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What I Learned at the 2018 Fast Company Innovation Festival

I have been in the legal industry for almost 20 years now: two decades of working with lawyers and law firms trying to create change, inspire innovation, improve the client relationship and help lawyers deepen and grow their books of business. I’ve learned a great deal, including that change is hard for this industry and is usually met with skepticism.

Currently, I am coaching 42 lawyers from five different firms. The lawyers I am coaching vary significantly in type of practice, years of experience, geography, size of law firm and business development acumen. Yet while they are different in so many ways, I see so many shared fears, frustrations, uncertainty and resistance.

As leaders in the industry dedicated to inspiring and creating change, we cannot allow ourselves to wallow in the skepticism, be impacted by the fear or stop offering new suggestions and ideas. Sometimes we need to look outside our comfort zones, and for this reason, the Fast Company Innovation Festival was just what I needed.

The festival has nothing to do with the legal industry, and I didn’t know a soul going. I had to work magic to clear my schedule, but I set goals ahead of time to meet new people and come back with a fresh perspective. I also wanted to bring back one nugget of inspiration or innovation for each of our clients. While the challenge was big, the reward was even bigger. Below are my high-level takeaways:

  1. Getting outside of your comfort zone of what you know and do best is energizing and important. Far too often we become creatures of habit, including in the way we approach ideas and problems and in our limited communities of colleagues. How can we expect to solve our clients’ biggest challenges and problems with the same approaches and ideas?
  2. Almost everyone and every industry is challenged with the status quo. Keep pushing and dreaming. Stop focusing on the negative and be the change you want to see. Most innovative entrepreneurs at the conference found frustration in their fields and industries. What separated those that made an impact is they didn’t let the skepticism, slow change or lack of support define them or limit them.
  3. Most success is tied to vulnerability, meaningful relationships and being open to ideas. I spent three days of back-to-back sessions listening to the most successful executives, entertainers, entrepreneurs and innovators. They had story after story of struggles and moments of vulnerability, but they survived in part due to key relationships and in part because they were willing to adapt. It struck me how little we do this and how challenging it is for lawyers.
  4. You cannot give great advice, deliver a great product, change the industry or innovate if you have not lived in your clients’ shoes. It astounds me how many lawyers have never visited their clients’ businesses, been to their facilities, participated in board meetings, bought the products or used the services. How can you possibly provide great legal advice or defend key issues without being an extension of the company?
  5. We are drawn to happy, engaging, interested, enjoyable and innovative people. I am disheartened at times by people who have lost interest in the practice of law and helping clients succeed. Clients feel the same. They want to work with people who love what they do and are enjoyable to be around. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and make you happy. Also, take a step back and ask yourself how much joy and inspiration you are bringing to your clients, prospects and colleagues.
  6. Never stop learning. The Fast Company Innovation Festival was filled with interactive workshops and other learning opportunities. Many of the attendees had reached the peaks of their careers, but they were still passionate about continued learning and improvement. They were far busier than the average billable lawyer, with many lines of business and thousands of employees, but they found time to think bigger and keep innovating.
  7. Unify your team with a clear goal, mission and vision. As one CEO said, “We have heard that culture eats strategy for lunch, but I think mission eats culture for breakfast.” Successful leaders have clear goals, missions and visions that are frequently articulated and measured against. Law firm cultures can be very challenging and disappointing, but what is your unified mission? Can your employees really get behind it?
  8. Get off your devices, look up and engage in the real world. I think we are close to an epidemic with our devices (and laptops) becoming a crutch for not participating in life. I made a commitment to myself not to look at my phone during any session. Instead, I intently listened, took notes and was present. I met the people on each side of me, I asked questions and I smiled. I might have been the only one in a room of hundreds not on my phone. During the sessions and definitely during the breaks and networking, I saw a sea of singular individuals looking down at their phones, disengaged and not present. Challenge yourself to put down the device—at work, with your client and at home. Be present with the people around you. It might just change everything.
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