The Silo Mentality: A safe haven for lawyers?
“Many of our behaviours are like memorizing phone numbers, held in place not by desire but by inconvenience, and they’re quick to disappear when the inconvenience does.”
Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus
A previous partner that I worked with would routinely and blithely trot out the expression: “We need to get out of our silo mentality”. I don’t remember challenging him and simply nodded in agreement, meaning, I assume, I accepted the thesis underpinning this expression. His thinking was informed by the lack of creativity his fee earner cohort placed in escaping their moribund practice area(s) into something that was more lucrative. In short, his driver was profit.
In my case, I was desperate not to be pigeon-holed. As a commercial litigator, I enjoyed the variety of the cases that I handled and, if I thought I would be forever trapped in dealing with one type of case, then, I am quite sure, it would have hastened my departure from the profession. It wasn’t just the mental challenge, it was the variety of clients that kept me in the game.
Presented with the opportunity to silo-hop – whether to a new practice area (private client to litigation) or client type (commercial to private client) – I wonder how many lawyers would be willing to make the leap?
It may be conjecture, but I am of the view that very few lawyers would do so. In most cases, even though a considerable number enjoy(!) a far from ideal existence, very few would break free.
- Having to start at the bottom, again.
- Fear of the unknown.
- Job security.
- Now knowing any different.
- Not understanding the ‘new’ area of practice well enough.
- Being ill-informed about the ‘new’ department.
- Playing it safe.
All of these reasons are perfectly understandable but does it make for the best lawyers?
Like any master craftsperson repetition is the mother of all learning and the more time you dedicate to improving your skill set in one area, the better you will become as a lawyer. Let’s face it you want to know when instructing someone (in your area) that you are getting the very best person. It is worth mentioning though that this dedication to a ‘single’ specialism is a relatively recent phenomenon and there are still some lawyers who continue to practice across a broad variety of areas.
The problem is that by concentrating too heavily on one area it means you become more and more reliant on others to advise in areas where you have no expertise. You have created your own silo for want of messing up or not having the confidence or competence to advise in another practice area. The client doesn’t’ always understand this. They have come to see you, not 2 or 3 other people.
Cast your mind back to when you did your law degree or you just finished your training contract. You might have had a fondness for one area of law over another, but you certainly wouldn’t have dreamt of saying to your principal, “Sorry I don’t know anything about that area of law”. Even if that was the case, you would, as likely, have looked it up.
In the current jobs market there will be many lawyers holding on and even if their billing figures are modest by comparison to 2007, nevertheless they are prepared to sit it out and wait for better times. But this down time should be viewed as a golden opportunity to understand if you really are suited to cubicle nation. Do you really see yourself doing the same job for the next 10, 20 or 30 years? That thin veneer which you have relied upon, namely your comfort zone is masking a whole slew of issues. Now is the time to consider if you really are suited to the area of law you practice or something in law that is more you.
There may be some people who decide, for various reasons, that a career in law is not for them and who would blame them; but for most they will decide that they have too much emotional investment to give it up (just yet).
Do a simple S.W.O.T. (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of your current role. You should be open and honest with yourself and not try to skew things one way or another. Are you staying put in your silo for the right reasons or those contrived by others?
Having done this exercise you also need to ask the perennial questions: Are you happy doing what you are doing? Or perhaps something a bit more rigid and less emotional. The Why question.
Why this area of law?
Why this department etc?
Of course even if you find that what you are doing doesn’t float your boat as it once did, then that is no reason, even less the money issue, to not go to work on your career. Go to work on developing that new practice area so that when you are ready to make the leap you aren’t doing so cold.
~ Julian Summerhayes ~