In Praise of Huma Rashid

Lately I’ve been reading a blog called The Reasonably Prudent Law Student. It’s written by Huma Rashid, a law student who quickly points out that the focus of her blog has long since strayed from a focus on law school and lawyers and now features . . . .well. . . anything “The Hoomster” deems interesting. And that ranges daily from The Scarlet Pinpernel to the price of pumps to “fancy pants lawyering” to Islam/culture to Chicagoland and everything between and beyond.

As an occasional reader of some of the more cynical and cranky blogs written by young lawyers, I have to say that I deeply, deeply hope Huma’s take on things is the future of the profession – and not theirs. While willing to admit that there are plenty of things to be snarky about in her world, she eagerly informs her thoughts about the law, school, the profession, etc. with a refreshing perspective gained in every other aspect of life.  If some saavy publisher doesn’t snatch up this woman and make her an internet star, she’s going to make one hell of a good lawyer.

Give me Your Tired, Your Hungry . . Yearning to Innovate?

There’s a very interesting article by Cali Williams Yost at Fast Company online: QUARTERLY EARNINGS KILL PEOPLE BASED INNOVATION.

To quote, “If super smart people believe that innovation is the only way out of this Great Recession, then they need to make the restoration of employee trust, motivation, commitment and well-being as high a priority as tax code changes, R&D and education reform.”

For my colleagues who are working in significantly downsized law firms and facing that long, lonely road to doing anything differently, it will sound painfully familiar. Who *are* these folks who think stomping harder on people is the way to get happy innovation?

More Ways than One to Practice Law

In the Myers-Briggs view of the world, lawyers tend to prefer thinking more conceptually than specifically. Perhaps that’s one explanation for all the recent chatter about the need to “change business models” among the law practice management groupies.

I think that’s all great. What’s not so hot is that these conversations seem almost always to assume that EVERY law practice will change to the SAME new model.

Au contraire! The big news on the law practice biz front is going to be differentiation. And not just in a marketing sense. Tomorrow’s successful lawyers will find themselves in myriad organizations patterned after myriad models. Think about it! Arent we already seeing it happen?

Take a look at the January/February 2010 issue of Law Practice Magazine for a primer. There’s Steve Taylor talking about the law firms who have have already talked their talk and walked their walk on over to the wild side. Anne Lee Gibson on creating a competitive advantage. Jordan Furlong takes a characteristically sharp look at the “Five Forces Transforming the Legal Services Marketplace.” And. . . >cough<. . . .I have a few things to say about new business models for the practice of law (Figuring out Your Place in the Race) as well as how to do the hard work it will take to get there (Iconoclast 101: A Break-the-Mold Primer for the Bold).

Note to Managing Partner: Step Up!

I had coffee this morning with a very creative and effective friend and colleague who is working with a 200+ multi-office law firm. Charged by firm leadership with creating a more effective process for evaluating associate performance and guiding them through standard steps of professional competency, he had put together a strong program . . . anticipating all aspects, resolving all conflicts, clearing all the hurdles of resistance. Not only was everyone on board, including the committee with which he worked, but there was strong insistence from the Managing Partner that his clear vision for this be realized quickly and completely.

Virtually 10 minutes into rolling out the new system, firm wide — partners, associates, recruiting, staffing, evaluation, library, etc. – my friend started to receive critical e-mail messages. By the next day the Managing Partner was struggling with rumors that “the associates are unhappy!” with the new system. By the following week, Mr. Visionary-Managing-Partner had cratered to the criticism of a couple of his senior partners and e-mailed a simple survey question to all: “Do you like this new program? Yes or no.”

Oh, did I mention that the Managing Partner as well as the committee members were all otherwise occupied and unable to participate in the launch of the program?

Hmmm. Let’s see. . . . who was hung out to dry, here? That’s right. My friend. He was ensnared by the typical romance of law firm leaders who talk big change and innovation without understanding and accepting their role in making it happen: Taking the risks to make it so.

Any leader of any organization who determines to make radical changes must assume that he or she will take (and absorb) some pretty big hits as part of the process. It is naive to assume otherwise. And by that I don’t mean a leader must throw themselves under the train, but a do believe that a thoughtful and firm investment of personal and organization power must be applied.

What would that have looked like in this situation?

1. What if Mr. Managing Partner had “owned” the new program and announced it in person at a partner meeting and then an associate meeting. What if he explained not only the details of the system but, more importantly, the concepts and how they relate to the firm’s strategic goals.

