The most successful attorneys help companies reduce risk, avoid problems and break down barriers. They find loop holes that others miss and help define strategic direction into executable steps. There is a single trait, common among just about every attorney I have ever met, that helps them do these wonderful things for their clients. It’s called skepticism. Skepticism is the lens through which lawyers view the world. Skepticism is a pervasive doubt as to the truth of something. And that doubt is bred into them in law school. I suspect, even, that those who are natural skeptics gravitate toward the practice of law more than anyone else. The law and precedent is a comfortable place for those that are skeptical and doubtful. Doubt results in caution, which is good. Caution is the most essential survival trait.
On the other hand, innovators are not cautious people. They don’t doubt that their ideas will work. They try new things with little regard for the consequences of what they create. To the innovator, their boundless curiosity leads them to try new things, analyze what results, make adjustments and then try it again. They repeat this process sometimes hundreds of times until they create the vision that inspired their drive. The only role doubt ever plays in the innovator’s process is to provide direction.
Inventors and innovators are not, by their nature, skeptics. Innovation requires a different mindset, one that seeks why something didn’t work and what will make it work. Skeptics approach challenges from a risk aversion point of view. They look for why something won’t work and avoid that risk. Skeptics look for the consequences of actions and inflate those consequences to reveal its risk. Innovators deflate the consequences to reveal an action’s opportunity.
The trait that makes for highly successful legal practitioners also limits these same people when it comes to business and client development. The skeptical nature of their world view can keep them from the experimentation and practice that hones the skills of business and client development. Skepticism can also limit an attorney’s ability to become a trusted advisor of companies. Business leaders value skeptical caution. But they also value the innovators curiosity and drive for breaking new ground. To win the confidence of a business leader, don’t tell them all the ways something could go wrong. Tell them what you think will work. Skeptics who consistently dampen the discussion of opportunity risk being shut out of the room.
In working recently with a young partner, I was reminded of the devastating impact of self-limiting beliefs and skepticism. He asked me how he could build his practice and what he could do on a daily basis to move toward a larger book of clients. I explained the process and gave him a list of five things he could do each day to build his practice. While his curiosity asked a brilliant question, his limiting beliefs and skepticism found a consequence that suggested his situation was different and that the tactics would not work for him.
So, how does one turn skepticism into opportunism. First, recognize the thought pattern as it happens. Ask yourself, have I squelched an idea because I’ve seen a potential negative consequence? Was this idea well thought out? If so, then rate that consequence in terms of the likelihood of it actually happening. If the potential consequence is highly likely to happen (most well thought out actions do no produce negative consequences), examine whether the unintended effect would help you understand better how to do the same thing the next time. In other words, unintended consequences provide direction. The unintended consequences of thoughtful actions should rarely derail those activities. And yet, skeptics often allow unlikely consequences to inhibit their action. Even knowing that taking action is the fundamental energy that drives business development success.
So, what consequences do you fear?