Resources Newsletter Archive The Year in Review (December 2006)

The Year in Review (December 2006)

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

The Year In Review


Issue # 45
December 2006

In a few days a new year will begin. Besides watching the ball drop in Times Square and popping the cork on your favorite champagne, do you want the occasion to mark anything other than one more calendar year?

Every year the first day of January offers us an opportunity to change. Of course, each day presents us with a chance to do things differently. But for many people, ringing out the old and bringing in the new prompts reflection. Imagine if your view of the past year served as a picture of your future. Is this the future you want for yourself?

It is essential to consider not just the kind of work you want to be doing, but also the kind of person you want to be. What is most important is altering outdated assumptions and decision rules that are still governing your life.


Personal transformation is a challenge for everyone. We are creatures of habit and like predictability. Our initial reaction to being presented with the need to change is to perceive a threat.

When we are presented with information about ourselves that suggests that we need to make significant change, our first response is often denial. A negative process is set in motion when you avoid confronting a situation that must be amended. You may be able to ignore your dissatisfaction for periods of time, but it never goes away. Over time, performance levels decline, your stress increases and you lose your motivation and vitality. In all likelihood, you work even harder but your efforts become less effective. Feeling besieged, your focus narrows and all you can see is threat. Your creativity and problem solving ability fall off and you hunker down even more only to become increasingly frustrated. It's easy to wind up feeling like a victim of your circumstances.

When you choose to "not rock the boat" you stop growing personally. Inaction leads to stagnation. Your internal voice tells you that something needs to change but the risks of doing so loom too largely to allow you to see what you risk by staying tied to your established patterns. Doing what you know is right is avoided by the tyranny of the in-basket. There's always too much to do to take the time to do what is really necessary.


Everyone wants to continue the formula for success that worked for them before. However, the external world is constantly changing and the maps that guided us through familiar terrain are no longer helpful. Our insistence that our old maps must work can drive us to frustration and even helplessness. An incongruity between the person we want to be and our actual behavior develops. We lose touch with our inner self; we stop growing. We feel alienated and disconnected.

Laura, for example, had made a lateral transition to a new firm in order to establish and manage a new practice group. It was a perfect match: she loved this work and the firm seemed entirely supportive of her efforts. But when she stopped to reflect on her two-year tenure she realized that the organization's goals had changed and that her time was increasingly spent on activities the firm rewarded but which were less and less connected to her core goal of leading this new practice group. Despite the firm's initial support for her efforts to build this practice, increasing emphasis on "the bottom line" had led her to gradually increase her billable work, leaving less and less time to establish the new practice. Her goals were aligned with those of the firm and she was rewarded for this, but she was alienated from her core purpose. In spite of an approved reduced-hours schedule, she was barely seeing her children. She'd come into the firm feeling empowered to create change. Now she was afraid of the consequences of turning down any opportunities for billable work.

As was the case for Laura, reviewing your year can be an opportunity to confront the reality that you are fed up with the status quo and need to try something new.


This is a time to redefine yourself - not in theory, but in action. The idea of re-inventing yourself in order to regain your integrity may seem paradoxical. But this paradox derives from the reality that the world within which you operate has changed, as it always does. Once upon a time, you knew who you were within that world. Your personal goals were aligned with those of the environment and you developed routines that made you successful. It's natural to stick with what has worked before. Changes in external circumstances tend to be incremental and subtle making the need for change initially ambiguous.

Facing the need for change is usually accompanied by fear, apprehension, self-doubt, even dread, as well as excitement. The gap between where you are and where you need to be is apparent, but there is no map to follow. If only the dots were laid out and all we had to do was draw the lines between them. Most people experience this as a time of confusion and insecurity. The most natural tendency is to keep ourselves busy with our usual activities and try to avoid paying attention to what's really happening.


Considering this brings back a memory of a phone consultation with a young partner in a large national firm. After years of a stagnating practice his transactional work had picked up and he was overwhelmed with work. He sounded desperate. He had one child who was approaching two and he lamented that on most days he only saw her when she was sleeping. I could hear the desperation in his voice. He knew that something was terribly wrong but insisted that he was too busy to change.

