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How to Recover Gracefully From a Bad (Admin/Marketing/Client) Decision

In my experience, lawyers hate to be wrong. And they keep track of when anyone else is. Attending a lawyer meeting, you can almost see the chalk board above each head keeping track. Power is won or lost on those points and for a moment, they become almost more important than legal knowledge, business wisdom, and marketplace reputation. So, lawyers tend to withhold opinions until they know they can defend them. And once an opinion is set, it can be hard to change it because that would be admitting that the previous opinion is no longer right (and therefore, must be wrong).

It makes sense that when running a law firm, Partners would operate in the same manner. This can have unproductive and even devasting consequences to the business. For example:

  • I have seen a firm refuse to reign in a new Partner who demonstrated inappropriate behaviours because it was easier to risk a law suit than to admit that perhaps that person shouldn’t have made Partner.
  • I have seen law firms throw tens of thousands of dollars behind what they know to be a bad technology choice rather than admit they chose the wrong product in the first place.
  • I have seen a firm support what were clearly ill-conceived marketing management practices because the firm couldn’t admit they had hired the wrong person as Marketing Director.

Thanks to recent media coverage of Trump, we’ve all been reminded that this re-enforcement of bad decisions is what’s called “doubling down”. Firms do it to avoid admitting they made a mistake, but in so doing their mistakes can become more costly than ever…and not just from a financial perspective.

No one is perfect. Despite our best intentions and processes, we can end up making decisions that weren’t as effective as we thought they would be. Law firms would be well-served to get over this belief that it’s a sign of weakness to admit a mistake. Instead, understand that part of business is to constantly improve the decisions making process, that experiential learning is OK (and sometimes, even necessary), and that regrouping can make you even stronger. Here’s how:

1. Improve Your Decision-Making Process

Let’s get rid of gut decisions. I have no problem with gut checks, but let’s start all decisions with more discipline.

  • Clearly define the need: what question needs to be answered, what role needs to be filled, what outcome does a process need to serve? Write it down, agree on it, ensure you start by clearly defining the issue that needs to be addressed. Too often, firms answer unclear questions, or later find that they asked the wrong question. Be clear on what you need to fill or fix before you start generating ideas for fixing it!
  • Determine a research process. Who needs to be involved? What research needs to be done? What sources need to be checked? What is relevant (vs. irrelevant) data to be considered? What is the time-line? What will be next steps? Some decisions don’t work because we didn’t think to involve all shareholders or constituents. Or our decision might be questioned because we left out some important data. Sometimes, a good decision is more about getting through a good process than it is about the decision itself.
  • Define criteria for assessment of the options – otherwise how can you differentiate the potential effectiveness of one option over another? Then weigh all options against that criteria. I recall the process of looking for a house a number of years ago. It was getting too easy to be emotionally swayed by what I saw, and I was losing sight of what I needed. So, my husband and I created a grid of needs, desires and priorities and assessed each house against that grid. It made it much easier (and more obvious) to make the right decision when we had a filter through which to run all options.
  • Present the solution. Don’t assume everyone intuitively understands how effective your decision-making process was. Tell them. Here’s what we determined was the need, here’s what we were looking for to fill it, here was our process, and here is the outcome. Lawyers like autonomy; but when they aren’t part of a decision-making process (or participated but weren’t in charge), they at least like to know the full context. They are going to judge the decision regardless – better to show them the discipline that went into it.

2. Embrace Experiential Learning

Some law firms are so worried about making the “right” decision that they become incapable of making any decision at all. But here’s the thing: even if you make a decision based on what ten other law firms did successfully, it won’t necessarily work in your environment. There are no silver bullets in law firm management. That means that even with a great decision-making process, you might fail to achieve what was desired. We accept this in some areas of the business. For example, at the larger firms we know and accept that on average only one in seven Associates makes it to Partner. This is a reality that is considered a cost of business. We also know that whether hiring lawyers or staff, we often don’t know if that individual will be successful until they have worked with us for a while. Well, the same is true for a new marketing strategy, a client retention program, a new website, etc. We should still proceed with a disciplined decision-making process, but accept that we won’t really know if we’ve made the right decision until we’ve lived with it a while.

The difference between experiential learning and “making a mistake” is the commitment to monitor, review and learn from the decision down the line.

