Previously, we touched on the idea that lawyers work in a notoriously risk-averse professional culture. For many, it starts with the “safe choice” of law. Unlike, say, medical students, very few go to law school for the greater benefit of mankind.
This predilection for risk-aversion continues with one’s legal studies. Law school conditions the nascent lawyer to substantiate every argument with precedent, and justify any position by saying “this is an acceptable choice, because someone else has already done it this way.” And with the final move into actual practice, the awareness of risk influences almost everything a lawyer says or does. Liabilities are considered; cases are declined; potential conflicts are vetted. Even legal language, with its infuriatingly looping clauses that include or preclude every possible interpretation, is designed to minimize exposure.
A piece of personal history: my first job out of college was a temp gig at a firm that offers “risk management services.” At the time, I thought this was the worst kind of corporate doublespeak—I was unsure what risk assessment was, and I had a hard time conceiving of risk as something to be “managed.” Risk seemed like an externality, something to be avoided or embraced but not necessarily controlled.
Eventually, someone broke it down to me: Most people are notoriously bad at assessing risk. They let their emotions either excessively minimize or magnify every decision. This phenomenon is even harder to manage when people make decisions in groups. Risk assessment offers an analysis, often numerical, of how big a risk a particular situation is for a company. It provides a sense of control, not of the risks themselves, but of your company’s response to them.
Are we suggesting that your firm hire a risk management consultant? No (and besides, who has the budget for extra consultants these days?) The takeaway is that it’s possible to be not just aware of risk, but to also be aware of your awareness of risk. Letting risk influence your decisions is fine; it’s inevitable. But that influence can be much more useful if you step back, consider the situation, and think: “How much of this risk is real, and how much is emotional, cultural, or just irrational?”
Like so many underappreciated aspects of business, risk is a potential tool. In a risk-averse culture like the law, your ability to harness that tool can give you an edge over your competitors. Cultivating a more conscious and self-aware perspective on risk will help you take more chances, to see the forest where others see the trees.