Attorney Management Skills: Ditch the Lawyerly Logic

1 July, 2016

Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson


Word is attorneys are terrible managers (at least according to this piece in Fortune titled “Why are lawyers such terrible managers?”). But if we’re a little clumsy at office management tasks, that’s just because our law school curriculum typically avoids the whole topic, right?

Maybe. It surely doesn’t help. But even when attorneys get some extra training, management problems tend to persist. And after all, there are all kinds of professionals doing their work and managing a workplace. Engineers, for instance, don’t get much formal training in administering an office – why don’t we hear the same number of anecdotes about the brilliant builder who always wrecks the workforce?

The Fortune piece asserts “You can’t manage using lawyer skills,” and calls for firm partners “to accept that the approach to management is entirely different than the practice of law.

Why is this? I went looking for the foundation of bad law office management, and eventually scouted out a fascinating article from two decades ago, “Why Lawyers Can’t Manage.” In it, attorney Daniel B. Evans gives a convincing (if a bit flippantly insulting) argument that the fault in us runs deep.

This isn’t just an issue of poor management training: it’s tied to the very way that we’ve learned to think.

Law school training, says Evans, is “inherently aristotelian, not scientific.” This is what he means by that distinction:

“The socratic method used in law schools encourages students to believe that, through discussion, analysis, and contemplation, the ‘right’ result will emerge. This was the ‘scientific’ method of Aristotle, who believed that the sun revolved around the earth. The modern scientific method requires that, after you have developed an idea, you must test it and prove that it is right. Lawyers are never taught this second step, which is not part of the legal process, and so lawyers tend to believe that a group of lawyers, sitting in a conference room, can solve firm management problems without any additional input, learning, or testing.”

Evans shows what this means outside the courtroom: when a bar association was putting together guidelines for evaluating and recommending judicial candidates, they created a committee of attorneys. This committee met together and hashed out all their great thoughts. Out of those thoughts built a list of guidelines. And they did all of this without ever once talking to a judge.

“In the factual vacuum of their offices, the committee members had prepared guidelines for what they thought a judge needed to do without ever talking to a judge to find out what judges really did,” writes Evans. “This violates a simple and basic management rule: When finding someone to do a job, you first interview the last person to do that job to find out what the job is.”

“In the factual vacuum of their offices, the committee members had prepared guidelines for what they thought a judge needed to do without ever talking to a judge to find out what judges really did,”

His final conclusion: “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Not knowing how to learn from the past experiences of others, and not knowing how to test their own ideas and learn from their own experiences, each generation of lawyers will make the same management mistakes as their predecessors.”

This whole learning-from-the-past idea is about empiricism, the commitment to learning from repeatable experiments. But is it really so different from how lawyers operate? And how could it help in office management?

Science v. Law: what’s the difference?

Einstein said that expert reasoning is “nothing but a refinement of our everyday thinking.” So how different could the expert reasoning of a scientist be from that of an attorney? After all, as scholar Phoebe C. Ellsworth explains:

“Both law and science pride themselves on the rationality of their intellectual methods and believe that those methods are designed to analyze questions and reach the correct conclusions by means of reason, free from cognitive or emotional biases.”

But the kind of ‘refinement,’ in Einstein’s terms, changes with the discipline. This perhaps becomes clearest when scientific experts are brought into the courtroom. Legal scholar Susan Haack quotes the frequent upshot:

“In many respects [the scientific expert] seems to be a positive annoyance to lawyers, and even to judges at times, a sort of intractable, incompatible, inharmonious factor, disturbing the otherwise smooth current of legal procedure.”

And according to many scientists, that annoyance is a two-way street.

Of course, the attorney’s job isn’t to discover truth, but to win a case. Aristotelian logic is crucial in this context: it’s your job to take your client’s position as fact, and then find the best reading of the evidence to support that belief.

But attorneys don’t just live in courtrooms: they also have to engage in the every-day business of their firm. And in most of those cases, lawyerly logic is toxic.

Below are 6 ways that using science-based thinking instead can sharpen your management skills.

1. Scientists can change their minds

Everyone — even scientists — have a hell of a time giving up their beliefs. But for attorneys, tied as they are to precedent, the activity is even more painful. A basic premise of science is that all conclusions need to be ‘falsifiable’ — you can design experiments that could prove them false, if they’re not true. But judicial decisions aren’t falsifiable, except through a limited appeals system. Once the system spits out a final conclusion, it gains authority as ‘precedence.’

Carl Sagan wrote:

“In science it often happens that scientist say ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

Can you recall the last time that happened in your law office?

Changing your mind makes for good management in two ways. One is simply on the interpersonal level: sometimes an upstart staff member might be able to show that your idea or method is wrong, and you’ll improve office culture by graciously conceding.

But secondly: technology is changing rapidly. Our understanding of how humans function is changing rapidly, as we learn new insights from neurology, psychology, and sociology. Forever sticking with ‘precedent’ in the workplace is bad management, and your firm will suffer from it.

2. Scientists can avoid either-or thinking

The rigid binaries of law are often the areas most frustrating to scientists involved in the courtroom. As expert witnesses, they’re expected to testify as to whether a defendant is sane or insane, liable or not liable, a danger to society or safe to roam the streets. Good scientists go batty under these circumstances because they’re trained to carefully engage with gray areas and spectrums.

