Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JUNE 2009

Managing Your Practice

‘Brace for Impact’
Law Firm Risk Management in Hard Times
By Paul Burton

“Brace for impact.” That’s what Captain Chesley ‘‘Sully’’ Sullenberger said to the passengers and crew of American Airlines Flight 1549 just before he successfully navigated the disabled aircraft, carrying 155 people aboard, to an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Was it miraculous? Not really. Was it intentional? Absolutely! Capt. Sullenberger did exactly what he was trained to do and, more importantly, what he had to do to save the lives of all aboard.

Don’t misunderstand me, Capt. Sullenberger’s actions were a thing to behold and the results were nothing short of perfect. My point is that we can all strive to be more like Sully, especially during these tough economic times. How? Well, there may be something to learn from the Navy Seals cadet training program on that subject.


A few years back the Navy Seals were experiencing a higher-than-expected fall-off rate in their cadet training program. In studying the issue, they found four components that, when leveraged appropriately, increased cadet performance by 33 percent. Those components are:

• Goal Setting. Break down objectives into short, manageable steps.

• Visualization. See and rehearse the intended results in your mind until they are natural.

• Self Talk. Use positive messaging while performing to maintain a positive state of mind.

• Arousal Control. Take long breaths to simulate the body’s relaxed state.

Considering that Capt. Sullenberger was a military pilot and aircraft safety trainer, he may well have leveraged the value of these steps to reach the positive result he did.

But how does this apply to you? In bad times, you can find yourself in a host of difficult situations. For example:

A Distressed Client
You just talked to the CEO of a long-term client. The company has suffered a staggering financial blow. Layoffs are imminent and the very survival of the entity is in question. The CEO is highly agitated and anxious about his prospects and those of the business.

Question: What is your role and how should you work together during this difficult period?

Answer: This is one is fairly typical, and the answers are pretty straight-forward. Your role is as an adviser, and your primary focus must be on the positive resolution of the situation in terms of the best interests of the business, your true client. You can assist the CEO by advising that he set some immediate and mid-term goals for dealing with the problems at hand. Given the circumstances, where does the CEO want to steer the company? What does the safest harbor look like right now? Where does the CEO see the company in six months? These are all visualizations that will drive the positive actions necessary to achieve the intended results.

You can also counsel the CEO on how to prepare for in-person and other real-time meetings with executives and staff. The CEO needs to be very clear about messaging and his own actions, as the rest of the company will be looking to the CEO to provide guidance during this tumultuous period.

A Firm Situation
Turning up the heat a bit, let’s change our facts to make the calamity internal to your firm. Worse yet, you’re not in a managerial position. Otherwise, the facts remain the same — layoffs are likely and the financial strength of the firm is being widely questioned among your ranks.

Question: What’s your role in this situation and how should you behave?

Answer: With a direct personal stake in the situation, it’s much harder to maintain a strong leadership position. Yet, this is when leadership is most valuable to you and those around you. The same precepts apply and, in fact, may be more important to keep in mind while dealing with the situation. Specifically, you should set some short-term goals surrounding what you would like to accomplish regarding this matter. Where do you want to be in relation to this problem by tomorrow? Next week?

Before discussing it with anyone internally, regardless of their position, you can use self talk to focus your mind on your objectives so that the stress and emotion generated in the environment has less affect on you. Finally, managing your outward emotions will greatly facilitate your effectiveness in dealing with this crisis.

A Personal Situation
Your father just called and informed you that your mother’s already-poor health has taken a turn for the worse. Assisted living is now their only option, but the current economic downturn has eroded their financial standing. You realize your father isn’t just informing you of the situation, he’s asking you to take the lead in dealing with it.

Question: How do you handle becoming your parents’ parent?

Answer: One of the most difficult stages of life occurs when you have to begin parenting your parents. If you are not already a parent, this can be a very difficult transition, but even for adults that are already parents to their own children, dealing with aging parents can be a challenge. The upside to this type of parenting is that you can be more collaborative in dealing with the situation. Seek to establish some short- and mid-term goals with your parents, and begin talking to them about the positives of moving into an assisted care facility. The better the image in their minds, the easier the move will be for all of you.

Your self talk can center on the fact that they helped get you to where you are today, so you can definitely help them get to where they need to be. Deep breaths, extended patience and a good dose of empathy won’t hurt you along the way!

These scenarios are all likely to occur during your personal and professional lives. Though you may not achieve the level of success experienced by Capt. Sullenberger, you can improve the results by a “mere” 33 percent, which is a terrific victory for you and those who rely on you.


Paul Burton is a former attorney, software executive and successful entrepreneur. He is a frequent speaker and recognized author on productivity and leadership. He works with individuals, groups and organizations, providing keynote addresses, interactive training seminars and individualized coaching. Reach him through his website, www.visionmechanix.com.

© 2009 Paul Burton

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