2. What if a group of senior partners were enlisted to “sell” the program to their peers and direct reports through a process of training them to participate in it: how to conduct a performance review, how to evaluate using the new standards, how to access your own performance. . . .

3. What if, once critical remarks began to arrive, Mr. Managing Partner responded uniformly with something like “I know it seems uncomfortable right now. But I believe in the goals of this new program and I think that, if you give it a chance, you will as well. What we are doing is committing to change our behaviors in order to invest in both the future of the firm as well as the individual futures of our associates. We owe them rigorous training and development as lawyers. In return, they owe us their best and most earnest work to become the kind of lawyers our clients demand.”

Like I’ve said before, getting the great ideas isn’t even half the process of innovation in a law firm. Selling the ideas and turning them into reality? Now THAT is where the magic lies!

Flop Heard ‘Round the World

It’s impossible to watch the track and field events of these 2008 Olympics without pausing to wonder again at Dick Fosbury and his audacious – and innovative – conquest of the high jump event at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. 

Under nearly any circumstances, improved athletic performance is a game of hundredths of seconds, of hairsbreadths, of fractions of an ounce.  But something in young Richard Fosbury prompted him to improve his performance by leaps and bounds (no pun intended) in a single stroke that year.  One has to imagine this fledgling engineer from Medford, OR grew impatient with gradual and subtle improvement and so turned the whole concept of high jumping on its head.  (Okay, that pun was intended.) 

At the time, jumpers took off from their inside foot and swung their outside foot up and over the bar. Perhaps it was the hard sandpit landings that were required before the advent of deep foam matting that prevented jumpers from even considering a reckless head-first leap.  Or maybe it was just Fosbury’s savvy redefinition of the task – from jumping over to getting over – that cleared the way for his disruptive and revolutionary innovation.

Whatever it was, it was fascinating.  Even those of us ordinarily uninterested in track and field sat glued to the TV screen in the hope of catching another view of this weird gangly kid and his goofy method.  Instead of running straight at the bar and then leaping, jumping or stepping over it, feet first and facing forward. . . Fosbury approached at an angle and threw himself headfirst and backwards over it!! While the coaches of the world shook their heads in disbelief, the Mexico City audience was absolutely captivated, shouting “Olé” as he cleared the bar each time. Fosbury cleared every height through 2.22 meters without a miss and then achieved a personal record of 2.24 meters to win the gold medal.

“Can he do that?” we’d ask.  Surely there’s a rule . . . .

Well, there wasn’t a rule.  But there were certainly centuries of precedent.  Is it wisdom or naivete that allows us to sweep aside centuries of “doing it this way” long enough to see a better way? 

By 1980, 13 of the 16 Olympic finalists were using the Fosbury flop.


Dream Deferred

I’ve been exploring the possible sources of innovative thinking in law firms. Wondering where the good ideas come from. . . .why some firms can make amazing things happen. . . what causes and supports the challenge of change in an inhospitable environment.  Here’s one possibility — and why in some cases it doesn’t work.

On the staff side of things, in many instances, the marketing director or CMO is best situated to drive innovation in a law firm.  It’s a combination of things. 

  • By nature, a good marketing person is creative and driven to avoid precedent — it is his job, after all, to help a law firm differentiate, not conform. 
  • Strong marketing conversations almost always touch on product development or packaging of services.  Both fertile breeding grounds for new thinking.
  • Unlike nearly all other staff positions, the marketing executive works shoulder to shoulder with the firm’s leading decision-makers. . . . working on the promotion, characterization and amplification of the very legal work they do.  Speaking truth to power on behalf of the clients’ needs and market trends.
  • No one keeps an eagle eye on the competition like a CMO driven to help her firm compete.
  • Nearly every job description or hire order for a law firm marketing executive contains language like, “strong leadership skills,” or “creative and innovative,” or “capable of leading change with and through firm leaders” and the ever popular “catalyst for change.”

At the same time — or, actually, because of this charge to innovate – the marketing function is also the clearest and biggest target when it comes to resistance. Few people like to be challenged to think differently, even fewer if they happen to be lawyers.  A marketing director talking about “better, faster, cheaper” in the context of the marketplace can – if not careful – be seen by those who are quite satisfied that what they’re doing is the very best, thank you very much, as an irritant at best and an in-firm terrorist at most extreme.

Ouch!  It takes an extremely self-confident — perhaps pathologically so? – person to throw their “really great ideas” into the maw of criticism time and time again. 

