Success — at a law firm, in-house, or in any professional services environment — requires a certain mindset. The mindset is this: “My job is not to take an order from my client (or boss) and fill that order, but rather to achieve things.” Or, to put it differently, strive to execute projects, not simply to perform tasks.

Let’s start with a silly example: You ask someone to call the plumber to get the sink fixed.

Three days later, you realize that you haven’t heard back on this subject, so you ask, “Did you call the plumber?”

You hear back, “Oh, yes. I did.”

“And?”

“The plumber hasn’t returned my call.”

Do you feel as though you received intelligent help with this project? Of course not — because the project was to get the sink fixed. You didn’t really care whether your helper called the plumber, or e-mailed the plumber, or attracted the plumber’s attention with smoke signals. So long as the sink got fixed, the project was completed.

But your helper chose not to think about the project and instead focused only on the task — making a phone call, whether or not anything came of it. Your helper completed the task and ignored the actual project.

Undertaking tasks, rather than executing projects, is exactly the way to fail in a professional services environment. Here’s an example, from the legal world….

As a partner at a law firm, you might say to an associate, “The other side cited Smith v. Jones in its opposition brief. What’s the story on that case?”

An order-taking associate returns a half hour later: “Here’s a copy of Smith v. Jones for you to read.”

Okay, but not particularly helpful.

A project-oriented associate returns six hours later: “Smith v. Jones hurts us. It holds X. But Smith is distinguishable in three ways: Ways one, two, and three. And Smith has been criticized by courts in two other states, and one later court expressly refused to follow the holding that hurts us. This small binder has a one-page outline of the things that I just told you, followed by highlighted copies of the relevant cases, with post-it notes on the key pages.”

Aha! Here’s a person who took a project and acted as though it actually mattered.

This mindset applies to everything that anyone is asked to do in a professional services environment. When talking to a junior lawyer about a brief, a partner might say: “I had one thought when I was reading this. Please think about [thought].”

An order-taking person returns at the end of the day with a revised draft of the brief. The revised draft is identical to the original, except for one sentence in the middle paragraph of page seven, where the new idea has been added as a dependent clause. The changed sentence now reads: “Old text old text old text, [new thought], old text old text old text.”

Okay — and maybe even correct — but not necessarily helpful.

A project-oriented person might return with one of several possible responses. Perhaps: “I considered your thought. I read the relevant cases and looked at our evidentiary record. I’m not sure that your idea works in this context. These are my concerns . . . . I was thinking of modifying your thought to add the new argument in a slightly different way. We might instead say . . . .”

Or perhaps the revised brief has a new sentence in the introduction highlighting the new idea, and the statement of facts now recites the facts needed to set up the new argument, and the brief has a new argument section “C” that lays out the new argument, complete with citations to helpful cases.

Aha! This person took a project and acted as though it actually mattered!

It’s remarkable how long it takes some junior lawyers to realize that their job is not to do the minimum amount of work needed to get the partner off their back, but rather to help the partner accomplish something. Further along the career path, it’s remarkable how many people think that projects can be blown off to avoid doing boring tasks. But the need to complete projects, rather than to perform tasks, never ends.

A client will ask the most senior partner at a law firm to help with something, and the partner succeeds only if the partner completes a project, rather than performs a task. The CEO can ask the general counsel to help with something, and the general counsel succeeds only by completing a project, rather than performing a task. And a big client may ask the CEO to do something; the CEO succeeds only by completing a project, rather than performing a task.

This isn’t a matter of rank or hierarchy. It’s a matter of attitude that infuses everything you’ll ever do in a professional services environment.

Think about what the other person needs to achieve, and then cause that person to achieve it. Don’t perform tasks. Execute projects, and people will beat a path to your door.


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at [email protected].


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