One Key to Success: Have a Bias Towards Action

Action!What’s one of the most common clichés about lawyers? Okay, other than being rude and mean.

It’s that they’re risk-averse.

Unfortunately, in the rapidly shifting world in which we all suddenly find ourselves, that’s a serious problem! Why? Because to be successful these days, you really need to have a bias towards action. In other words, it’s time to put away the risk-aversion and get on with things.

What Does it Mean to Have a Bias Towards Action?

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about making foolhardy decisions on a whim. (Like, you know, going to law school without figuring out how you’re going to pay for it…)

Obviously you want to do the necessary research and thinking before making any important decisions, but — here’s the thing:

You’re never going to have all the information you want.

Your goal when you have an idea should be to quickly evaluate its feasibility (“Is it possible that I could intern for a judge next summer? Sure, probably.”) then start taking low-costs steps towards achieving your goal.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

The key here is not to put all your eggs in one basket! (This is where lots of lawyers and law students go wrong when they’re job hunting.)

If you wanted to work for a judge, for example, and knew of one possible option via your best friend’s mother’s sister-in-law, would you just send that person a letter and hope for the best? I hope not! Obviously I’d like you to send that letter, and follow it up with a phone call a few days later, but it would be foolhardy to stop there.

You’d be better off casting a wide net: Talking to professors for suggestions, contacting any friends who have connections, researching local chambers and finding out if they accept interns, talking to students or alums who did what you want to do, and so on.

“Well,” you argue, “what if I do all that and it still doesn’t work out? What then? Doesn’t that make me a total loser who wasted a bunch of time?”

Um, no. It makes you an energetic person who tried some things that haven’t — yet — worked out. In total, you lost, what? A few dollars for coffee and stamps? A few hours of your life? A bit of ego? Really, there are worse things! (Like, for example, doing nothing, and learning nothing.)

Of course you don’t want to do the same stuff over and over if it’s not working, but that’s the point. If you don’t act, you can’t know if it’s not working! Without action, you’re just guessing.

How Can You Become a Person of Action in a World of Risk-Averse Do-Nothings?

“Fine,” you say, “this all sounds good if I’m acting on my own behalf. But I’m going to work as a lawyer for someone else. I just have to do what they tell me to do.” Fair enough.

In my experience, lawyers spend inordinate amounts of time in meetings and on phone calls, endlessly debating their options. “Should we file this motion?” “Well, let’s see what the rest of the joint defense group thinks.” Boom! An entire afternoon gone.

I’m sure not every legal job is like this, but a lot are. How can you start to break out of the rut of endless discussions, in a productive manner?

  • Run experiments. Rather than just talking about the different positions you might take, why not quickly write each one up in brief format? Once you start writing, there’s a good chance that a clear front-runner will emerge, and/or that you’ll see things you couldn’t see during the discussion. Why? Because actually writing out each argument forces you to think about the details in a logical manner, and illustrates which arguments are easier to make a case for. (Hint: Those are probably your better arguments.)
  • Set the parameters of the discussion in advance. This can be tricky if you’re not technically in charge of the meeting, but there are ways to do it. Try sending an email to the person in charge, saying “Hey, so my understanding is that we need to decide on X, Y, and Z in this meeting. Is that accurate?” Even the act of having to consider whether what you said makes sense will help the person in charge focus on action steps, rather than endless discussion.
  • Constantly evaluate. Any time you do a piece of research, or exchange emails on a topic, or have a meeting or phone call about something, ask the same question: “What did I learn from this?” If the answer is “Nothing,” change tactics moving forward. Meanwhile, constantly be asking yourself, “Could I take action on [whatever you’ve been assigned to do] right now?” If the answer is that you truly couldn’t, figure out exactly what you need to move forward. And no cheating! If you really could write the motion you’ve been assigned, but you feel like you need to do more research, get started. You can do the research as you go, and it’s more productive to start writing.
  • Think about whether someone else already knows the answer. The most mindnumbing discussions I ever sat through were those that had a clear answer, it just wasn’t known to anyone in the room. For example, “What’s local practice in Delaware for filing X?” How would an action-oriented person handle this situation? By tabling the discussion and calling local counsel, who would immediately know the answer, afterwards. How do many lawyers handle such questions? By speculating about what’s probably the case, based on how other jurisdictions they’ve practiced in handle X. Total insanity! If someone else knows the answer, just ask them.
Take Advantage of Opportunities

Enough ranting about silly lawyer quirks.

One final piece of advice: Keep an eye out for opportunities, and take advantage of them.

For example:

  • Is there a job you want to apply for, but you’re not exactly qualified in all respects? Round up. If you’ve got more than half of the characteristics they’re looking for, you’re qualified to apply.
  • Is there an area of law you want to explore as a career option? Schedule an informational interview (or several) and start learning about it.
  • Do you want to have closer relationships with your professors? Get a group of students together, and invite a few professors to lunch. (They still have to eat, just like normal people!)
  • Are you curious about social media? Start a Twitter account, and follow some people with interesting stuff to say. Or join a LinkedIn group and contribute to the discussion just a little more than you’re comfortable with.
  • Is someone offering you help? Take it! Turning down the offer of help (which usually stems from either fear or ego), is just silly. No one got where they are totally on their own.

If you want to see how this bias towards action idea plays out in real life, check out this great interview from Happy Go Legal. Notice how many times the interviewee rolled up his sleeves and got in touch with a bunch of people he didn’t know, or barely knew. Action! Love it.

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  1. Stephanie says

    Spot on with every point. I definitely agree that lack of action inevitably leads to lack of results, yet so many people out there choose to stick with the status quo of not knowing, not understanding, not trying, and not giving it their best. Even worse, most people refuse to take the first step of evaluating their current situation, so they have no idea where to go next. I especially appreciated your suggestion to take a step back and determine whether you actually learned anything from a meeting or phone call. It’s always surprising to realize how much time can be lost on efforts that do not produce results. Thanks for yet another great post!

    • You’re welcome! It’s definitely hard to break the habit of “do what you’re told and everything will work out,” since that’s what most of us grew up believing. Really evaluating whether something’s working is a whole different skill set!

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