Resources Newsletter Archive Become the Change You Want to See (June 2004)

Become the Change You Want to See (June 2004)

Beyond The Billable Hour™

Making the Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Live the life you dreamed of before law school
Envision new possibilities for your life
It's time for a life worth more than the billable hour
To subscribe to "Beyond the Billable Hour"™ go to

Become the Change You Want to See

Issue # 33

June 2004


"...most of us, no matter how high or low our position, spend most of our time in the normal life state. In this state, we tend to be comfort-centered, externally driven, self-focused, and internally closed. Yet it is possible for anyone, no matter how high or low their position, to enter the extraordinary state which I call the fundamental state of leadership. In this state, we become results centered, internally directed, other- focused, and externally open.

When we enter the fundamental state of leadership, we become a distortion to the social system in which we reside. We are a new signal to which others must respond. In this sense, we become creators of a new order. We become a stimulant of positive organizing or the emergence of a more productive community."

~Robert E. Quinn Building the Bridge As you Walk On It [1]

Over the past few months, I've participated in three outstanding conferences: The National Association of Women Lawyers' Taking Charge of Your Career: Best Practices for Women Lawyers and Their Firms; the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession's Women in Law Leadership Academy; and ThirdPath Institute's Redesigning Law Conference.

The prospects for change in the legal workplace energized and excited everyone at the meetings. But effective leadership is needed to not only continue the dialogue but also to translate it into significant action.


Both people and organizations are naturally resistant to change. We are all slow to abandon old habits of thought and behavior, primarily because change involves the loss of control.

Predictability allows us to feel in control. Over time, people, as well as organizations develop a set of beliefs which allows them to experience predictability. The assumptions an individual develops about how to best cope in a world of scarce resources become part of her personal identity. Similarly, organizational culture reflects the assumptions and coping resources that have evolved in a workplace.

The need for change threatens an individual's or an organization's sense of predictability and control. The requirement to adapt to new circumstances often elicits denial: organizations, and the people who manage them are most likely to deny this need.

I'm sure you've heard law firm managers insist that there is no diversity problem; that women have the same opportunities as men in the profession -- they just "choose" to have babies instead of to succeed. This is defensive resistance to the prospect of change from people who feel threatened.


Individuals currently occupying positions of authority in legal organizations face many political dangers. Even a manager who is committed to greater workplace flexibility would naturally be concerned about self-preservation.

Law firm managers must answer to many stakeholders. As good attorneys, they understand the need to be responsive to in house counsel who themselves must meet the demands of the executives for whom they work. Managers worry about retaining talent and want to increase their firm's diversity - either because they believe it's the right thing to do or because they understand that clients increasingly hold firms accountable for it.

They are also accountable to unsympathetic partners who think like independent practitioners in a decentralized system. Most leaders are so consumed by the demands on their own time that they can't see their way to effectivelymanage those practice-group leaders who make it difficult for women to succeed.

Some understand that the "billable hour" has become an institutional obstacle to change. However, they feel unable to "herd cats" into accepting a different economic model.

Many women and men in firm management have their own work/life conflicts - although they rarely speak about these publicly. Although some are content to assume a traditional "provider" role while their wives manage family work, others wish to be more actively involved in their families. Younger attorneys struggling to balance work and life may not realize that they share common concerns with some firm leaders.


As I listen to women attorneys struggling for career success and life fulfillment, firm managers are often cast as "the enemy." While I certainly know that there are those in the profession who advocate policies that discriminate against women, I don't think this kind of demonizing facilitates progress toward change.

At the same time, I sympathize with these women. It's extraordinarilydifficult to be a woman attorney in a workplace demanding unlimited commitment during her childbearing years. Without flexibility and genuine acceptance of diverse approaches to leadership, women face significant obstacles to attaining positions of power in the profession.

Yet I'm also aware of how extraordinarily difficult it can be to be a law firm leader trying to change the system. People with the task of leading change need help and support if they are to succeed. Creating something that has never existed before requires the courage to embrace uncertainty -- not an easy thing for people trained to minimize risk. In the absence of any roadmap, individuals in leadership positions may be uncertain about how to transform the workplace.


Being in a position of authority does not make someone a leader. Most often, attorneys are promoted to positions of leadership because of their record of revenue generation or political skill. But these successes are no substitute for realleadership training.

The role of a manager is to react to problems, preserve the hierarchical status quo and minimize risk. Legal training is almost antithetical to preparation for authentic leadership.

At its core, leadership is about change. It requires a willingness to re-examine and relinquish assumptions. One problem with "thinking like a lawyer" is that there is an over-reliance on logic. Assumptions often go untested.

The tendency of lawyers to think pessimistically (see "Beyond the Billable Hour TM Issue # 25) is a related impediment to authentic leadership. Lawyers have learned to be too good at finding problems as opposed to finding solutions. Risk-averse attorneys are excellent at imagining everything that could go wrong. But precisely because they can generate such a long list of potential problems, they resist trying new approaches, assuming that risk will outweigh possible gains.

The fact that change is a long-term process also creates challenges for people trained in the law. Lawyers tend to seek decisive solutions to problems. They want to reach closure and move on to the next matter. But change results from many decisions made over time. The effects of each need to be carefully evaluated and plans and policies need to be revisited. The implementation of decisions needs as much careful attention as the decisions themselves. Change is a process, not an event.


