Monthly Archives: March 2012

Tragic Shooting At a Law Firm

I’m not sure what to say about this week’s triple murder and suicide in the conference room of a Pretoria law firm. Surprisingly many people I have spoken to in the last 2 days had not heard about it.

It’s sad and it’s shocking.

Briefly, the facts are that there were 6 people in the room, 4 clients and 2 lawyers.  Martin van Deventer was on the one side and on the other were 3 directors of Mayborn, a property development company, namely Griessel, Erasmus and Van Heerden and their lawyer.

Griessel, Erasmus and Van Heerden bought Van Deventer’s farm for a property development. Half of the purchasing price was paid over to Van Deventer at the time of the sale, while the rest would have been paid at a later stage. At the meeting, the three buyers allegedly told Van Deventer that they could not pay him the rest of his money at this stage.

At this point Van Deventer got up and shot the 3 men, at point blank range, before he turned the gun on himself.

The lawyer for the 3 men, at whose office this took place, said: “I don’t know what went wrong. The meeting went well. The next moment he was shooting my clients.”

I don’t know what to make of that. The lawyer thought the meeting went well? Surely there must have been signs of enormous distress coming from Van Deventer? I know everyone cannot be deception experts like Dr Cal Lightman, but I can’t believe no one noticed anything at all until 4 people were dead.

Without much understanding of the dynamics I am hesitant to make any judgment. I  will say that I believe lawyers should be trained to handle client’s distress. I believe strongly that law cannot be separated from other disciplines such as psychology and economics. Entering into a commercial contract is essentially about an economic exchange, accountability and managing fear. That’s why people ask for a contract – they are fearful the other side will not behave as they have agreed and that they will suffer as a result.

I can only hope this serves to highlight the vulnerability of clients in legal negotiations and that some lawyers may be motivated to learn more about how to manage such processes with compassion.

Wherever right or wrong may lie in this story, it seems a terrible waste that four lives were lost.

PS. The comments of readers on the news24 website where I read about this incident are shockingly unconscious. The shallow level of engagement with this sad event really makes for frightening reading. I despair for our country when I read stuff like this.


Core Values vs Aspirational Values

Here is something I think is quite useful from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, on core values vs aspirational values:

“People frequently confuse timeless core values—what you truly believe and have always believed at a deep core level—with aspirations of what you’d like to see the organization become in the future. You may have such an aspiration, but if you are honest with yourself and it is not a core value for the people in your breakout group, the place to put it is in the vivid description aspect of the Envisioned Future. Do not mix future aspirations into your true and authentic core values, as this will create justifiable cynicism and destroy the power of your core values. For example, a group that has never held innovation as a core value should not put innovation into its list of core values, even if it sees innovation as a vital strategy for its future. Instead, it should make innovation part of its Envisioned Future a quality that it wants to stimulate progress toward.”

Jim Collins has some great exercises for organisations to determine their values which you can find on I can see that incorporating the methodology of Richard Barrett would take these exercises to a new level because it makes sense of the values. Barrett situates all values within a framework of individual and organisational consciousness. It is far more powerful to have context.

For example, using Barrett’s 7 Levels of Organisational Consciousness, the organisational value “trust” is a level 5 value, the level of internal cohesion – which is about building an internal community, with shared values and vision. “Professionalism” on the other hand is a level 3 value, the level of self-esteem. This level is about building performance, so it’s about systems and processes and best practices.

If a company has undertaken a Cultural Values Assessment (CVA) one of the primary Cultural Transformation Tools of the Barrett Values Centre, then it’s much easier to ensure relevant values are chosen. A CVA provides a clear picture of the employees’ individual values and of their desired values for the organisation. This can be used to ensure there’s alignment with who the people are and the type of organisation they want to work for, when the executives choose the values. This is essential for alignment. I will talk explain the 4 types of alignment necessary for a values-driven organisation, in another post.

For now, suffice to say, that the current trend of executives rushing off on a breakaway, and returning with a set of “new values for the company” is very old school and ineffective. At the very least, failing a company-wide survey (cost is of course a factor in these matters), the executives should each undertake an IVA – Individual Values Assessment – which can be used to ensure that these individuals, who will be responsible for espousing and living the values, are in fact capable of doing so.

If undertaking any sort of values journey, I highly recommend you read Richard Barrett’s Building a Values Driven Organisation. While Good to Great is on every list of “books every entrepreneur should have read”, Barrett’s book is just a little more exclusive.  Jim Collins for a business exec is like having Deepak Chopra on your bookshelf if you’re a self-help fan. (there’s no note of condescension here, we should ALL be helping ourselves, those who don’t are just painful). But if you want to learn about values the smart way, the way the cool kids are doing it, read Building a Values Driven Organisation. It’s not a laugh a minute but it’s profound. Or you can get a Barrett consultant, like me, to run you through the book’s contents in a few hours. Either way, two bits of advice:

1. don’t pay for a values session until you’ve looked into Barrett’s work

2. Do not try to inculcate the organisation’s values by chanting them in unison at company meetings. Ever.

“Here today no human heart was trampled”

I’m considering how to bring the work of Nancy Kline (author of Time to Think) to law firms in SA. Perhaps there are law firms somewhere embracing the Thinking Environment…please let me know.

Regardless of the industry you work in,   Time to Think is a beneficial read. It deals beautifully with the concept that our ability to listen to others has a direct affect on their ability to think.

I believe the methodology in Time to Think is very well suited to solving some of the issues that stifle the quality of lawyer’s thinking.  There are studies on the way that lawyers think (will definitely write more about this and cite sources)  which suggest that the fear of ever being wrong results in very little creative thinking. Creative thinking involves risk and lawyers are very risk-averse.  Another facet is that law so often works on a precedent based system. We have a precedent based judicial system which has been in operation for hundreds of years. Also we use “precedents” meaning previously drafted contracts whenever clients want  a contract.  Although there are various arguments in favour of these systems which I shan’t deal with here, we need to consider the downsides too.  One such downside is the constant shutting down of opportunities for creative solutions.

While I’m not suggesting we abandon the precedent system, I do believe we would do well to heed the words of Albert Einstein (he was pretty smart in his approach to things)

“You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”

Some of the reasons that innovative thinking is not cultivated or celebrated in law firms include:

  • The emphasis on always being right
  • Solutions must be found fast or alternately…
  • Billing by the hour means it’s not in the firm’s best interest to solve problems fast
  • Clients often have the best solution to their issue, sometimes subconsciously, but lawyers do not know how to listen to their clients and clients are often intimidated by lawyers and cannot express their thinking.

To better understand Nancy’s concept of a Thinking Environment, here are some extracts from an article she wrote called The Thinking Environment Organisation that I highly recommend (2 pages long)  that you can read in its entirety on the Time to Think site.

If you worked in a Thinking Environment Organization, you would know as you walked in the door each morning that people would be interested in what you really think on issues big and small…

You would know that as you spoke, you would not be interrupted, You would value that so much that you would take responsibility for being succinct so that everyone could have a full turn, too. You would know that the generative effect of these uninterrupted turns to think and speak would raise the energy of the group. You would look forward to the pleasure of a work day with so much positive, not frenetic, energy.

In organizations in which people truly value each other’s thinking and truly listen to each other, targets get met better, budgets get set better, products and services get delivered better, the quality of work increases. But, more importantly, other things increase: things like self-respect, inspiration, innovation, confidence.

This is because when we know our thinking is valued, we know our very core is, too.

And in such an organization, you would get to the end of your day, close the door behind you, and be able to say to yourself,

“On my watch, people thrived. Here today no human heart was trampled, and no human mind was wasted.”

Can you imagine a law firm like this? Personally I find it mind-blowing.

5 Problems with Law Firms in South Africa

  1. Their business models are ancient. Most firms still structure themselves the way law firms of centuries ago were structured.
  2. There is generally a lack of transformation in terms of making firms hospitable to women. This would mean finding solutions to issues such as childcare, working remotely, dawn meetings etc.
  3. There is generally a lack of understanding of how powerful it can be to have men and women understand the ways in which they think and act differently and harness these differences in the workplace.  Female attorneys will only get ahead when they are able to act like their male counterparts.
  4. Many law firms have embraced the trend of having values – yet like many companies, do not know the first thing about living their values.  They have no idea how to ensure all their policies and procedures from remuneration to billing clients, are aligned with their values. This means the values just make good wallpaper.
  5. Law firms are mostly oblivious to the fact that as a result of their restrictive and hierarchical cultures, only a certain type of person will be able to thrive in a law firm. This means that of the 10 graduates who join a firm, after a decade only those whose personality profile is very similar to all the attorneys higher up the chain, are likely to still be around. This makes for homogeneous attorneys and is not actually good for business or the profession.  The line up may look diverse – some men, some women, different races but in terms of personality profile, they’ll probably represent only 10% of the population. If that.

PS the photo I found on Google. It’s an Aussie firm I believe. I might be sued for using it without permission. It just seemed too perfect an illustration of point 5 to resist. I’m gobsmacked. Are those women in uniforms? Or did they get a memo saying “black skirt suit, 3 cm above the knee, white shirt, black peep toe heels”?. Notice only the woman on the far right is able to wear sexy boots. Because she’s been there for 20 years, she earned the right to show her individuality. Just the boots mind you. Frightening stuff.  This is just my personal opinion.