlement. I, being the ole auditor that I used to be, started asking questions, like what was your return on investment. I got a lot of blank stares. With a little research, I could see that the “business” lost money. That peaked my interest, so the next question was, what was the vision of the “business?” I wanted to find out if they expected to make money. Well, more blank stares. We could dig deeper into this hole all day. Dare I ask to see the strategic plan for the business? Maybe tomorrow, I am getting some cake and coffee.