• Jaap Bosman

Denial is not a strategy

At the end of last year, Netflix premiered a new film that overnight became a worldwide hit. It features among others Leonardi di Caprio and Meryl Streep. The film’s, ‘Don’t Look Up’, central theme is a giant comet that is on course to hit earth and wipe-out life as we know it. Instead of acting and trying to prevent imminent disaster from happening, people are encouraged to just deny that the threat is there: look down at your telephone screens and don’t look-up at the comet. Hence the title of the film.

One might make fun of the ‘foolish people’ looking down and their populist president encouraging them to do so. Media ,mostly raving about the film, point out that the film’s comet is actually a metaphor for climate change. Only a fool could face away from the facts, right? Well, maybe not so fast. Perhaps there is more to it than plain stupidity.

Denial is a survival strategy

As a lawyer, it is your profession to identify and mitigate risks. In a professional capacity, denial would indeed be outright stupid and a huge liability. However, lawyers do not just act in their professional capacity. Being human, we actually act mostly in our human capacity, and it is in this capacity that lawyers do not respond different to risks than anyone else.

Let’s take an imaginary partner who’s book of business has steadily been declining. The most rational and logical thing to do would be to go out and double-up the effort to develop new clients. Reality however is that typically the opposite is what is really happening: the partner denies the problem, withdraws the hours from his* team and hides himself* behind his* desk. Just pretend you’re busy and hope the real problem will disappear. Of course it never does.

When a problem gets too big for us to handle, denial is the to-go-to survival strategy. People with piling debts, typically don’t open their mail anymore.

Sure you have heard of ‘fight or flight’ as a response to danger. Actually there is a third option ‘petrified’ that needs to be added. Faced with a threat we often do nothing at all. Sometimes being an ostrich and simply bury your head in the sand makes sense. (Real ostriches do not actually do this, it’s a myth). There is a category of problems that solves itself after a while.

Denial patterns in law firms

Working with lawyers and law firms, we see denial strategies first hand all the time. The fact that lawyers are typically masters in finding ‘reasonable sounding’ explanations surely adds an interesting layer of complexity. One could argue that partners in law firms are masters in denial. Their fraud excuses sound extremely plausible.

Contrary to popular belief, partners often have a fragile personality. The partner that is dominant and bullies others, might actually unconsciously just use that behavior as a defense mechanism to prevent others from coming too close. Deep down many partners are vulnerable and insecure, even if they will never show or admit.

When it comes to talent development and behavioral change, this ‘shield’ becomes a major hurdle. All change starts with the will to change, which can only come from acceptance of the need to change.

One of the common manifestations of ‘putting up the shield’ is proposing what we have called a ' Deus ex Machina’ solution' . A form of magical salvation from the outside. Yes, I would definitely be more effective in client development, if only we had a better CRM system. (Recognize this one?) In other words: it is not me that is to blame, it’s the system. Denial optima forma, with a plausible excuse.

Change starts with facing reality

I am aware that most of us do not like being confronted with our own weaknesses or failure. Partners in law firms might feel particularly vulnerable in this respect. Still, true greatness cannot be built on a fragile ego. In order to grow and develop as a person/personality/human, we must find a way to deal with ourselves. Face our fears and shortcomings. Live with our inner demons.

Perhaps this is not easy, it is not the end of the world either. On the contrary, people who are less preoccupied with what others think of them, are generally stronger. It is always better to face the facts and take control, than deny and become a victim.

I have noticed these sensitivities and the fear of hurting fragile personalities, when discussing our 360Talent Tool with law firms. You might expect that everyone would grab the opportunity to use such an objective development tool with both hands. What could be better than receiving objective anonymized feedback from all your partners, instead of the usual subjective anecdotal feedback from your MP, Practice Head, or a committee? Apparently some partners prefer to stick their heads in the sand, out of fear to get emotionally hurt. Let’s not open the mail and maybe the debt will no longer exist.

Moving away

As a parting shot, here is an interesting fact for you: we have interviewed large numbers of partners who laterally moved to another firm. It turns out that the vast majority is moving away from their old firm, rather than moving towards their new firm. The partners who highlighted all that was wrong with their former firm, hugely outnumbered the ones that predominantly highlighted what attracted them in their new firm. Often partners just want to leave and do not really care where they end op. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it.