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How to thrive in disruptive times from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Posted by Gene Turner on 02-Jul-2016 19:30:00

The article below on how law firms can thrive in disruptive times was published in the latest LawTalk magazine.  You can also read it here.

The inspiration for the article came from a 2 hour session with Gary Bolles.  While there are some excellent legal training courses offered through NZLS, ADLS and others, given the vast range of new skills that lawyers can and should develop, it's worth looking more broadly as there are some great courses at very good value.  For example, 2 hours with Gary Bolles, which was organised by Biz Dojo's Collider Programme and Callaghan Innovation, was only $25.00. Creative HQ's Startup Garage also offers some excellent events.  Look into them!  

Seven takeaways for lawyers

I was fortunate to attend an event with Silicon Valley entrepreneur and thought leader Gary Bolles in May. This included the opportunity to sit down with him privately for 30 minutes to discuss my plans for LawHawk.1

Gary is a frequent lecturer on innovation, entrepreneurship and the Silicon Valley ecosystem. He has been a Silicon Valley entrepreneur for the past 30 years and has been a co-founder of software startups, technology magazines and industry conferences.

Here are my takeaways, with my own thoughts on how it applies to the legal profession.

1. The pace of change is only going to increase

If you’re already worried about the amount of change, it is going to increase significantly from here, as all the technologies which are individually driving significant change begin to overlap, merge and fuel each other.

Gary described it as a bigger shift than the industrial age, but which is happening in a “blindingly fast” period.

2. We have to help people adapt

Given the pace of change, we have to help people to adapt. This is incredibly challenging, as it isn’t easy (or even possible) to predict the skills that people will need, but if those out of work aren’t placed into roles that help them develop new skills, they’ll fall further behind.

For those of us with kids (or law students), we have to fundamentally reassess the approach to educating them. We need to teach them to become entrepreneurial from very early on so they can see opportunity where it presents, and collaborate to solve new problems in new ways. They’re unlikely to have a single career. They might have 12! And they’re unlikely to occur one after the other – it’s much more likely now that they’ll have a portfolio of jobs, where they don’t work full time on one thing – they manage multiple interests.

“Your career won’t be what you think you will do – it will be what you look back on as what you ended up doing”. I know this will appeal to many younger lawyers I know who (as well as leading a more balanced lifestyle overall) might want to try working in different firms, or practice areas, working in-house, in private practice and in Government, contracting, working with not-for-profits, governance, and trying something outside of law. Gary referenced Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, who refers to each stage of employment as a “tour of duty”, where employees are hired for a defined tour of two to four years, to help solve a particular problem. At the end of one tour, you might do another, or you might look for a new challenge.

This means that education will not be a separate “box” in your life that stops when you begin work. It will be a life-long process.

3. You have to be proactive

There’s going to be an unprecedented amount of choice for people in terms of where they take their career, but you have to be proactive. If you don’t take control of your own life, nobody else will, and it is the passive people who he believes will be automated out of their jobs.

Lawyers won’t learn new skills in business, strategy, project management and computer programming overnight – it will take years to credibly claim any level of expertise. Start now.

4. Hire for attitude more than capability

The traditional approach, particularly in law, has been to hire for performance rather than cultural fit. Only those with the highest grades usually get an interview in a large firm. In knowledge professions like law, you needed the people who had the knowledge in their heads, but that’s less and less important with systematisation of knowledge. You’ll need different sets of skills in the future, which will be constantly changing.

If you’ve got people with a great attitude, but lacking in certain skills, you can train them up. It’s how they apply the information that will be more important than whether they can remember it all. However, if you’ve got someone who is a high performer but is also a poor teammate, they won’t become a great teammate.

In the Silicon Valley, they are now dialling down job requirements to avoid ruling out people who will be more successful in the medium term, even if they need some development in the short term. If someone loves what they do, but isn’t good at it, they’ll practise until they become good at it. If they don’t love what they do, even if they’re good at it, its unlikely they will learn to love it and continue to practise and improve.

5. There is a massive unbundling occurring

Those who have read Susskind are already familiar with the concept of unbundling as it applies to law, but it’s happening everywhere: media, transport, accommodation, healthcare, higher education, financial advisers (with Gary concluding “put a fork in that business!” due to increasing availability of robo-advice), accounting and law.

The overall service will be delivered by a range of providers, integrating and collaborating with each other. The provider that is closest to the customer will retain the most value and power. Lawyers anticipating this trend still have a great opportunity to develop new skills, that are more visible and close to the clients, as back-end processes become unbundled. The response of the accounting profession to Xero is a good model.

6. The middle will be evaporated but there are opportunities for the small and agile

The internet takes out the middle of the market. Big organisations are likely to survive (often acquiring the most innovative start-ups – which big law firms overseas are starting to do), and there will be a proliferation of start-ups (as we are starting to see in the legal tech scene).

It is cheaper than ever to do a startup (or start or transform a small law firm) now with the ability to access world-class cloud based infrastructure. Disruption usually starts at the bottom, and then moves up to fill in the gaps. There are real opportunities for innovative small firms.

Undifferentiated firms in the middle, if they don’t make significant changes, will disappear.

7. The power of networks is strongest at the edges

Despite being based in the Silicon Valley, Gary was keen to build his network in New Zealand, because the value of a network is greater at the edges. People who you don’t know as well are more likely to give you new ideas and introduce you to new opportunities than those who are most like you. As well as learning a lot at Gary’s event, I met someone with a marketing and sales role in a tech company. He had a good idea about a possible business opportunity for LawHawk.

There are so many ideas that lawyers could borrow from other businesses – particularly the technology world – if you broaden your network. I hope this summary demonstrates this.

  1. A massive thanks to Biz Dojo and Callaghan Innovation for arranging the event.

Topics: Future of Law

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