Ellsworth warns: “This is one reason that junk scientists are favored by attorneys more often than they should be, and serious scientists are frustrated and disillusioned by their attempts to provide useful evidence in court.”

The Harvard Business Review explored one way that categorical thinking hobbles a workplace. Since the creation of binaries creates “premature closure,” it can cause managers to put some employees in an ‘in’ group of great workers, and others in an ‘out.’ They continue:

“Having made up his mind about a subordinate’s limited ability and poor motivation, a manager is likely to notice supporting evidence while selectively dismissing contrary evidence. [. . .] What bosses typically do not realize is that their tight controls end up hurting subordinates’ performance by undermining their motivation [. . .].”

On the other hand, allowing gray areas and the possibility of change pushes law office managers to assess individuals carefully, as well as their circumstances, instead of resorting to firm binaries. The result is a more accurate idea of the capacities of those who work for you. Not only does this make you smarter about them, they’ll feel better understood (instead of preemptively judged).

Break from the shackles of categorical thinking in your workplace, and allow yourself (and the others you manage) greater creativity and flexibility.

3. Scientists can withhold a conclusion

For attorneys and judges, the clock is always ticking. A deadline looms, and the facts must be determined at that point. Will this motion be granted or denied? Is this defendant guilty or not guilty? As Ellsworth explains:

“Scientists have a great luxury and privilege that is not available to judges: when the evidence is incomplete or ambiguous, they can say, ‘I don’t know.’ [. . .] A scientist who ponders a problem and concludes that no answer is possible at the present time may be admired; a judge who reached such a conclusion would be considered incompetent”

“I don’t know.” Terrifying words to many professionals, but especially to attorneys. But when that phrase gets rusty, the culture of the workplace suffers. Pixar’s president Ed Catmull explains in an interview how admitting ignorance builds good leadership:

“Part of the behavior is I don’t know the answers. And at first that seems a little bit glib. But after awhile people get that I really don’t know the answer to a lot of these things. So we set it up so that the management really doesn’t tell people what to do. We discuss, we debate, [but] people start to refer to ‘the management,’ and I say come on guys, there’s three of us, we’re all in this together, and then we’re very open and honest about the problems.”

Not even senior partners always know the answer to everything. Humbly admitting it can build a better sense of teamwork and shared ownership within the firm.

4. Scientists can constantly seek out more information

Every legal case has an established period for sleuthing out evidence. And then there’s an end date, and any new information becomes increasingly difficult or impossible to add into the case.

In the courtroom, there’s good reason for this. Doesn’t the legal system move slowly enough already? But as a manager, you’ll benefit from donning the habits of a scientist: though they seek answers to questions, nothing is ever entirely proven ‘true.’ New information could always surface and change our view of everything.

Ditch the deadlines on learning new technology, new structures, and new routines for your office.

5. Scientists can use probabilities.

In a courtroom, you’re typically not using probabilities. You can’t just show statistics that racial minorities are discriminated against in a workplace: you have to prove that your client was personally discriminated against in this specific workplace.

While some courts are becoming more open to accepting aggregate statistical data as evidence (as in epidemiology cases, where a certain factor, like a drug, has shown a probability of causing diseases), it’s still considered inappropriate in many cases.

But for managers, statistics can be a godsend. Thinking in probabilities allows decision-makers to zoom out to a larger picture, to make connections between certain kinds of behaviors and desirable outcomes, and offers some unbiased suggestions for increasing efficiency and quality.

6. Scientists can ditch the willpower idea.

“Much of the law is grounded in a belief in personal responsibility and free will,” writes Ellsworth. A judge’s job, after all, is to assign blame — how can you talk about blameworthiness without a deep and abiding belief in willpower and fundamental choice?

Ellsworth notes that sometimes that law can consider our context, but typically only in cases that are “so extreme as to be the stuff of melodrama: someone asks the bank teller to hand over the money because another person is holding a gun to her head or breaks into a cabin in the wilderness because she is freezing to death. The extremity of these examples suggests the law’s failure to recognize the ubiquitous power of the situation in all aspects of people’s daily lives.”

We’ve written before about how our ideological attachment to willpower actually impedes us from making positive changes in our lives, workplaces, and practice. This is the kind of conclusion that comes from social science, which zooms out from individual responsibility to look at situational influences on behavior.

Without getting into ontological debates about free will, a good manager recognizes that systems deeply shape behavior. For instance: instead of blaming harried workers for getting too little work done, a good manager can set up a workplace structure and norms that reduce distractions and encourage focus.

All that lawyerly logic is crucial in the courtroom, but when you’re managing an office, you’ll need to switch your brain into a different gear.

As theologian/ethicist Bob Seidensticker put it:

“Lawyer thinking does not follow the evidence where it leads; it begins the conversation with a bias to one answer and presents only information that confirms that presuppositions. It’s natural and often feels right, but, outside the courtroom it is not the best way to find the truth.

“Make instead an egoless and collaborative search for the truth by following the facts where they lead.”