Getting better through practice

Law firms, perhaps professional service firms in general, attribute significance to experience. As David Maister puts it, “clients can look for experience, expertise or efficiency.” Real expertise (as in “this is the person who defines this area of practice”) is hard to come by; few firms can expect to have an excess of experts. Efficiency requires a particular set of skills, and some firms have made a real difference in that area of work. The gaining of experience is often treated as something more straightforward: something that comes with time and practice. Are clients right to rely on grey hair as an indication of good lawyering? Recent research suggests that experience is not all that is required to produce high-quality work.

An article in Time illustrates the finding vividly in a description of emergency care by a novice nurse and by a nurse with 25 years experience. Both managed to kill the (fortunately simulated) patient. In fact, the more experienced nurse did it more quickly. The reason was that something unexpected happened. Neither nurse dealt with it well. The trainee because he didn’t know what to do, the veteran because she had settled into a pattern of work that made it difficult to change to deal with the new event.

The Time article refers to the work of Anders Ericsson, who claims that “the number of years of experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance.” He is described as the world’s leading expert on experts. So how do we cope with the unpredictable?

Ericsson’s primary finding is that rather than mere experience or even raw talent, it is dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion — repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician — that leads to first-rate performance. And it should never get easier; if it does, you are coasting, not improving. Ericsson calls this exertion “deliberate practice,” by which he means the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding.

Without deliberate practice, experience can lead to us performing tasks unconsciously (like the nurse in the example, or an experienced driver who drives on ‘auto-pilot’ and is easily distracted into thinking about other activities), and to over-confidence.

Ericsson is partly responsible for the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, which brings together a spread of scientific insight in this area. The Handbook indicates that, in addition to deliberate practice, great performance also comes from regularly obtaining accurate feedback.

In a 1997 study published in the journal Medical Decision Making, researchers found that only 4% of interns had known a group of elderly patients for more than a week; by comparison, nearly half the highly experienced attending physicians had known the patients for more than six months. But even with the advantages of years of medical experience and months of knowing the patients, the attending physicians were no more accurate than the interns at predicting the patients’ end-of-life preferences, a crucial factor in determining whether a patient has a good death. It was attention to the patients’ feelings and values that mattered, not having more knowledge of their diseases.

In fact, the Time article is not the best summary of deliberate practice. I found that this was better:

  1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
  2. Set specific goals.
  3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

The need to focus on technique is also evident in a blog posting looking at the phenomenon of ‘choking’ (colloquially applied to athletes whose performance deteriorates under stress). It refers to research into the psychology of choking under pressure using Australian golfers as subjects.

Rather than think about the mechanical details of their swing, golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, or what psychologists call a “holistic cue word”. For instance, instead of contemplating things like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, they should focus on descriptive adjectives like “smooth” or “balanced”. An experimental trial demonstrated that professional golfers who used these “holistic cues” did far better than golfers who consciously tried to control their stroke. The researchers conclude that expert performers should “adopt more global, higher-level cue words that collectively combine the mechanical process of their technique, which may act as either a schematic cue or a conscious distraction.”

I think this idea links to my post yesterday. The holistic cue words are like the space between the trees. What should these words be for lawyers? I think that depends on the individual (what general aspects of your work need enhancing?), the practice area (a transactional lawyer may need a different focus than a litigator), the firm (all of this needs to reflect the culture of the firm, in order to be believable), and most importantly the client. In essence, then, the advice would be that rather than thinking about the detail of the drafting that they are doing, for example, a lawyer should focus on this more general objective.

There is another piece to this — how do busy professionals (especially those with time-related targets) find the time to do this deliberate practice? And what would it look like? I think the answer may be to build it into the normal work pattern. This would mean that lawyers should set (and communicate) goals (based on technique, not outcome) and seek feedback on those goals. How often do people ask clients, “how did that feel for you?”

1 thought on “Getting better through practice”

Comments are closed.