29 May 2017

How Lawyers Should Watch Fireworks

Each summer as the Fourth of July approaches, I’m reminded of the time 90 cents saved me from fire and brimstone — and what that experience taught me about unlocking passion.

It all started in 2010 when my son Kevin asked me to take him to the Pyrotechnic Guild International Annual Convention. Like any child asking for something he knows his parent won’t approve, he made his case — passionately.

“I’ve done the research,” he told me, “and I want to go.”

Absolutely not, I said.

Of course, we went anyway.

So there we were in a big field in LaPorte, Indiana with hundreds of pyrotechnicians lighting magnificent fireworks all around us. The force of the fireworks exploding overhead sent ripples through my clothes and hair. Showers of paper and pieces of firecracker debris sprinkled down all around me.

Now, the fireworks and light shows were unquestionably cool, but in the heat of the moment, they felt dangerous to me, a novice and a worried mother. Naturally, I had reviewed the Pyrotechnic Convention’s strict safety rules outlined in this 31-page document prior to attending. But in the organized chaos of the day, somehow, one rule changed everything for me:

Wear your safety glasses.

This rule came from the most unlikely place (even at a convention like this): standing in front of the Bunny Blasto booth. What happens at Bunny Blasto? You take a Roman candle, put it into a holder made of Styrofoam, light it on a Tiki torch, and point it at a target. I’m not kidding about this stuff — people were literally shooting explosives at explosives.

Finally, I had seen enough. I told Kevin, “That’s it, we’re going.” I couldn’t take another minute.

But then a Bunny Blasto employee, seeing my distress and my son’s disappointment, called out to me reassuringly: “Ma’am, put on your safety glasses.”

These safety glasses weren’t even goggles that wrap around your eyes and have a strap in the back. These are safety GLASSES. A piece of lightweight plastic you can buy online for less than a dollar. What could these flimsy things possibly do for me?

So I put on my safety glasses, and the most remarkable thing happened. All of a sudden, I became safe. I looked up, and the stuff that was scaring the stuffing out of me before, I loved it! The bigger the firework, the louder the noise, the happier I was.

How did this happen? How did a simple 90-cent piece of plastic change my perspective?

These glasses offered protection, whether real or placebo, and helped me release a pyrotechnic passion I didn’t know I possessed. All around me the chaotic fireworks seemed dangerous. But the safety glasses gave me a new perspective, allowing me to see the fireworks as a controlled expression of creativity. Without the safety glasses, I was fearful. With them, I had the permission to experience things I might otherwise avoid.

So what’s the connection between 90-cent safety glasses and lawyers, law firms and the legal industry?

It’s simple: we need a way to safely navigate the legal industry’s rapid, swirling change. These changes include new technology, growing price pressures, increasing complexity of legal problems and the continuing balkanization of the legal services market.

It’s as if economic forces and shifting client needs dragged us, kicking and screaming, to a place where explosive change is the norm. And it’s here we find ourselves on a quest for peace, protection, and greater understanding of our new normal.

These transitions are challenging for anyone, but particularly lawyers, who are risk-averse by both nature and training. As a profession, lawyers are highly skeptical, fiercely autonomous, and score low in resilience compared to other professions.

So put a bunch of lawyers in the Bunny Blasto booth that has been the legal industry for the last 10 years and what do you get? Their first reaction is to take shelter until the “fun” is over.

Lawyers need the proverbial safety glasses to make the disruptive forces of change feel both manageable and inspiring — and to give them permission to take on the chaos head on.

At Seyfarth, we found our safety glasses more than 10 years ago. Even before the Great Recession, we knew we needed to move away from a definition of value that relied on the billable hour. Clients wanted greater purchasing flexibility. They felt rate pressure, and because they felt it, we did too.

Our quest to become even more client centered led us to Lean Six Sigma, a process improvement methodology that pushes users through a process of continuous improvement.

There is so much more I could tell you, but I will cut to the most significant point: Lean gives us permission to try.

As with creators in any industry, our innovation started with a little spark. We were willing to take risks to provide our clients with the best possible service, but we were still afraid of getting burned.

Yet with our SeyfarthLean safety glasses, we’ve taken risks and reaped rewards. Our safety glasses have helped us create new technology tools, develop custom solutions for clients, undergo joint ventures with our competition, bring our favorite outside consultants in-house, and build and nourish the industry’s first Legal Project Management Office.

These risks were reactions to the change in the industry — the fireworks, if you will — that would have never been possible without our new perspective.

We’ve created a dynamic arsenal of problem-solving tools with permission to try any number of crazy ideas. Or, more accurately, ideas that would seem crazy if not for our experience with Lean. We try it all! Some things soar. Some things struggle. But with safety glasses, you’re not failing, you’re failing forward.

If you don’t find the safety glasses, you will never reach a point where you are comfortable with the change exploding all around us in the legal industry.

Safety glasses may simply allow leadership giving you room to run and experiment. It could be something more official, like an innovation program, technology incubator or intrapreneurship initiative within your firm. Whatever it is, your safety glasses must give you permission to try new things — and to sometimes fail.

Your safety glasses will help you release your passion. And in my experience, passion is what lights the fires of innovation.

Which brings me to Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, a wheelchair moto-cross athlete.

I heard a radio interview with him, and he said something that always stayed with me: “This may be semantics to everybody else but this is really meaningful to me: I don’t think about being ‘in’ a wheelchair. I think about being ‘on’ a wheelchair.”

For him, only a tiny shift in thinking gave him his safety glasses. By changing one letter in one word, he transformed his wheelchair from a confining object to an enabling object — from something that was an impediment to movement to something that could make him faster and more acrobatic than most of us can imagine.

He was not a passive occupant of the chair, he was the passionate driver of it.

I started thinking about that for myself. Instead of being “in” a law firm, what if we started thinking about being “on” a law firm? What if instead of being passive occupants, we became passionate drivers instead? What does that do for us?

It changes everything. A law firm can be a launching pad for our own fireworks, a tool for change, and also something we can change. Something to which we can bring our passion.

So this holiday weekend, do yourself a favor: Find some safety glasses and enjoy the fireworks.

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