• Jaap Bosman

Lawyers can become paralyzed by choice

Updated: Mar 5



With the start of the global pandemic one year ago, a radical new concept was suddenly introduced. I doubt if anyone of you would have ever considered the possibility of forced closure of restaurants and shops and forced confinement to home. Nevertheless the concept of ‘Lockdown’ took the world by storm and people just had to adjust to it.


Being confined to home fundamentally changed our working, shopping, viewing and payment behavior. Even the Queen of the Netherlands has been spotted browsing a popular online shopping site.

While webshops are indispensable during a lockdown, navigating them could be a daunting task as many have a plethora of choice, making it difficult to decide. You can buy hundreds of different types of shower gel for example, or shampoo. While some choice is good, our mistake is thinking more of it is always better. We tend to think, ‘Somewhere out there is the perfect X,’ and our job is to find it. This is a misconception that often leads to the inability to come to a decision and/or dissatisfaction once a choice has been made. Perhaps you should have chosen an alternative option after all. Cognitive dissonance this is called.


But a law firm is not a webshop


Modern Romance is a book (by A. Ansari – 2016) that argues that many people end up perpetually single because they’re overwhelmed by the unlimited choices on today’s dating apps and keep-on searching for the perfect match. This is a mistake, the perfect partner does not exist from the onset but is created through real-life interaction over time. There will always be an inherent risk of picking what turns out to be the wrong person.


The dynamics in a partner group at a law firm are often remarkably similar. Just like online shoppers or singles using a dating app, lawyers tend to assume that there is such a thing as a ‘perfect choice’. This idée fixe is a common cause of partner groups being unable to take executable decisions on strategic matters. The possibility that there might be a better option combined with the quite extreme risk-averse nature of a lawyer frequently leads to not taking any meaningful decision at all. This is called analysis paralysis and it is caused by considering too many viable options while thinking only one of those is the best.


Books about heaven


In our book Death of a Law Firm (Bosman/Hakanson – 2015) we describe a cartoon from The New Yorker that cleverly depicts the preference for contemplating things, rather than doing them.


The cartoon shows a perplexed person standing before the choice of two doors. One door says ‘HEAVEN’. The other says ‘BOOKS ABOUT HEAVEN’. The fact that the person is hesitating when confronted with these choices is funny because we all know there is some truth to this absurd conundrum.


We recognise that a lot of people may be tempted to read books about heaven rather than actually experience it. This especially applies to lawyers. If we just read up on it a bit more, do some extra research or hire that guru consultant, then alternatives on what we can do will become clearer. Let us read up on heaven before we go there.


What few understand is that not taking action is in itself very harmful. For a start, many possibilities actually come out of action. Taking action is what creates possibilities that did not exist before. Like in the dating app, what becomes the right choice is effectively a product of a continuing interaction.


Playing it safe is actually harmful


Frequently I get asked what the difference is been highly successful law firms and the rest. Unsurprisingly, there is not one single most important distinguishing characteristic. There are more, but the ability to take important strategic decisions while having a certain tolerance for risks and imperfections, certainly is one of them.


At the not-so-successful law firms partner groups get bogged down in endless discussions amongst themselves on pros and cons of basically every single decision that matters for the future success of the firm. I have been present at many of such sessions and so doubtlessly have you. Like vultures partners prey on a proposal and rip it apart until nothing meaningful is left. As a result invariably nothing much changes. The idea that there could potentially be a better option, paralyses the decision making process.


If you do what you did, you get what you’ve got.


The law firms that are the most successful, are the ones that manage to focus on the things that really matter, take decisions and keep moving forward on execution. With this comes the ability to accept that perhaps there is no such thing as ‘the perfect choice’ and that more than one option could be turned into a success. Create, execute, learn, improve, over and over again, that should be the mantra instead of discussing every initiative or idea to death.


After a while most consumers have adapted to the overload of online choice and have accepted that there is no such thing as the perfect garment, book, Netflix-series, car, house or even shampoo. They just buy what feels right and make the best of it. The small group that still suffering from choice-paralysis ends up with the same old clothes and greasy hair.

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