Right now multiple forces are pushing for change. Younger lawyers bring different values into their workplaces -- many would gladly accept less compensation in exchange for more time with their families. Women are graduating from law schools in increasing numbers. Most will become mothers. Firms are experiencing pressures for diversity from their clients. There is a large body of evidence consistently demonstrating the strong and positive relationship between workplace flexibility, employee and client satisfaction and retention and profitability. [2]

Although there are too few women in positions of authority in legal workplaces, this does not mean that women lawyers cannot "enter into a state ofleadership" and actively work toward needed change.

According to organizational change expert, Robert Quinn [3], the move to leadership involves a shift from asking "What do I want?" to "What do I want to create?" Quinn suggests that any individual in an organization can move to leadership through:

  • self-examination
  • facing one's own hypocrisy
  • aligning values and actions
  • becoming internally directed
  • openness to feedback


Many women attorneys who contact me want to move forward in their careers rather than resign themselves to feeling helpless. They are not willing to surrender to feeling like victims of law firm leadership. They want their own individual efforts to make a difference in their lives and in their organizations.

I often think of my coaching work with such attorneys as leadership training: throughout the course of our work together, they will have examined themselves, accepted personal responsibility for their success and happiness, become internally directed and aligned their actions with their values. Most importantly, they will feel empowered to create the career and life they want. In other words, they become change agents in their workplaces.


As I mentioned earlier, most lawyers are excellent at seeing what's wrong. But as professional development authority, Robert Kegan [4] observes, the language of complaint does not transform anything. Kegan suggests that beneath every complaint lies a commitment to the value or importance of something. In order to become a leader, an attorney needs to clarify to what she is committed.

Similarly, focus on blame creates a zero-sum game and maintains a feeling of helplessness and victimization. This is pessimism at its most destructive. Instead, Kegan asks, "What are you doing or not doing that prevents your commitment from being fully realized?" [5] LEGAL LOGIC

Law school teaches that analysis and logic lead to correct conclusions. In contrast, the scientific method used by psychology requires that deductions be subjected to unbiased test.

In my experience, two factors create obstacles to women trying to move into leadership positions: the assumptions of attorneys in positions of power, and the beliefs of women lawyers themselves. Often a manager's assumptions about a mother's lack of commitment to her career create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When she consistently receives poor quality work assignments and is excluded from professional development opportunities, she may leave in despair. Of course, this only reinforces the manager's belief that women who have children will eventually "opt out."

Similarly, many women attorneys assume that asking directly for what they want will only brand them a "whiner." I am aware of many instances where firm managers have no idea why their flexible work policies are underutilized, since women have left without protest or comment. Again and again the women I run into are enormously reluctant to express any opinion that differs from that of management.

When you agree to accept more work than you can handle in order to avoid disapproval, your fears about consequences are controlling your choices. Over time, you may start to believe that you have no control over your workload and that your only option is to "opt out."

But your assumptions may not always be accurate. If you don't attempt to establish a relationship with a manager which allows you to communicate your understanding of the manager's concerns, and gives you leverage in managing your workload, you haven't fairly tested your assumption.

Similarly, for years, managers insisted that clients would not tolerate working with lawyers on flexible schedules. The Project for Attorney Retention recently tested this assumption [6] and found it to be completely unsupported: clients don't care where there attorneys are as long as they're responsive.

Don't assume the truth of any assumption that stands in the way of increased workplace flexibility. Small experiments can make possible what had seemed "impossible."


Perhaps we'd move forward more quickly if we all focused more on what's right and less on what's wrong.

Whether you're in a position of leadership or want to move into leadership, try considering the following:

  • Write a description of yourself at your very best.
  • Consider a time when you saw your workplace at its best.
  • What made these things possible?
  • To what are you committed?
  • What price are you willing to pay to see that happen?
  • What are you doing or not doing that prevents what you value from being realized?
  • What commitment are you willing to make?
  • What feedback are you trying not to hear?
  • If your plate is full and you want things to change, to what are you willing to say no?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • What is the evidence to support these assumptions?
  • How might you put these assumptions to a modest and relatively safe test?

Movement into a state of leadership enables you to become what Gandhi called "the change you want to see in the world." As you choose to become your best self, others will react to you. When you change, you will elicit change from others. This is how you enter into a state of leadership.


1. Quinn, Robert E. (2004) Building the Bridge As You Walk on It: A Guide for Leading Change. New York: Jossey- Bass.p. ix.

2. Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L. & Keyes, C. L. M., Wellbeing in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes: A review of the Gallup studies. In Keyes, Corey L. M. & Haidt, Jonathan (Eds.) (2003), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association. Pp. 205-224.

3. Quinn, Robert E. p.21

4. Kegan, Robert & Lahey, Lisa Laskow (2001) How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation. New York: Jossey-Bass.

5. Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. p. 33.

6. Williams, Joan & Calvert, Cynthia (2003) Better on Balance? The Corporate Counsel Work/Life Report. The Project for Attorney Retention Corporate Counsel Project. Available at

© 1998 — 2012 Lawyers Life Coach LLC.  All rights reserved.


Contact Us

Subscribe to our FREE email newsletter:

"Beyond the Billable Hour"

Join Our Mailing List



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

Rockville, MD
Phone: 844-818-9471

© 2016 Lawyers Life Coach LLC