Law Practice and the Rock, Paper, Scissors Model

Read part one of this series here. 

Sheer curiosity led me to the first session I sat in on at South by Southwest (SXSW). I had just arrived, checked in, and gotten coffee. The volunteers had been hanging out in front of one of the bigger rooms for Feature Sessions, and the sign out front only described the session as “Be Epic: The Art of Bold Decision Making.” Intrigued, I took a seat.

Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, took the stage.

Let’s pause for a moment so I can tell you how much of an avid Evernote user I am. When I had to give my LexThink presentation last year, I wrote and edited it in Evernote, sharing it with a few people for feedback. In the video, I mention how I used Evernote to keep track of thought patterns (Data Points), and I still do that in Evernote today: to record dreams, to draft a memoir. I use its Web Clipper on a daily basis to save articles for later or to share with my MBA students, and I make extensive use of tags in Evernote to organize everything. I even set my mother up on Evernote to help her save quilt ideas, grocery lists, and to create task lists.

So naturally, I was ecstatic to hear Libin give a talk.

He asked everyone to stand and engage in a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. There was understandable laughter throughout the room and odd looks to one another. Only a few people stood immediately, but he added that the winners would receive ten years—ten years!—of Evernote Premium for free. You bet we all jumped up and participated, then. We waved our hands to the count of three, and then showed the sign for rock, paper, or scissors. If you lost, showing paper against Libin’s scissors, you sat down. If you won, you remained standing. I forgot how to win at Rock, Paper, Scissors and was quickly eliminated. A handful of people beat Libin, to his surprise, and earned their ten years of Evernote Premium for free. Kudos!

Turns out his game of Rock, Paper, Scissors was a metaphor for the stages of company, industry, and growth. You can model “a lot of important stuff” from Rock, Paper, Scissors.

He defined them as:

  • Scissors: Quick startup.
  • Rock: Have traction; not quite as fast as scissors, but when they move, there is force behind it.
  • Paper: Big companies.

At the Scissor stage, he explained, you aren’t competing against other Scissors. In fact, you’re indifferent to the companies in your league. It doesn’t matter how many small companies there are, because the ones that are sufficiently good will make it to the Rock stage. What you want to avoid are situations where there are lots of ideas and lots of hype but none sufficient enough to get to the next level. He made the point that you don’t want to start where there are already a lot of Rocks, but that’s where most start because the Rocks bring media attention.

It got me thinking about law practice areas, and the question every lawyer faces when striking out on his or her own: what practice area? The first two practice areas that popped into my head were bankruptcy and personal injury. Perhaps they are the Rocks of the legal profession—the practice areas that have traction, making them attractive to lawyers striking out on their own.

What, then, might a Scissor of the legal profession be? Perhaps video game lawyering, environmental law, or clean energy are Scissors. They are niche practice areas, and depending on focus, might require specialized knowledge and thorough understanding of current and pending regulations. Perhaps issues or regulations relating to drones, for personal use or commercial use, is a Scissor, or issues and regulations relating to driverless cars, or block chain technology and digital currencies. Or perhaps there is an underlying issue yet to be considered because everyone is thinking of potential Rocks. It will be interesting to see what happens when lawyers start thinking of the practice of law in terms of Scissors instead of Rocks.

Libin went on to discuss decision-making. When we evaluate our options, he said, comparing good to bad is really comparing bad to bad. We’re programmed to pick the option that is least bad because we’re thinking short term. He cited examples of venturing into tall grass where there is a lion, or eating poisonous berries versus starving a little longer to find edible berries.

With short term decisions for survival, whatever is the least bad is the best option. According to Libin, that works well for short term thinking, like what to have for lunch or what movie to see, but it’s bad for strategy. Consider the pressures of starting law practice, the constant worry of getting clients, managing cash flow, expenses, and how that forces a narrow, short term view. You do all you can to survive, stay afloat, and perhaps have a goal in mind. Once you reach it, only then can you think long term; only then can you think strategy. Except that goal continually seems just out of reach as there is always a fire to put out. Just getting by becomes the norm.

He posed the following question:

What if we don’t screw it up and it’s great? What will the world look like then?

This forces a startup to think strategically about the future, not just the here and now. This also holds true for law firms, whether just starting out, a well established firm, or somewhere in between. Think of what it is you want, what “great” means to you and how that is reflected in your law practice. Is it the little things, like soft lighting and bottled water in the waiting room? Gentle banter, inquiring about family and friends, a recent trip or vacation? Being responsive? Being honest? Billing promptly? A warm referral on a matter outside your purview? What is it in your practice that, if you don’t screw it up, is great? Now think of what the world will look like five years from now if you focus that, and how that is reflected in your law practice. How does that change your strategy?

Focus, too, was a topic of Libin’s presentation. As Evernote progressed from the Scissors stage to the Rock stage, Libin needed to focus. My brain is programmed to force my eyes to roll at the mention of “focus.” It’s tagged as a buzz word, an abstract concept unless applied to a camera lens or a film technique. I felt my brain begin to shut down until he said, “I didn’t know what that meant.”

A CEO just admitted he didn’t know what “focus” meant. I sat up as he explained what he thought it meant: saying “no” to stuff you don’t want to do. My head nodded in agreement, parsing the tips from so many articles. Then Libin mentioned a Steve Jobs quote he heard from Jony Ive:

Focus is saying no to stuff you want to do, stuff you love.

I had to repeat that to myself. It sounds counter-intuitive, saying no to stuff you want to do, stuff you love. The articles and gurus drum “Do what you love!” into the American psyche, especially post-recession. Yet here was Libin, quoting Ive quoting Jobs, to say no to doing what you want. Sensing our confusion, and acknowledging that at first he, too, was confused, Libin used the examples of Evernote Food and Evernote Workspace. He loved both, wanted to devote resources to both, but couldn’t do both well. He described some internal discussions and the thought process and struggle he had deciding what to do. In the end, he chose to focus on Evernote Workspace because, if it’s awesome, it will have a greater impact than Evernote Food.

That is a clear-cut example of saying no. For lawyers, the answer isn’t always as cut and dry. It may not be a resounding no, but more like a pivot. For example, Ryan Morrison has been a gamer all of his life, and worked at a gaming company before deciding to start his video game law practice. He’s still involved in what he loves, only from a different perspective. Anthony Johnson, however, had a more cut and dry decision: stay with his business partner and run his search marketing company while they waited for inspiration to strike for their next venture, or go all in on practicing law. Sometimes, as is the case with Lecia Kaslofsky, you say no to a job you love to start a business you love because you asked, “What if it’s great? What will the world look like then?”

Finally, Libin closed with three lessons:

  1. Avoid the Rocks.
  2. Focus.
  3. Ask: What if it’s great? Then pick the one that has the biggest upside.

I sat there, somewhat dumbfounded, at the honestly and coolness of Libin. I was still thinking about his culture comment as I session hopped the rest of the morning:

Up next in A First Timer’s Trip to SXSW, I’ll cover how I went in search of finding out what humans will do when robots write the news.

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