Decisions are part of everyday life, so everyone should know how to make good ones, right? Well, if you’re a legal manager in the age of COVID-19, you’re likely facing some of the toughest calls of your career.
When will it be safe to return to the office? Can everyone who wants to continue working from home do so? Should we hire now, when there’s so much talent available, or wait to see how things play out? Meeting these challenges — along with others unique to your firm — calls for advanced decision-making abilities. How can you hone these skills?
First, realize that great decision making isn’t about outcomes, over which you have limited control. It’s more about process, over which you have full agency. You can’t guarantee success but by following the five steps below, you can guarantee a process that’s data-driven, collaborative, and open to review and improvement.
First, look at the context of the issue. That means establishing details like:
- Where is this request coming from?
- Does this decision impact a client? If so, what’s the relationship with them?
- Does this decision affect our people or processes? How?
- Are there any regulatory or ethical issues?
- Are there any budgetary constraints?
- Do you have any biases that might sway your judgment?
For example, say you’ve been asked to reduce the square footage of your office space, with potential actions ranging from storing documents and pleadings in the cloud to reconfiguring space to meet the needs of team members who often work remotely.
Before you start making decisions, think about how these changes might impact team members and clients. Also consider budget and data security. All these factors frame your decision.
Next, dig deeper into the issue. Ask questions, such as the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. In the example of reducing your office space, you might ask questions like:
- Why are we doing this?
- What are our goals?
- Who will benefit from this reconfiguration? And whom might it harm?
- When is the best time to begin this process?
- Where will we see the benefits of these changes?
These questions help you understand the problem and bring clarity around potential resolutions.
Bring others into the process on any major decision. Collaborators can be colleagues, consultants, client representatives or other people you trust. For example, you might ask your team to help brainstorm ideas. Let them hit you with all the suggestions they can generate. Once you’ve whittled these ideas down to a shortlist of potential solutions, ask your team to identify the pros and cons of each one. Other team members can identify pain points and opportunities that you may not notice, helping zero in on the correct decision.
If you follow these steps, you should now see a clear path forward. Choose the most promising option and commit to it.
Most professional decisions result in a deliverable. Somebody must take action like changing a process or filing a document. If it’s your deliverable, act on it quickly and decisively. If it’s someone else’s action item, encourage them to do the same. Once deliberation is done, any delay in moving forward can give the impression that you’re harboring doubts.
Whether things work out or not, each decision is a chance to learn. When there’s a clear outcome, go back and ask questions like:
- Did you gather all relevant data?
- Did you frame the issue without bias?
- Did you collaborate with the right people?
- Did you examine all possible options?
- Did you use the right approach for weighing possibilities?
Use the review process to hone your decision-making skills, preparing you for the next big choice.
The future of decision-making
Like most skills, decision making is evolving with technology. Take artificial intelligence. A good decision maker filters a database or spreadsheet to find the information they need. In the near future, that same manager will use AI to not only extract that data but find useful patterns and structures within it. From these patterns, the manager can find higher meaning and create valuable solutions.
Legal professionals at all levels need decision-making skills that are structured, analytical and focused on hard data. You can help set yourself up for success by applying a structured approach to all of your decisions.
Jamy J. Sullivan is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a premier legal staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets and offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting solutions.