  • Have a timeline for updates and a formal review of your decision. For example, if you hired someone – pre-set a review process for three, six and 12 months out. Define what success would look like at each of those points so you have criteria against which to judge the decision. If your decision was a process, again establish review dates and describe what you need to see on each of those dates. “Our new client team process will be deemed to be successful if within one year, we have expanded the volume of work by (x) files and value, and we have successfully broadened the scope of work into (name new area of law)”.
  • At these pre-set junctures, review what actions have occurred, the results they have achieved, and what has been learned from the process. Is the solution working? Has there been a change (for example, in the marketplace) that is testing our original assumptions? Do we need to shift course at all (in terms of process or goals)?

3. Admit Mistakes; Recover Stronger

If it becomes clear, at these assessment junctures or at any time, that the decision made did not yield the results desired, the strongest thing to do is to admit it. If you have a culture that respects experiential learning (provided there has been a disciplined decision-making process in the first place), there is no shame and every strength in pulling the plug.

  • Communicate with stakeholders that the decision didn’t work.
  • Re-iterate the process leading up to the decision, and the monitoring and assessment process.
  • Explain the gap between expectations and deliverables, resulting in the decision to stop the current course of action.
  • Explain what was learned from the process, and how the firm will use that learning to move forward from a stronger position, with a redefined goal, tighter decision-making process, and an ongoing assessment/accountability process.

Most people in a firm (lawyers and staff) know when something isn’t working. They can clearly see that the emperor has no clothes…telling them he’s dressed will only make the firm look deceitful or ignorant.

Marketing Mistakes

Marketing is both an art and a science. Data and analysis can get us part of the way to an effective marketing campaign, but execution is more of an art form because it’s subject to emotional connection with our intended audience and that’s unpredictable until it occurs. If ever there was an area of business where experiential learning is key, marketing is it.

For this reason, I don’t really see marketing as making a mistake. It’s more about refining what will work for a particular audience at a particular time to encourage them to do a particular thing. The mistake occurs when there has been insufficient discipline with the process.

Throwing together an ad and placing it in a magazine or on-line publication on a whim is not strong marketing. Creating a website, just any old website, without really thinking through what you need it to accomplish is not strong marketing. If you’re spending money on marketing initiatives that aren’t achieving the results you were hoping for, go back and put some discipline to your process.

Define a goal, determine the best way to achieve that goal, outline the needs and requirements around that pathway, execute carefully, test the results, learn from the experience and adjust accordingly. If this sounds like scientific method…it’s because that’s exactly what it is.

Client Mistakes

Incidentally, this process works for mistakes with clients as well. No one is perfect, but given what lawyers charge, most clients believe they should be infallible. The fact is that most of the practice of law is based on interpretation, and probability of outcome (with the other side, or in court). Lawyers also tend to work long hours and have to balance multiple issues and clients simultaneously, so it’s not unheard of for a lawyer to make a mistake of some kind. For a client who is depending on a lawyer to get them out of a difficult issue, small (or large) mistakes can destroy confidence in that lawyer’s legal abilities.

Faced with this, some lawyers will either pretend the mistake doesn’t exist, or they will defend it as anything but a mistake. This can serve to further erode client trust.

Instead, be honest with yourself and the client about what happened. Was it a bad decision? Explain your process for making that decision, what can be learned from the outcome, and what the next steps should be. Was it simply a mistake (like a bad typo or a significant process error)? Identify what happened, and why (if you can figure it out) but not as an excuse – rather as an explanation. Take full responsibility. Apologize. Explain how you would like to make up for it. Clients know you are human. With the right response, you may actually strengthen the relationship. Years ago, I attended a speech by a marketing professional from Marriott who shared with the audience important research the hotel chain had done on guest complaints. They found that a bad experience in one of their hotels was shared by the guest up to eight times with acquaintances. But if the hotel caught the issue and made efforts to recognise and remedy the situation, in time that guest told 19 people about the comeback and recommended the hotel.

It’s understandable that a firm would be tempted to double down on a poor decision to avoid looking bad, but this relief will always be on borrowed time. There’s only one place for a bad decision to go, and that’s further down. Far better to admit that the firm doesn’t own a magic wand but does have a strong process in place for making the best decisions possible, and is not afraid to pull the plug if needed in order to pursue a better option.

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