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What Your Unchecked Boxes Can Say About You

Listening to the red flags in business

 

I was rejected last week. I had been speaking with an attorney I had thought might fill a position as a litigator in our firm and I was rejected. It wasn’t the pay; we hadn’t gotten that far in our discussions. It wasn’t the work or the environment. The bottom line was that, when she thought about it, she just wasn’t ready to make a move.

The truth is, I knew I was being rejected even before she said the words. We had reached the point in our conversation when she was to gather some information so we could meet for a far more specific conversation about what she would bring to the firm and the nature of my firm’s commitment to her. Days went by. She apologized for the delay, but this came up or that came up and she wasn’t able to get everything together. A week elapsed. Then two. Still nothing of substance was forthcoming.

She finally said it; but I already knew. If she was truly excited about furthering our discussions, she would have found the time. The fact that other things got in the way told me what she had yet to verbalize.

We all do that, don’t we? You have that client or that project to which you are just not devoting the attention you should. Sometimes, the front-burner issues that keep you from timely performance are real and cannot be avoided. Many times, however, there is something more. Perhaps, the project or even the client is wrong for you. Maybe you know, in your heart, that you should never have accepted the engagement, yet here you are – shackled to a commitment you wish you had never made.

I have represented over a thousand clients throughout my career. I’ve enjoyed my work with many and, to be sure, regretted the association with some. Yet I’ve never regretted not accepting a client. I’ve never looked back at an engagement I didn’t accept and thought: “Gee, I really blew that one.” I have, however, taken on quite a few engagements that, years later, still leave me shaking my head.

I remember this one meeting, several years ago, with a woman who had a small flooring company. She was in the middle of a serious construction project dispute. Every time I raised a question about possible tactics, she told me why the suggestion wouldn’t work. When I mentioned the possibility of a different approach within her company to avoid replicating this situation in the future, she told me, in no uncertain terms, why her current approach was better.

She reminded me of those people you sometimes see on television who, after having lived through one regrettable situation after another, tell the interviewer “I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

This woman was under the gun to meet certain deadlines, required immediate help and, as an aside, had already fired her previous two attorneys.

In other words, all the red flags were up, and I knew enough to see them. Not that they were subtle. They had announced their presence throughout the 90 minutes I spent with her. Everything in my experience was screaming at me to walk away. Yet here I was, extending my hand across the table and accepting the case.

To this day, I can’t figure out why. Maybe it was because of the desperate circumstances she described. Maybe it was the way she played to my ego, telling me I was the only one who could help her – that if I turned her away, she didn’t know what she would do. Maybe I just wanted to bring in the work. We are organized, after all, as a for-profit business.

The thing is, that for whatever reason, I knew.

Over the ensuing years, I learned to be better about trusting my instincts. I learned that the red flags trump ego, personal feelings, or the perceived need to “hit my numbers” for the quarter or for the year. I also learned, as I did with my most recent failed recruit, that it is not how many items one can accomplish on one’s to-do list that matters. It’s the unchecked boxes that often tell the real story.

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