At least fifteen years ago (maybe more), my husband bought a Garmin GPS navigational system for our car. Though I dutifully punched my destination into our new toy, I found myself deviating every time my printed-out Mapquest instructions or my own instinct conflicted and sent me on another route. As an end result of trying to meld Garmin and my own way of doing things, I’d wind up even more confused and lost than without the GPS.
When I complained to my techno-savvy husband, I’ll never forget his advice: “just give yourself over to the GPS” he insisted. “Even if the instructions seem crazy or inaccurate, or even if it takes you a few miles out of your way, it will always get you where you want to go and you won’t have to think about it.” And so I heeded my husband’s advice. Sometimes the GPS would take me on a beautiful path that I’d have otherwise missed. Other times, such as on a trip to the beach, it lead my daughters and I on a frolic and a detour through desolate farmland in Delaware, adding two exhausting hours to an already lengthy drive.
Yet overall, as it turned out, my husband’s advice was right. GPS, and now Apple and Google maps have improved in accuracy, enabling us to avoid traffic jams and to find gas stations and fast food quickly on long trips. In short, navigational systems have grown so dependable that these days, directions are one less thing to think about; one more task off our plate that doesn’t require an ounce of mental energy.
That’s the value of systems in a law firm too. Whether automated or just jotted down on a sheet of yellow legal paper that’s tacked to your wall, following a system can eliminate one more task on your to-do list.
But there’s more to it than that. Because when you give yourself over to a system as my husband suggested so long ago, you also free yourself from the mental energy that comes with making decisions. Here’s a great example that comes from President Obama himself in his memoir, A Promised Land. In one chapter, Obama shared that during his presidency, he never had trouble making a decision and never second-guessed his decisions. Sure, there’s a healthy bit of arrogance to Obama’s admission but also common sense. Obama explained that for every tough decision, he had a process. Rather than go with his gut (in which case, the decision would suffer from self-bias), he’d call in his experts to review the pros and cons and offer everyone at the table a turn to speak. Then, Obama would weight each side, make a decision and instruct his team to implement it. Although many decisions that Obama faced were tough, he could always sleep at night, confident that the outcome was the right one because the process that produced it was so effective. In other words, Obama was able to distance himself from the emotional upheaval that can come from focusing on output by focusing on what he could control: the process.
So how does this manifest in your law practice? Let’s take the example of quoting a price. Often when lawyers tell a prospective client how much a service will cost, the client may try to negotiate a discount – either pleading poverty or offering to send referrals your way if you show a little kindness. Often lawyers are sucked into the negotiations and either wind up offering a reduced rate or alternatively, turning down the business but feeling guilty at being unable to help someone in need. So what if you were to think about your price as a system or policy – one that was developed with much reflection and research. Instead of trying to override your system and muddy the waters, as I did with the GPS, just give yourself over to it and state firmly, “We set our prices with much reflection to the nature of our services and our market, and we do not deviate from the stated rates.” As with Obama’s reliance on a process to justify and distance himself from the outcome, here, by focusing on a well throughout out pricing policy rather than the outcome (i.e., not accepting a client), lawyers could mitigate some of the guilt that can come from turning a client away.
When we talk about systems, we focus on time saved and order created. But rarely do we mention the saving of mental energy and complications and stress that arises from avoiding having to make yet another decision. But those benefits only accrue if you surrender to the system.