A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

The How-to and Science of Optimism

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

By Dr Bob Murray, Principal, Fortinberry Murray

Gosh the world is a terrible place! Law firms are losing money, partners are in danger of being laid off, and digitisation, offshoring and in-housing are decimating the ranks of support staff. And on top of all that the world is over-populated, inequality is rampant, the natural world is ravaged and jobs are getting scarcer. Populist strong men (or women) and ideologues are either running countries or running for the top jobs. I could go on—it can get worse. No wonder the rates of pessimism and depression are on the increase.

Being pessimistic has even become fashionable. It wins votes, people can relate to it. But the extent of it in today’s environment is damaging. Pessimism about people’s individual and social future is behind many, if not most, of the terrorist attacks and the failure of some pretty big law firms. It also contributes to the rising stress levels and the pandemic of mood disorders in the workplace generally and in law firms in particular.

The problem is, of course, that effective strategic planning, BD and a whole range of other things in the business of law depend on a healthy and realistic optimism for optimal success.

But it’s possible to create an optimistic team, an optimistic firm, as well as an optimistic family, even while recognising that the larger picture of the world as a whole is not that cheerful. It’s that kind of limited, but very useful, optimism that I want to outline here.

The science of optimism

Let me start with a bit of science—I am, after all, a scientist (both a behavioural neurogeneticist and a clinical psychologist if you must know). 

Human beings are born optimistic. Young children are generally incredibly optimistic. Like self-esteem, life satisfaction and other individual attributes, optimism is in our genes. However life experience teaches us to taper this optimism with a degree of realism, or even pessimism. Also not everybody is born with the same genetic balance: some of us are naturally more optimistic or pessimistic than others. The profession of law seems both to attract and engender pessimists. But the general rule still applies—even lawyers were born optimistic.

One of the other things that we now know about optimism is that it is both contextual and catching. In fact pessimism and optimism are both highly contagious. If you surround yourself with optimistic (or pessimistic) people you will almost inevitably catch their mood. Some researchers say that since you choose the people you surround yourself with, perhaps your level of optimism or pessimism is also a matter of choice.  However if you are in a pessimistic profession, that choice might not always be possible.

We have also found out over the last few years that stress, particularly workplace stress, is an optimism killer. Yet, according to research conducted five years ago by the futurist think-tank the Hudson Institute in the US, workstress was projected to increase by 200 percent between then and 2020.

The good news revealed by science is that with a few rather simple changes we can enormously reduce the level of workplace stress.

How can you increase optimism in your team?

Okay, so what can a law-leader do now to increase the level of optimism in his or her team or his or her firm?

There are five necessities for the successful creation of an optimistic team or firm and they can be conveniently remembered by the acronym PACTS. My partner, Dr Alicia Fortinberry, and I came up with these as a result of our research into optimism and the resulting programs for the public we ran at the University of South Florida. We published our findings in our book Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2005). Since then we have successfully helped many firms and corporations create optimistic forward- looking teams

Not surprisingly PACTS holds true for families as well. They are the basis on which all well-adjusted children are brought up.

PACTS stands for:

  • Purpose: To be optimistic we need to feel that our work has a socially meaningful purpose. If we’re just in it for the money we may just get more pessimistic.
  • Autonomy: We need to feel that we have a measure of control over our working conditions.
  • Collegiality: We need to feel that we are part of a small mutually supportive group.
  • Trust: If we don’t trust those we work for and with only pessimism is possible.
  • Strengths: A culture of effective praise and looking for what people do well is essential to an optimistic team or firm.ix

A leader who is able to get all of these right will create a team, or firm, which will outshine and outcompete all the others. 

Editor's Note 

Interested in learning more on how to build optimism at your firm?  Dr Bob Murray is a keynote speaker at the 2016 ALPMA Summit 'A Blueprint for Change' which will be held at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne from September 7 - 9.  His fun-filled and lively presentation "Building Optimistic Teams and Firms" will guide you through the steps that will lead to optimism and resilience in individuals, teams and firms. 

Early bird registration closes at midnight tonight so register now to secure great savings on your 2016 ALPMA Summit registration!

About our Guest Blogger

Dr Bob MurrayDr Bob Murray is an internationally recognised corporate consultant with over 20 years’ experience. He has worked for a wide variety of major and mid-sized Australian professional service firms and Global 500 corporations. Clients include premier Australian and overseas law firms such as Allens Linklaters, Ashurst, Herbert Smith Freehills, K & L Gates and other top tier companies such as KPMG, Macquarie Bank, PwC, Ford, Caterpillar, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, BHP Billiton, Wesfarmers and Stockland.

He is also a noted scientist in the field of behavioural neurogenetics, having won the prestigious 2012 American Science Achievement Award for his work on personality and motivation. He is regularly interviewed on TV and radio and is quoted in such newspapers and magazines as The Sydney Morning Herald, the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, The Australian and Time Magazine (which ran a feature article about him and his work).

As well as the above he has worked for Hill Samuel Bank in the UK in the area of mergers and corporate restructuring for which he was made a Fellow of the British Institute of Management.

Bob has an MBA as well as a PhD in clinical psychology. He coaches CEOs and corporate and firm leaders in Australia, China, the US and Britain. As an ex-actor, he is an entertaining and inspiring speaker as well as being deeply knowledgeable in his field.  He was voted 'Best Speaker' at the 2015 ALPMA Summit.

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