This blog originally appeared on 3 Geeks and a Law Blog

This morning, I had the honor of spending half a day with the famed Daniel Goleman exploring emotional intelligence, focus, and leadership as a part of the CEO Global Network – Great CEO Speaker Series. The room was filled with C-Suite executives from a broad range of backgrounds and professions. Of course, all I could think about was how to apply the theories and methodologies discussed to the practice (or business) of law.

Goleman introduced the concept of “mindfulness,” a meditative practice that originates in Buddhism and has gained popularity as a distinctive method for managing emotions. The participants in the room were each asked to close their eyes and focus on their breath for a moment or two, and if their minds wandered, to bring the focus back to breath again. It is believed that by being able to focus for extended periods of time, over the long term, you will be able to react to stress better and recover more quickly from emotional episodes or outbursts. Imagine if it got so heated in a courtroom that the judge made everyone stop and focus on their breath for a moment? Or if midway through a tough take-over bid, all parties stopped to meditate rather than allow their emotional reaction to prevail? It sounds a bit foolish but the idea is to train the brain and its related muscles to resist distraction, stay focused, and thereby manage the stressful situation more effectively. Only though practicing when it is not necessary can you rely on the muscle function to be there when you actually need it. I think six-minute meditation should become mandatory in firms; keeping lawyers focused can only be a good thing for the bottom line.

As important as “mindfulness” is, the concept that resonated most with me from a law firm perspective was the notion of “flow,” and how when people are in “flow” or are focused on a task at hand, they are at their peak performance. Great leaders will learn to read those who they lead and encourage them into a state of flow. Flow is described in four parts:

  1. Clear goals;
  2. Flexibility (ability to change and adapt);
  3. Immediate feedback (It is believed that a person focused on a task will respond better to feedback during the task as it is happening, and this will make success that much more achievable); and
  4. Matching of goals with skills.

As we’ve seen throughout the legal community (3 Geeks included), over the past several years and specifically, in the past six months, there has been a great deal of talk around legal project management, alternative fee arrangements, increasing productivity, and process improvement. Essentially, there’s been talk of wanting to increase the flow between lawyers and clients. Consider the four parts above in this analogy:

  1. The firm needs to define a clear mandate of work or scope, no periphery or ancillary legal work;
  2. Lawyers need to be able to adapt to the changing environments of the market and their clients as the mandate unfolds;
  3. Lawyers and clients both need to keep one another apprised of the progress throughout the process with an open and honest dialogue; and
  4. The firm needs to staff client files with the appropriate balance of expertise and experience to meet the client needs effectively and efficiently.

If we can achieve the four steps above on every client file, then client service will be in “flow,” or at peak performance. Efforts will be focused and outcomes will be (hopefully) successful for everyone involved. Sounds utopian, but I believe it is possible; it just might take some mindfulness to get firms working and focusing on these steps consistently.

Moving from four to three, great leaders according to Goleman are composed of equal parts self awareness, people or social awareness, and a wider public awareness. I would argue that great law firms are much the same. First, they need to understand what kind of firm they are and where they exist in a market. Secondly, firms need to be socially aware of their client interactions—from billing to social events, from blogging to in-person meetings, from CLE and training to regular filings and other client touch points. And finally, firms need to be aware of the wider world in which they and their clients operate. As a competitive intelligence practitioner who often describes my role as bringing the outside world in, this third pillar of leadership particularly inspires me as it positions CI in a leadership context. Put another way, the firms that will lead the race for client service and client engagement, will know their role, know their audience, and know their context.

Goleman ended his talk with some tips on how to improve emotional intelligence. These tips can equally apply to firms wanting to increase their wallet share. The tips taken together are a blueprint for success and, despite their simple message, are actually quite difficult to achieve. Improve emotional intelligence by: articulating a goal, planning for that goal, changing habits to meet that goal, and making yourself (or your firm) accountable to someone in achieving those goals. It sounds very basic but when you start to look at even defining a single goal or strategic objective it can become very difficult, and that’s before you tackle setting a plan, acting on that plan, or changing habits (billing by the hour? …) in support of that goal.

Despite all the technological advancement of our time and our ability to do work smarter and faster, Goleman reminded us several times that the human brain is built for social interaction and that the only way to spread enthusiasm is in person. So while we work on our process improvement plans, firm AFAs, as well as personal and professional mindfulness, always remember to get out of your offices to exploit the best of your firm and explore the parts that may need some tweaking.