Borrowing Culture From the Startups
THIS IS THE FIRST BLOG POST FROM THE MSBA’S NEW “SMALL FIRM SOAPBOX” SERIES THAT OUR OWN WADE ABED WROTE. YOU CAN FIND IT HERE ON THE MSBA WEBSITE.
Welcome to the first blog post of the MSBA’s new blog focusing on solo practice and small firms. I am honored to write the first post. Although, I believe the post order was selected alphabetically by last name. My last is name is Abed.
The common themes in my posts will mostly revolve around marketing, networking, technologies, sharing, and brand building. There will be posts with more focus on Greater Minnesota practice, however, the aim is to have posts that provide some value for all readers and visitors. As the blog develops, it may tackle and take aim at more controversial topics and offer some food for thought as debates unfold in Minnesota and abroad. This first post is going to be broadly based in business development and branding. So here it goes.
AGILITY AND COLLABORATIVE INNOVATIONS (“PARTNERING”)
As a solo practitioner or small firm, we have the ability to change more quickly. We can implement ideas. We can try new things. We can change how we do things tomorrow. There are generally no formal committees to run things up the chain-of-command. There is no death by committee. Big companies and BigLaw are kind of defined by their bureaucracy. If you don’t want to accomplish something, then have a meeting.
BE LIKE THE SKI BOAT
Larger organizations are more like a freight-liner trying to make a quick U-turn. Solos and small firms are more like a ski boat making a quick U-turn. The freight-liner can eventually make the turn but it takes much longer and the lay of the land may have changed. (Side note: This may have contributed to some of the layoffs that Target employees experienced this week in the Twin Cities.) The ski boat can adapt quickly and stay current with what is happening in the day-to-day. So what does this have to do with borrowing culture?
We should borrow culture from the start-ups and small organizations doing it best. And most of the time, they are not law firms or even law related. They happen to be tech-related or software companies. The stories of brand and culture development from the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook have become the stuff of legend in some circles. The funny thing is, Google is kind of the old kid on the block now. Google was founded September 4, 1998. In the age of information consumption, this makes Google old.
Regardless, of their age or past these companies have continued to re-brand how they do business. They’ve re-branded where and how they work. They aren’t afraid to learn from newer companies like HubSpot and Beats Electronics. In order to create a culture that is different from the typical law firm, we have inspiration and companies to act as our muse to develop law firms that meet the needs of our families, employees, and ourselves. The law can be viewed as path dependent in terms of culture, however, it does not have to be that way in our offices.
The benefits of adopting or borrowing culture from the tech start-ups and software companies are plentiful. This post is only going to focus on two though: agility and collaborative innovation. Yes, lawyers too, can innovate.
WHY DOES STUFF LIKE AGILITY, BRANDING, AND COLLABORATION MATTER?
For the legal profession to thrive, retain its current lawyers, and have new lawyers carry the torch, we have to change how we run our businesses. According to a July 29, 2014, article in The Atlantic, so many lawyers want out of the business that an entire industry developed to help them quit. The article was aptly titled, “The Only Job With an Industry Devoted to Helping People Quit.”
THE AGILE OFFICE
Being agile and committed to innovative collaboration can help enrich legal work and legal work environments where we spend most of our time. The results are better outcomes like happy clients, happier work environments, and increased economic opportunities. This is why it matters.
Much like the ski boat (see above), our businesses need to move fast. Building a business is largely a function of momentum. Unlike big business we don’t need to get a full head of steam to get moving. We can focus on being nimble and agile. Big businesses are usually slow. Bear in mind that when their infrastructure becomes outdated they have to make choices to speed up or get left behind. Think of K-Mart, Woolworth, and, some say, Best Buy. (Side note: I think Best Buy has a good plan to re-brand itself into something that can change with the times.)
We are in times of rapid change, which require rapid movement. Momentum tends to create exciting and engaging work. Engaged employees generally produce better outcomes and enjoy their work more. Agility gives us the ability to identify high-potential opportunities and convert them into compelling legal services.
DON’T FORGET YOUR PARTNER
Determine what kind of partnering you want to do. Inside and out. Big and small. Professional or community. For instance, maybe you want to partner with a bigger organization because your solo practice or small firm has something to offer that the bigger organization does not. All of the past ideas about partnerships are being redefined. Big organizations partner with small business, and vice versa. The same can be said for cross-industry collaboration.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
The idea of David vs. Goliath is no longer completely true. Think about mainstream Hollywood studios and YouTube. YouTube somewhat leveled the playing field for small filmmakers. Hollywood recognized YouTube’s value in its medium and collaborated to showcase its movies. Many movie trailers are now advertised on YouTube. The important part is that the small/solo firm understands that it too can bring value when partnering with the Goliath’s of their area.
We cannot forget to partner inside our offices. Collaborative innovation inside our offices is probably more important than outside partnerships, especially for new firms and solos who office share. Look to your team and office mates as your mirror. They are your “B.S.” meter. If everyone from your law practice partner, to your receptionist, doesn’t buy what you’re selling about your practice, then don’t do it. This takes trust. Isn’t that what partnerships are really about anyway – trust? Partnering within is an effective way to get your firm and practice closest to its authentic existence.
For example, hire or find a “people person” if that isn’t you. You might be the legal knowledge and experience behind the firm but this doesn’t mean you automatically have the social skills to build your firm and practice. Find someone to partner with who can build your firm and practices. Perhaps, even better, convince persuasive and prominent people outside your organization to do it for you (more on this in a future post).
This post is not advocating that solos and small firms act like start-ups. This post does encourage solos and small firms to borrow the start-up mojo to have enjoyable practices and great workplaces. Completely behaving like a start-up in BigLaw or SmallLaw would be misguided and potentially even reckless. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a few pages from the start-up playbook and use it to become better.