December 7, 2022

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The Legal System

Trusting Your Process Regardless of the Results – Leading As Lawyers

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As a lawyer, valuing the process illustrates a unique ability to lead in the midst of any circumstance.

Brady John

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022

Imagine pitching in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series with the score tied,  bases loaded, and two outs. You throw a 93-mph slider that is perfectly located on the corner of the plate. The batter, fooled by the pitch, swings way too early but happens to catch the ball right off the end of his bat. The ball falls just over the first baseman’s head, and the game is over. You lose the World Series. The headlines the next day will act as if you, the pitcher, failed. After all, you gave up the game-winning hit that cost your team the World Series. But such a viewpoint considers only the result of the event. This “results-oriented approach” shortsightedly neglects the process, the role played by luck, and every other possible intervening occurrence. 

Take another example—one from football. It is 4th and 1 on your opponent’s 45-yard line. You go for it and call the perfect play. But the ball carrier, well on his way to a first down, slips and falls an inch short of the first down marker. You turn the ball over and proceed to lose the game. It appears to be another failure, at least for those who only care about the results. But, again, such a viewpoint completely discredits other intervening events that helped contribute to this perceived “failure.” In reality, however, each situation involves successes that far outweigh the failure to achieve the desired results. 

The two examples above illustrate how easily people engross themselves in the outcome, rather than focusing on the process that led to that outcome. By merely flipping the results of both examples, the entire dynamic changes. In the baseball example, if the batter fails, the pitcher is a world champion. Likewise, in the football example, if the ballcarrier does not slip, the decision to go for the first down is genius. This shifting dynamic exposes the problem with a “results-oriented” approach. Pure luck was the sole intervening occurrence in both examples, yet it caused the outcome to change drastically. The process in both examples was sound. Each failure should have been a success. 

Unfortunately, our professional world often values the results over the process. Within the legal community, we tend to amplify even further the importance of results. Far too often, lawyers beat themselves up over wins and losses in the courtroom or in the negotiation of transactions. Theoretically, this emphasis on results makes sense. Results lead to promotions, fame, money, and admiration. Those with the best and highest results tend to be the most revered. A lawyer that consistently wins cases or closes deals retains more clients. In turn, more clients mean more money and more rewards. 

But a leader sees right through these temporal and often futile achievements. Leaders value the process over the results. Why? Because being a leader is about much more than money, fame, and a tally-box of cases or negotiations won and lost. Leadership involves demonstrating each and every day the commitment, belief, confidence, and maturity that individuals must possess both in success and failure. Leadership, however, does not quantify how much “winning” is necessary or expected. In fact, quite the contrary. Lawyer-leaders understand that failure (as measured by outcomes) is an expected part of the process. As demonstrated above, sometimes you just get unlucky, especially in the legal profession where we consistently deal with diverse judges, parties, and juries. Nothing is constant in the law, which makes it impossible for us to demand perfection from ourselves. But what can be constant is our approach. Trusting your process yields consistency amid an otherwise unpredictable profession. 

I want to be clear that trusting the process does not serve as a crutch for complacency. Instead, a “process-oriented” approach helps specifically in a leader’s reaction to a defeat. If a lawyer loses a case or a point in a negotiation, rather than immediately questioning her abilities and everything she had learned up until that point, by trusting the process, the lawyer need only assess the factors that may have led to the unfavorable result. Sometimes, that answer may simply be that the substantive law was the deciding factor. Other times, it could be that the lawyer slipped up, missing an opportunity to adequately address a matter in the moment. Nevertheless, the reaction is the same. Calmness over meltdown; poise over panic. One bad result never signifies a fatal flaw in talent or ability (or even advance planning). 

What makes trusting the process especially challenging in the legal field, however, is the fact that we rarely know what causes our defeats. Was it a lucky swing by the opposing counsel? Was it an unlucky slip in front of the first down marker? Or was the factfinder just having a bad day or a potential transactional partner being unreasonably obstinate? These unknowns in our profession are exactly why the process matters more than the results. Your process gives you a definite answer. In fact, in a profession with largely randomized results, the process is your one constant.  

As a lawyer, valuing the process illustrates a unique ability to lead in the midst of any circumstance. We, as humans, tend to follow those who maintain dignity and self-respect in the face of any situation. And as members of what should be one of the most prestigious and respected professions, lawyers must initiate the movement toward “process valuing” leadership in every situation, whether positive or negative. In so doing, it will then be much easier to lie down at night knowing you did everything you possibly could, even if the outcome fails to meet your expectation. But if you choose to value randomized results left largely in the hands of others or in the hands of chance, then good luck ever getting any sleep.

Be a lawyer-leader. In a world defined by results, choose to Trust Your Process.

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