When we begin to pursue the wrong end, we've lost alignment. We make a trade-off that we know is wrong, but we rationalize our choice. We work from sheer discipline rather than passion or vitality; there is no longer any joy in what we do.


Leaving the situation is certainly an option. It is an act of taking responsibility for yourself. However, what is lost is your ability to become an agent of change, or what Robert Quinn calls entering "the fundamental state of leadership." In this state "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." [1]


When frequently faced with a frustrating situation, often our first inclination is to focus on the shortcomings of others. Our automatic response is typically to externalize the problem - to see it as coming from "out there." This leads to the logical conclusion that it is others who need to change. The problem is always caused by management, colleagues, clients, subordinates, our family, or someone else. First we try to explain to others why they should change. When this fails, we often try to force them. It's difficult to face the reality that the problem is part of the system in which we play an active role. The greatest challenge is to face the incongruity of asking for change in others without simultaneously seeing the need for change in ourselves.

I ran into this recently in consulting with a small law firm. As an initial part of a strategic planning process, the partners had articulated their core values, among which were creating an environment of safety where everyone, regardless of status, believed that their viewpoint was welcome, valued and safe to voice. I'd just finished a series of focus groups with all non-partner employees and was telling the partners about the generalized fears expressed by employees about "telling the truth."

The partners of this firm are remarkable in their integrity and concern for others. They felt hurt and affronted by the idea that the firm's employees couldn't see how open and accepting they are. So, their initial response was to defensively get angry. Some reminisced about their days as young associates and recalled their fearlessness in approaching partners with questions or problems. What was wrong with these associates and support staff that made them so fearful?


After empathizing with the difficulty of confronting a gap between their intentions and how they are perceived, I asked them some questions:

  • During the strategic planning process, hadn't we all seen how frequently they avoided telling one another the truth?
  • When under tremendous pressure from the weight of too much work and not enough time, how patient were they with the errors of subordinates?
  • Did they always walk the talk?
  • Were they listening to themselves?
  • What did the attitudes they were expressing reveal?
  • Wasn't everyone at the firm part of the system in which the problems existed?
  • If they wanted their subordinates to change, had they modeled the change process themselves?

Personal change is the crucible on which successful leadership is based. A leader who has the courage to reinvent herself is an empowered leader. And only an empowered leader can induce others to change. Anyone can be coerced into short-term compliance. But a leader who has demonstrated the courage to change himself has modeled the behavior he is asking of others. This builds trust and enables others to take the risk of changing themselves.


Change is so difficult in part because our old identities are anchored in our daily activities and relationship networks.

Psychologist Hazel Markus' research on "possible selves" reveals that we all carry within us a cast of characters, including the selves we hope to become, think we should become and even fear becoming. Our environments and the people within them reinforce one self and allow it to become fully formed. But we have other possible selves that are less defined because we have not had the opportunity to "enact" or express them. In order to see what identity best fits us now, we need to try on new ones and learn by experience what enables us to feel empowered and vital.

Personal re-invention requires re-examining our assumptions and beliefs and, since these are how we organize our lives, challenging them makes us deeply uncomfortable. Following them makes us feel safe. But because we live in dynamic, constantly changing environments and our assumptions are based in the past, strategies that used to work often fail and it becomes necessary to re-create our assumptions.


We create new paradigms by deviating from the status quo, facing uncertainty and engaging in new patterns of action. When these "behavioral experiments" are successful, our assumptions are altered and we are changed. We become aligned, empowered, successful and able to help and inspire others. In fact, it is only when we have successfully realigned our selves that we are able to become real leaders and change agents.

Rachel, a senior associate in a large East coast firm, was stuck in and unhappy with her associate identity. Being a "good soldier" was getting her nowhere. She was constantly frustrated by the firm's lack of responsiveness to her carefully presented requests for better support staff and stretch assignments. As a participant in my ongoing "Leadership Excellence" coaching group, she was encouraged to experiment with a leader identity. What if she acted "like a leader" before she felt like one?

With a vision of what she wanted articulated in her mind and an understanding of the economic goals of the firm, she approached firm managers with the facts: her talent was being wasted; this was costly to the firm; if they valued her and wanted her to stay and be productive, things would have to change.

