October 23, 2012


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 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

January/February 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 1 | Page 43



Feeling fired up and ready to break the current law practice mold? Let’s look at what it might take and see if you’re up to it. Gregory Berns, Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, is author of the best-selling book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Harvard Business School, 2008). He says three things stand in the way of true innovation:

■ Flawed perception

■ Fear of failure

■ Inability to persuade others

No one can say that those obstacles are easy to overcome— but still, people do it, time and time again. How about a few examples from recent history, just to prove the point?

Textbook Iconoclasts

Consider Steve Jobs. The Apple tag line “Think Differently” could well have been “See Differently.” In other words, Jobs looked at the very same things Bill Gates looked at and obviously saw something equally viable but different. What we bring to our actual “seeing” of things varies enormously based on past history and learned behavior as well as genetic makeup.

Imagine the 20-year-old Richard Branson, in 1970s London, selling “cut-out” records to retail outlets from the boot of his car—the first domino to fall in the series of changes that led to large-scale discounting of recorded music. If he’d lost sleep about flying under the radar of then-existing parameters, there never would have been a Virgin Records … or a Virgin Atlantic Airways …. or a Virgin Galactic taking paying passengers into suborbital space.

Think, too, for a minute about young Jeff Bezos in 1994, driving cross-country from New York to Seattle while drafting the business plan for what is now arguably the biggest revolution ever to hit retail sales: Amazon.com. And if he’d not had the skills to present his idea and persuade investors, he could still be selling books through the Internet—only out of his garage.

So, how about you? Can you, as a legal professional, be an iconoclast, too? Yes, you can—but here’s what it will take:

■ A different and viable idea

■ The nerve to pursue it

■ Excellent powers of persuasion

Step One: Fueling the Idea

Too often we mistakenly assume that, if we just think long and hard enough, a nifty new concept will leap fully formed into our heads. But there’s really nothing like new information considered from unique angles to bring your vision into focus. Start by informing your thinking with good hard data on current and emerging trends to drive your creativity. Then take advantage of other people’s excellent brains by tossing around ideas with folks you respect, both from inside and outside the legal profession.

Warning: This is not an invitation to attempt vision making by committee. Fresh concepts are never going to see the light of day in a boardroom full of lawyers needing to demonstrate their competence by identifying what’s wrong with every new idea.

Step Two: Having the Nerve

C’mon, what have you got to lose? If your practice is up to its ears in the old paradigm and sinking fast, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Solution: Put a smart financial backup plan into place, strap on your safety gear and let ’er rip. But, you say, you’re anxious over how your colleagues will react? The worst that can likely happen is that first they’ll catch their breath, and then, second, they’ll sigh with envy over your daring-do. Still feeling shaky? Find a like-thinking cohort so you can support each other through the scary stuff.

Step Three: Selling It with Your Persuasive Powers

Ahem, isn’t advocating for the rightness of a cause part of what you went to law school to learn? Take those advocacy skills and put them to use in the service of your idea—pull out all the stops to convince the banker, your partners, the clients, your family and whoever else to get behind you and your idea. Especially if you’re a courtroom lawyer, odds are good this will feel pretty natural to you.

But even if it’s been years since you uttered the words “Your Honor,” it’s never too late to hone your powers of persuasion. Study up with a good book, Internet resources or a workshop or two to remind you to make your ideas visual, tell a story, allow people to see themselves in your vision, spell out the worst- and best-case scenarios and—last but not least—ask for engagement. And remember, there’s nothing like a clear and compelling vision (see Step One) to move you to powerful advocacy.

About the Author

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is principal of Astin Tarlton.