I listen to a lot of podcasts when, as in the past, I was driving to and from my law office: now, since my office is just a couple of steps down the hall from the kitchen and I have no commute, I listen while I am exercising. Some of my usual podcasts are good and some average but every now and then, I get one that really makes me see things in a new light and inspires me to do something. Such was the case with the most recent podcast of Dennis Kennedy and Tom Miguel on the Law Technology Today blog entitled Disruptive Innovation in a Law Practice.

I’m a big fan of the podcast called the Kennedy-Mighell Report which comes out more or less monthly. I know the people who do it, Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell and have found them always interesting and insightful on legal tech and legal innovation. (And it doesn’t hurt that they are both really good guys.)

Recently,  they decided to  interview third parties on their show and their first guest, Whitney Johnson was dynamite. Johnson is the author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and describes herself “expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption,”  a framework which she codifies in her book. Its always nice to hear from experts outside the legal and legal tech field like Johnson by the way. They typically have a fresh approach and don’t carry around a lot of legal baggage that many of us have from years of beating our heads against the wall advocating change in our field.

Whitney Johnson Helped Me Connect Some Dots

What was inspiring and resonated with me about this podcast and Johnson in general? Three things:

First, Johnson talked at length about her career theory: most of our careers look like an “S” curve. We start out not knowing much and we face a steep knowledge and experience gap to become proficient at what we do. (Think the theory Malcom Gladwell made famous that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get really good at something). But after we make the climb and get to the top, things become easy and on the surface look great. But most of us aren’t build to coast (otherwise we wouldn’t climb the curve to begin with). So we get bored. Unhappy. Frustrated.

This was exactly my case. It took me years of pain and struggle to get good at what I did. Once I did it was fun for a brief period. But then something seemed to be missing. I looked for all sorts of reasons to rationalize why things weren’t like they once were: the competition was too severe, clients had unreasonable expectations, the requirements of the carriers were too onerous. But the bottom line was I wasn’t learning and climbing like I once was. If I had been, I would have blown right by those excuses.

If your coasting, it’s time for something new.

Instead, I gradually started gravitating toward other things like writing and advocating for tech and innovation in the legal space. I was learning and growing and was excited for a change.

But I thought to myself: I am a practicing lawyer. Legal tech and innovation typically aren’t billable nor likely to lead to billable hours. So, I stayed stuck at the top of my personal S curve for way longer than I should have. It took me too long to see that the place where I was would not let me start a new S curve that would be more personally satisfying and fulfilling. It wasn’t their fault; it was my own for not doing what I needed to do.

Lesson learned: don’t coast. If your coasting, it’s time for something new.

Second. Johnson identified something called market competition as distinguished from product competition. Market competition is when you find a niche in the market that’s not being filled and you decide to fill it.

It’s like lightening in a bottle…when it works. But to make it work you have to have guts. Perseverance and self-confidence. You have to be prepared for the question someone asked me when I set out on my new career after practicing law for 35 years: “Is there a market for that?”

When I was asked this, I thought the person was trying to pour cold water on my ideas (which he may have been). After listening to the podcast, I’ve decided that that is the question you better hope someone asks you.  The question really means no one is doing what you want to do or no one has figured out a way to be successful at it. Either way, you are at least setting yourself up to try to be market competitive.

Is there a market for that?

My Own Areas of Market Competitiveness:

What are my own areas of market competitiveness? Advising, consulting and being a thought leader with a growth mindset and the perspective of of a lawyer with 35 years of actual experience. Yes, there’s lots of people in the space who don’t have my experience on the ground. There’s lots of lawyers out there with my experience that don’t have the same growth mindset, knowledge, connections and willingness to think outside the box that I do. Combining the two things I have into a niche makes some sense.

Ok, you’re thinking that’s pretty general, what are some examples. Here’s one: I’m creating a program of mutual mentoring in the legal field where those on the top of the S curve can be mentored by those on the bottom to look at things differently and with fresh eyes and be challenged. And those on the bottom can be mentored on the climb and how to do it.

I have actually written an article on my ideas, which evolved from the famous reverse mentoring program of Jack Welch at GE back in the 90s and have hosted webinars on the subject. It’s a valuable tool to get people thinking about innovation in our field will still being grounded in reality.

Want another example? I was a mass tort lawyer for many years. I think the greatest value I brought to these cases as a defense lawyer was my ability to strategize the matter, to figure out what the exposure was and what the best-case resolution for the client would be and then put in place the strategic steps to get there. (see below).

Why not market this ability? Sell high end advice and planning to clients and then figure out how to leverage other disparate providers like alternative service providers, lower cost law firms and others to do the actual work using tech and process management tools.

Applying concepts of collaborative disaggregation and classic unbundling to law and big cases. I’ve written about this as well and my ideas were the subject of an Above the Law post.  I’m pursuing my ideas, which were also the subject of an Above the Law Post by Keven O’Keefe, in the marketplace.

I could go on. But thanks to Johnson, I now see that what I’m really doing is working to create a special niche for which I am qualified: combining skill sets in two areas–legal tech and innovation and law–in ways that capitalize on my skills and experiences. That’s why I get up most days invigorated and enthused to see what the day will bring.

What Are You Really Good At

All of which plays directly into a third point Johnson made which by the way is a little harder to do: ask yourself what are you really, I mean really good at and then work in that lane.

Sounds good but here’s the catch: that means giving up some things you aren’t good at so those who are good at them can do them. That’s not so easy for us lawyers.

But looking back, I see some connections I didn’t see before. So to return to my high end advice idea, I knew I was good at providing 30,000 feet strategy but not so good at some of the other elements of on the ground mass tort practice.

When I tried to do things I wasn’t good at I reduced my value in the marketplace and my competitive advantage.

When I tried to do things I wasn’t good at, I reduced my value in the marketplace and my competitive advantage

That did mean I wasn’t successful, I was. But it did mean I wasn’t as satisfied as I could be since I was trying to do and be something I wasn’t so good at. And it meant I missed out on some opportunities I might have had if I stayed on my talent lane.

The Life Lessons:

  • See where you are on the S curve of your life and if you’re coasting at the top of the curve, start making changes,
  • Be market competitive by
  • Discovering your special skill set and then finding a niche that best fits it.

It took soul searching and a leap on my part to start seeing things differently. Thanks Whitney Johnson for helping me connect some dots and reinforcing my decision to  “boldly go where no one has gone before” to use an overused clique. And thanks Dennis and Tom for a great show with a great guest!

Photo Attribution:

Photo by Alex Read on Unsplash


Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash