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Embrace Constraints to Build Your Legal Practice

By Jay Harrington

Every lawyer is stretched for time and resources. Instead of allowing limitations to hold you back, Jay Harrington explains ways to embrace constraints and use them to your advantage.

embrace constraints in your law firm

In April 1970, NASA’s Apollo 13 mission launched with the goal of landing on the moon. After an oxygen tank explosion, that objective was scrapped and the focus shifted to survival in the face of long odds. The Apollo 13 crew and ground control had to devise a way to return the spacecraft safely to Earth with limited power, water and breathable air. They used what they had available — duct tape and spare parts — to adapt the carbon dioxide removal system of the Lunar Module to work in the Command Module. They improvised a successful solution despite tremendous constraints.

But there’s another way to look at this: Did they succeed because of the constraints they faced?

The Power of Constraints

The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.

— Soren Kierkegaard

Consider how often clients present urgent problems with tight deadlines — a common occurrence in legal practice. And yet, you and your team got the job done. There’s no magic involved. You merely harnessed the power of constraints.

Across disciplines and domains, constraints can be a catalyst for high performance. For example, in 1960, author Theo Geisel accepted a bet from his publisher that he couldn’t write a quality children’s book using less than 50 different words. The result? Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, produced “Green Eggs and Ham,” one of the bestselling books of all time. Constraints breed creativity.

Here’s how James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” puts it:

“It is common to complain about the constraints in our lives: too little time, not enough money, too small of a network, barely enough resources. Certainly, some of these constraints do hold us back. However, there is also a positive side. The constraints in our lives often force us to make choices and cultivate talents that would otherwise go undeveloped. Constraints drive creativity and foster skill development.”

While it may seem paradoxical, scientific studies, such as those published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” have proved that constraints foster expansive thinking. For lawyers, this means that limitations can actually broaden your creative horizons, encouraging you to find novel approaches to legal challenges — in your work for clients and in building your practice.

Applying the Constraints Concept to Your Law Practice

Understanding and acting on this concept is crucial for lawyers. Constantly stretched for time and resources, lawyers must shift from the scarcity mindset that constraints are an impediment to progress to an abundance mindset that they are, in fact, a catalyst for success.

Here’s how you can apply this concept across various aspects of your practice.

Solving Fewer Problems

Specializing in a particular area of law allows you to delve deeper into specific legal challenges, making you a sought-after expert in that field. Less is more. This focused approach enables you to solve complex problems with greater efficiency and creativity, as you’re not constantly shifting gears between unrelated legal matters and racing to get up to speed. By homing in on a small set of legal issues, you accumulate experience and knowledge that leads to innovative, outside-the-box solutions, setting you apart from competitors who take a more generalized approach.

Identifying Your Target Market

Similarly, focusing your practice on a specific legal niche not only enhances your expertise but also amplifies your success by targeting a precise client market. This constraint means you’re not trying to be everything to everyone but instead providing specialized, highly relevant services to a particular group such as an industry or demographic. You can then concentrate your marketing and business development efforts in narrow domains where your ideal clients spend their time and attention. As a result, you can stay top of mind and build trust with your clients, prospective clients and referral sources because they’re consistently being exposed to you and your ideas.

Cultivating Key Contacts

Relationship-building is the foundation of business development. However, the quality of relationships trumps quantity. You can’t stay in touch in a meaningful way with hundreds of contacts. You have to be selective because your time is limited. By focusing your relationship-building efforts on a select 15 to 30 key contacts — be they existing clients, referral sources, potential clients or colleagues — you can dedicate more time to nurturing these relationships. This focused approach ensures that your networking efforts are more personal, meaningful and, ultimately, more successful.

Leveraging Your Time

Parkinson’s Law posits that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” By imposing strict deadlines and limiting the time allocated for certain tasks, you force efficiency and prioritize high-impact work. Only have 15 or 30 minutes to spend on marketing and business development? With the focus imposed by constraints, you can still get meaningful work done to build your practice.

Using Constraints to Your Advantage

Constraints are everywhere. Those who embrace constraints not only survive, they thrive. Plants and animals in arid environments face severe constraints on water and resources, yet they flourish by adapting in innovative ways. For instance, the Saguaro cactus has evolved not only to store significant amounts of water but to absorb and conserve it with incredible efficiency,

You can adapt and evolve to the challenges you face in a similar way.

Every lawyer is constrained when it comes to building a legal practice. Time and other resources are finite. Therefore, it’s critical that you recognize these challenges and start using constraints to your advantage.

Short on time? Move fast. Short on money? Think creatively. Short on expertise? Focus on less.

Emulate the Apollo 13 crew: Leverage scarce resources to achieve your objectives.

Daily small investments in your practice compound over time, transforming consistent efforts into significant achievements.

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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