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Growth vs. fixed mindset: Lawyers embracing COVID-19 changes | Aaron Baer

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 @ 1:29 PM | By Aaron Baer

Aaron Baer %>
Aaron Baer
Every day, I’m reminded that COVID-19 has caused massive societal change. Subways and streetcars are operating at minimal capacity, gatherings of friends and family remain restricted, and the majority of office workers are working from home. Dozens of companies have declared bankruptcy, hundreds of stores have closed permanently and millions of jobs have been lost.

A large number of people have been significantly affected by COVID-19, including unemployment or other financial difficulties, such as the madness of navigating full-time work while parenting children and serious illness or even death.

COVID-19 has also resulted in lawyers losing their autonomy — and this has led to great progress. Necessity has truly proven itself to be the mother of invention. Courts are hearing cases remotely, deals are being closed virtually and paper-based processes have been modified.

In some cases, lawyers who have been fortunate enough to stay employed have thrived. Many have embraced the benefits of working from home, and I expect those lawyers will continue to work from home at least several times a week for the indefinite future.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a second camp of lawyers. Those who can’t wait to get back to the office, to go back to their old way of doing things and to be done with video calls forever. To be sure, there may be good reasons for this. After all, Zoom fatigue is real and many of us are working from home in less-than-ideal circumstances.

But for that second camp, I suspect that rather than seeing COVID-19 as an opportunity to adapt, they’ve been seeing it as a disruption of their preferred way of practising.

In recent years, the concept of “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” has become more prevalent. With a fixed mindset, people are more inclined to believe that their basic abilities, intelligence and talents are fixed traits. With a growth mindset, people are more inclined to understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They believe that everyone can learn more if they work at it.

Lawyers rank really high in the bad stuff — divorce, depression, alcoholism, etc. Lawyers also rank terribly in resiliency — a character trait that is critical for adapting to changing environments. Factor in that lawyers generally have exceptionally high levels of skepticism, and it’s no surprise that many lawyers can’t wait to “get back to normal.”

My fear, however, is that when autonomy returns to lawyers — when they’re able to go back to their old way of doing things, and when they can choose how and where they work — they’ll revert to their old habits.

Those lawyers who adopt (or have adopted) more of a growth mindset are going to thrive. They realize that COVID-19 has helped accelerate much needed change, and that the number of opportunities to modernize and grow their practices has increased. But those who have more of a fixed mindset will let the advancements that have been made go to waste. And that’s a shame — for them, for the public and for their clients.

The divide between how younger lawyers and more established practitioners have navigated the challenges and opportunities of practising law during COVID-19 has been stark. There are obvious generational differences at play, including tech-savviness (or at least comfort with technology). Younger lawyers are more likely to see the legal industry as a slave to tradition, precedent and inefficiency, compared with senior lawyers who are more likely to embrace these characteristics.

For more senior lawyers who have been resisting modernizing their practices for years, COVID-19 has posed a big challenge. The way they leverage their support staff, network with clients and perform their work has been disrupted. For younger lawyers who were already embracing technology, very little of their workflow has changed. What has changed for them is their access to mentorship, clients and other learning opportunities.

But I believe the generational differences are a red herring. I have seen plenty of experienced lawyers who have adapted well and are thriving. At the same time, I have seen younger lawyers who refuse to change their ways. The real difference is their mindset and whether they see the changes brought on by COVID-19 as an inconvenience that we must slog through until life goes back to normal or as an opportunity to rethink how we practise and how we live our lives.

For law firm leaders, it’s pretty much a given that you want to encourage more of your lawyers to adopt a growth mindset. Take some time to think about how your current firm culture and incentives encourage (expressly or implicitly) a fixed mindset and what can be done to build a culture that leans more towards a growth mindset. There are plenty of articles and videos online with practical advice. For lawyers, consider whether it might be helpful to reframe how you view the pandemic. Try to see the upside — and be grateful the potential opportunities — rather than just focusing on the disruptions.

Aaron Baer is a partner at Aird & Berlis LLP specializing in corporate and commercial law, with a focus on technology and privacy. He is active in Toronto’s legal technology community and was seconded in 2018 to a leading legal technology company.

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