Choose Your Own Adventure

For lawyers, moving forward is often a choice between skepticism and optimism

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
— Morpheus from “The Matrix”

Whether we like it or not, the change imperative in the legal industry is made of a series of choices. For those doing nothing? They have made a choice.

Likewise, taking action is a choice. But as lawyers, we tend to get hung up in a debate as to where we start and, as a result, we make the choice to do nothing. Lawyers, being skeptical by nature, might look at questions this way:

1. If seeing is believing, which comes first — the seeing or the believing?

2. If the proof is in the pudding, who made the pudding?

Aren’t those great lawyer questions? Can’t you just see the lawyers debating those questions forever?

Why don’t more lawyers choose to move forward? In a prior essay, I talked about Larry Richard’s research into lawyer resilience (or lack thereof). A logical thread runs through the infamous tangle of lawyers’ resistance to change. At one end of this thread is the notion of choice; at the other is the notion of action.

When I think of how choice and action are connected, the first word that comes to mind is bravery.

What lawyers need to be brave is a sense of optimism — the belief that we can, in fact, find a better way. Otherwise, we would debate the questions forever and never move forward.

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As lawyers, we sometimes fail to recognize that we all make choices constantly. Some are explicit — what we’ll have for lunch. Others are more subtle, lurking just under the surface of our consciousness. Take procrastination. One of my kids grew up as a Hall-of-Fame procrastinator — so I have experience in this world. Procrastination isn’t something that mysteriously happens to us, although we often refer to it that way. It’s not a disease that might flare back up at any given moment, which we are powerless to prevent.

Usually, procrastination is simply the collective result of a number of emotionally complicated choices we have made; we have made countless decisions to prioritize other things ahead of whatever it is that we are putting off.

In that sense, inertia — of which we have plenty in our industry — is a choice to do nothing. It’s the passive choice, but it is a choice. While it’s easier to recognize that we chose a BLT or a salad for lunch, it’s harder to see that eating lunch (or not eating lunch) was a choice as well.

In quite the same manner, skepticism and optimism can be framed as a choice. Neo chose to take the red pill, just as Alice chose to step into the rabbit hole. Each of these two characters left a rather comfortable perch to undertake an uncertain path.

The pairing of choice and action means the need to take ownership — that means control as well as responsibility — of a situation. It is but another way of affirming that what we do absolutely matters. The choices we make and the actions we take today have an impact on the options we have tomorrow. Success is not guaranteed, but neither is failure. Our story is not over yet, and we have every opportunity to secure a happy ending.

One practical thing I have learned in my years of leading a law firm is that very few choices are irreversible. This is one reason analysis paralysis can be so harmful to an organization, particularly one competing in an environment of disruption.

The key is to recognize the true nature of the choices that face us. In real life, there aren’t colored pills or rabbit holes. The choices we make aren’t quite so striking or filled with drama. Real life is full of phenomena like procrastination — where tiny decisions, too small to see with the naked eye, seem to coalesce into a disappointing result, one we can’t quite understand without introspection.

And yet lawyers have a tendency to inflate the risks associated with decisions. These decisions often seem to loom large, posing big, existential questions about our value system, our identity, our very raison d’état. The stakes, of course, seem proportional. Where real life lacks the drama of a Lawrence Fishburne-like figure looming large and holding two very different fates in his hands, our subconscious helps us fill in the blanks.

Choice and action are coupled in my mind because they represent the component parts of exploration.

If we choose the blue pill, the option where we stay where we are and do nothing, the story ends. I don’t like that story.

Let’s write a different one, where we choose to allow for the possibility of change for the better. Let’s try putting the “believing” before the “seeing.” Let’s try making the pudding instead of looking for the proof. That sounds like a better story.

Matrix Reloaded: Neo Forming by Flickr user Sudhee under a Creative Commons license