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    December 8th, 2007

    Only night will ever know
    Why the heavens never show
    All the dreams there are to know
    Paint the sky with stars..

    Music by Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, lyrics by Roma Ryan, recorded by Enya.

    It is nearing the end of the year…time to look back on the year and reflect on what is past…and what is yet to come. You recall your earnest resolution at this time last year that “things were going to be different next year!” Reflecting for a moment you realize that not much has changed, people are more or less performing as they were last year. Your own performance has fallen into a predicable range – or rut. You ask yourself “How do other businesses manage to achieve better-than ordinary results?” What is their magical formula? Short of cracking a whip, how do you motivate yourself, and others, to excellence?

    The high art of achieving extra-ordinary results from people has been clearly demonstrated time and time again. However, it is an inexact science with many factors and ingredients. Let us examine the tips and techniques that have been put forward towards achieving lofty goals:

    • The Oracle at Delphi dispensed age-old, but very pertinent advice namely: Know Thyself. To achieve excellence you have to start with a strong potential – so ask yourself what is it that you are very good at? Put it another way: Marketing is not selling what you have but knowing what you have will sell. You probably know countless examples of lawyers who are doing whatever comes in the door rather than concentrating on what it is that they are good at. Clients want and expect to go to a lawyer who has a strong reputation and profile – they seek out those lawyers. Isn’t that what everyone wants – a practice where the clients find you rather than your trying to find the clients? Start building your profile by deciding – now – where lies your best potential to be excellent

    • In doing some research into this matter, the April 2002 issue of Fast Company had an article on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and the Pan-American Chess Championships – and how the UMBC Chess team went from placing 26th out of 27 teams, to taking the tournament’s fifth title in six years in December 2001 (and currently the UMBC Chess Team is the six times winner of the Pan-American Intercollegiate Championship). Their secret? By recruiting top high-school students and creating an environment where it is “Cool to be Smart”. Oh – another factor – the majority of students are African-Americans. UMBC’s exacting standards combined with their desire for everyone to succeed – creates a “fire in the belly” of the students that helps them succeed. This approach is 180 degrees off of the conventional educational approach involving disadvantaged children – namely that you lower expectations for such kids because high expectations would be an excessive burden . The message: set high standards – you may be surprised at the results

    • So what motivates people to perform? Money? Study after study show that while employees desire money, they are motivated by intangibles: challenge, recognition, opportunity for growth, involvement, meaningful work and pride. Money is a way of determining success – keeping score, so to speak, and is therefore the result of doing excellent work, not the inducer. What is the world’s most powerful motivator? Achievement. “I do because I can”. Motivation is tied to “internal matters” – grey matter, ultimately..

    • Assume full accountability for your future. Now surround yourself with other high-achievers. Place yourself in a high-nutrient mix – where the peers with whom you associate will radiate higher expectations and their own pursuit of excellence. We tell our kids not to associate with certain crowds – do we drink of the same medicine?

    • Acknowledge other’s successes. Don’t dwell on errors – praise results in public and deal with problems in private. Listen to your staff and their suggestions and act on good ideas. Whenever possible, give immediate feedback (shortens the learning cycle) and positive reinforcement. Give staff greater autonomy and encourage them to be confident and responsible. Do the annual performance reviews – and let the staff member verbalize their own strengths and weaknesses – and set their own methods on how they are going to grow. Let each staff member know why each person is put in their position. Let each individual know what skill development is required for them to go beyond their present job. Be clear on what it is that you expect them to accomplish in their present position. Make sure that the people with whom they work know this, too. Most of all, be consistent – be seen to be dealing with the deadwood as a way of communicating that low performance is not tolerated.

    • Offer to pay for skill development (job-related, interpersonal and communication skills). Encourage staff to seek out managerial responsibilities in social settings – community groups, schools, social institutions, non-profits etc. – for the skills that they learn in those settings will come back with them into the work environment – as well as the recognition for a job well done.

    • Model the behaviour you want. Care – passionately – about results. The test of anyone’s character is when the going gets tough. Keeping firm hold of the basics – grace under fire – tells volumes to the world and keeps the troops going. Edith Wharton said: There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Churchill went further and said: “In the past we have had a light which flickered, in the present we have a light which flames, and in the future there will be a light which shines over all the land and sea.”

    • Bring people into big projects. Let them feel and be part of the action. They can learn from their involvement and you can benefit from their energy.

    • Eliminate bottlenecks and Red Tape. Process is important – except where it becomes an inhibitor of performance and new ideas. Recognize where your own procedures could be putting the stop to greater things.

    • Have fun. Go to: and read the testimonials from the alumni. Operated in conjunction with NASA, these programs challenge kids and adults to be, in effect, rocket scientists. (There is a Canadian version as well: Comments from those who went through the camps (The 500,000th camper, Samantha Rice, graduated June 15, 2007) consistently state that it was the experience of a lifetime. Achieving excellence and mastering new ideas does not have to be a slog. The evidence is clear – people who are having fun outperform those who are not.

    Moving to higher ground may ultimately depend on ignoring the glitter and concentrating on that quiet place inside all of us where dreams are made and a candle glows on what might yet be.

    (this post is based on a column originally published in PracticeTalk in the Canadian Bar Association – BC Branch’s newsletter BarTalk)

    This entry was posted on Saturday, December 8th, 2007 at 6:10 pm and is filed under Business Development, Change Management, Firm Governance, Issues facing Law Firms, Law Firm Strategy, Leadership and Strategic Planning, personal focus and renewal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

    One Response to “Achieving Excellence in the practice of law”
    1. Barb Cotton Says:

      David-I have really been enjoying your blog, but this post on achieving excellence is fantastic! I manage and try to inspire 5 lawyers on my team, and this post is full of great advice-thank you. I really appreciate the great thoughtfulness you are putting into your blog-

      Barb Cotton

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