She now has new, well-trained and highly motivated support staff. She's invited to attend client pitches. With obstacles to client contact removed, she has developed new client relationships and has brought in several new matters. She feels empowered. Her new-found vitality is palpable on our group coaching calls. She took a risk, acted outside her accepted identity, and in doing so has established herself, both internally and externally, as a leader. Not only is she self-directed - she is also in a position to inspire and lead others. She has taken on important leadership positions within women lawyers' organizations in her state. Because she has modeled the way she has earned the trust of both managers and subordinates within her firm. Instead of being ignored, her input is sought out.


If facing the need to change isn't difficult enough, it is compounded by the fact that there is no way to discuss these things within the discourse of law or business. To whom can you confide that you feel like you're becoming disconnected from yourself and alienated from others? Within an environment that does not honor these concerns, it's easy to believe that there's something wrong with you or that there is no way that you can practice law with any joy or integrity.

This is precisely the role that a professional coach is intended to serve. Your coach's job is to keep the focus on your goals for change regardless of all the other "stuff" constantly piling up in your life. The support of your coach makes facing difficult realities more bearable. Especially if you aspire to leadership, your coach can facilitate the changes you need to make in order to be able to inspire others to change.


How can you overcome your fears, challenge your assumptions, and re-invent yourself in order to regain alignment, integrity and power? To answer this question, Robert Quinn offers the story, "The Day at the Beach" by Arthur Gordon. [2]

"The story features a man experiencing deep frustration with his work. Each day, his sense of meaninglessness increases, and he can barely force himself to go to work in the morning. When he can stand it no longer, he goes to a doctor. The doctor listens to his complaints and then asks him where he was happiest as a child. The man responds that he had been happiest at the beach.

The doctor writes four... prescriptions on each of four slips of paper. The man is instructed to go to a beach the next day. He is to arrive before nine. He is to talk to no one, bring no reading material, and follow the direction on the slips of paper at nine, twelve, three, and six o'clock.

The man arrives at the beach well before nine o'clock but is extremely cynical. He is frustrated by the fact that there is no task to complete, no problem he can throw himself into solving. The time passes slowly.

At nine o'clock, he takes out the first slip and reads, ‘Listen carefully.' The man concludes that the doctor must be mad. There is nothing to hear. He begins walking and notices that there are a variety of sounds emanating from the surf, sand, and other natural sources. He is attracted by these sounds and soon finds himself in deep contemplation. He is thinking about other things bigger than himself. He is comforted by this but still feels he should be engaged in a more productive task.

Noon arrives, and he reads the next slip: ‘Try reaching back.' But to what, he wonders. As he continues along the beach, he finds himself resurrecting memories of his past relationships. He remembers a fishing expedition with his deceased brother. He relives other family experiences, again feeling the love the members of his family had for one another. He is impressed with the happiness he is able to find in his past. Even now, he is warmed by those past experiences.

By three o'clock, he is feeling somewhat relaxed and begins to admire the wisdom of the old doctor. He is, however, shocked by the third slip, which reads, ‘Reexamine your motives.' He becomes very defensive and rationalizes his pursuit of money, recognition, and success. After a while, though, a quiet voice inside him suggests that perhaps these motives are not good enough. He begins to recognize that an important aspect of alignment has been lost. In the past, his work had always been free and flowing when he felt like he was contributing something, making a sacrifice, rendering a service. However, as his work situation changed, he lost some of those feelings, and now feels entangled in the tentacles of the slow death process.

At six o'clock he opens the last slip. It reads, ‘Write your worries in the sand.' At this point, he sees the logic in the four thought-provoking statements. Getting outside himself, thinking about the happiness of the past, reflecting on the deep structure of the present, and eventually penetrating his own defenses allows him to reexamine and realign his own motives. Once he made these internal adjustments, his external problems are less of an issue. If his motives, conscience, and capabilities are aligned, he will perform to his best ability, no matter what the external problem. Success is likely, but even if he experiences failures, he will have done the right things. In an important way, the man changes the world by changing himself."


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

2. Quinn, Robert E. (1996) Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 61-62.

© 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