Sunday, August 29, 2010

Relative Filth

… and, no, I’m not referring to your brother-in-law.

Several years ago, after California voters approved an initiative requiring their legislators to receive education on ethical principles, the state senate brought in ethics guru Michael Josephson ( to deliver the message.

In preparation, Josephson met with senators and staff members, and here’s his account of one interview:

A senior staffer confided, "We need this program. People lie a lot up here." I wondered if I should act surprised. But before I could respond, the staffer added, "I hardly ever lie."

Although his statement sounded like a confession, he wasn’t embarrassed at all. "Hardly ever lying" made him morally superior. In a culture where lying is common, the occasional liar feels like a saint. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

I’ve heard variations of this justification -- "I’m not so bad as long as others are worse" -- so many times I’ve given it a name: The Doctrine of Relative Filth.

Josephson’s doctrine came to mind during the last of three meetings I’ve had in recent weeks with law firms whose leaders have convened for the daring and laudable purpose of thinking strategically – examining themselves and the legal landscape and challenging themselves to paint, in bold strokes, a picture of their firm’s future.

These three firms, while differing from each other in many ways, are about to face a common challenge: how to break through the ceiling of “relative” visioning (“How much better should we be than we are now?” “How do become more competitive?”) in order to ascend to a place where they can shake off comparisons and consider, “What would we look like if we were as great as we could be?”

I believe that every good law firm has the potential to be arguably the best law firm in its market (or at least in its weight class) – provided it’s willing to quit comparing itself to itself or its neighbors. In your strategic thinking, be guided by the Doctrine of Absolute Greatness.

No comments:

Post a Comment