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Systems Awareness For Lawyer-Leaders
Elementary school children learn something that gifted adults often forget: systems awareness. Remember the song that goes, “The knee bone is connected to the leg bone, the leg bone is connected to the hip bone” and so on? This is a form of system awareness: if the knee goes bad, you can bet the leg and hip will suffer too.
The systems are present in client offices. Imagine you are representing a client in a tax matter. Isn’t it natural to recognize that the outcome of the whole matter may affect not only the client’s tax liability, but potentially her business, her marriage or her employees? Lawyers are trained to recognize the waves that flow from client matters, but what about other matters?
Your practice, your office, the staff serving your clients are all systems. Make a change in one area and it affects other areas. As a leader, it is up to you to recognize the impact of your changes, both prospectively and retrospectively. Doing so will help you anticipate and avoid problems and design outcomes that have a positive impact on a particular system.
A few years ago, the law firm’s executive committee decided that all calls received during business hours should be answered by a live person. To implement this policy, the office manager created a detailed system that regulated which secretaries could go to lunch or break at what time and which attorneys’ phones each secretary would cover. Seems reasonable, right? Unfortunately, some attorneys didn’t want “strangers” answering client questions, and morale among paralegals plummeted because they could no longer eat lunch together and take breaks without careful planning. In other words, the system was broken. The plan failed miserably, and the hours spent creating it were wasted—all because no one considered the impact the planned changes would have on the attorney/paralegal system.
An awareness of systems is also useful in evaluating how to achieve professional and personal goals. Barbara hired me to improve her client development activities for her family law practice. She found it difficult to get in her billable hours and rain activities, let alone optional interests like working out and visiting with friends, or even being involved in her children’s extracurricular activities. As we reviewed Barbara’s activities, she recalled that she had received a number of referrals in the past from people she met while serving as a den leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. We discussed different activities she could add, but Barbara kept coming back to her earlier Girl Scout experiences and finally decided to get involved again.
By resuming her Girl Scout activities, Barbara deepened her connection with her daughter, got to meet parents who might need help with family law matters, met others who might need help, and even got some exercise. Barbara added extra time to her schedule for this, but because the time paid off in several areas, she was able to use the time to reap benefits she might not have otherwise realized. Barbara realized the “system” formed by the intersection of her personal and professional life. (You may remember the recent review of Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, which suggests experimenting with four paths that use systems awareness.)
To increase awareness of your own systems, consider the implications of changes you make or actions you might take.
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