So where does this wildly creative and innovative thinker turn when this situation flares?  When the CMO feels beat down and devalued by the resistance to his ideas – the very ideas for which she’s paid the big bucks by the thinkers in the firm who know that fresh ideas are needed?  When the firm’s leadership shuts him out for fear of criticism of themselves?  Where do you turn to salve your wounds and renew your energy to try again? 

Easy answer:  Elsewhere.

We’ve all seen it happen.  A law firm hires a “water walking” CMO, pays so much money it hits the internal grapevine like a bomb and then, writing a blank check for great and new stuff to happen, steps back.  Two to three years later, the CMO is:

  • Spending more time building her own credentials than promoting the firm,
  • Appearing in articles, pod-casts and interviews as an expert at least as frequently as the firm’s lawyers,
  • Cranking up firm travel expenses on the speakers circuit,
  • Being photographed with movers and shakers,
  • Taking. . . .mmm. . . . perhaps a little too much credit for the firm’s success, and
  • Launching their own independent business activities on the side.

Then begins the doom loop.  Talk in the hallways focuses on “What does she do, anyway?” and “Who does he think he is?”  While firm leadership naively scratches their collective head about the fact that it seems the exterior world values their CMO more than they do.

The CMO starts to itch.  Her willingness to invest time (personal as well as the firm’s) in outside activities brings greater and greater industry recognition – a situation so out of kilter with the internal negativity it becomes intolerable.  Headhunters start to call.

Oh, did I mention few CMOs enjoy the kind of coaching from a firm leader playing the supervisor or collaborator role that would help dodge or at least pull out of this nose dive?  Meanwhile, the important driving force for effective business innovation within the firm is essentially neutralized.

Whose fault is this?  Oh, it’s different in every case.  But in all likelihood, it’s shared:

  • The CMO has failed to bring the necessary skills and patience to the table to provoke new thinking AND enable it through firm leadership to become a reality.  The firm’s reality.  Great ideas just aren’t enough for success in an environment with no hierarchy and a passion for precedent. “Telling” isn’t all it takes to cause great change.  You’ve got to “work it,” build confidence in your capabilities, build alliances, demonstrate small successes if that’s what it takes to get to the big ones.   
  • Firm leadership has been unrealistic about what it takes for a creative person to succeed in their firm and have been too focused on “not getting anything negative on themselves” instead of digging in and taking risks to ensure success for the program into which they originally invested so much of the firm’s money. Too much managing partner time is spent neutralizing partners’ complaints instead of working to improve a bad situation.

As in all situations, there are extremes.  Some marketing executives are untalented self-promoting opportunists.  Some law firms are poorly managed, short-sighted and foolish in how they spend their money and their people.

But in the end, the possibility of a great catalyst and investment for innovation. . . .for improvement. . . . for energy and enthusiasm . .. and for firm success and profitability. . . is spent. And if everyone involved is lucky, one of those headhunter calls will result in a chance to try again.

Perhaps next time we’ll all be a bit smarter

The Myth of the Solitary Genius

“This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery — what science historians call “multiples” — turns out to be extremely common.” In 1922, when William Ogborn and Dorothy Thomas put together their first comprehensive list of multiples, they found 448 major scientific discoveries that fit the pattern of being made by several individuals at more or less the same time. 

Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain at the same time as they were invented by Joost Burgi in Switzerland.  Evolution?  Charles Darwin and, separately, Alfred Russell Wallace.  Color photography?  Charles Cros in the UK and Louis Ducos du Hauron in France.  Oxygen?  Joseph Priestly in Wiltshire and, a year earlier, Carl Wilhelm Scheele in Uppsala.  “‘There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,’ Ogburn and Thomas note(d).”

Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating article in this week’s New Yorker, In the Air: Who says Big Ideas are Rare? takes a look at the phenomenon of multiples as well as the role of collaboration in innovation. In it he suggests that ideas actually aren’t all that rare.  That, with the right intellectual stew and ample time and stimulation, ideas are literally a dime a dozen.

Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures process of “invention sessions” serves as great inspiration for anyone looking for profitable new ideas.  And, for me, it is far too tempting to resist comparing this process with the all too frequent mass killing of ideas that routinely takes place at law firm management committee meetings.

Read the article.  It isn’t short, but you’ll be glad you spent the time. I guarantee it will leave you hitting the “send” button to convene an invention session of your own. What could be more fun?

Or profitable.


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