Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Interview with Chris Marston: Exemplar's Genesis

This week I thought I would post my response to an interview I did this week with a colleague in the legal industry:

In the forming of Exemplar Law how did you or other members of the group see things differently from other firms?

It started with me. I took a look at the business model under which corporate law firms operated and it was inconsistent with my common sense or “gut” about what good business means. For instance, I saw nearly EVERYTHING differently from most law firms because they all operate under the billable hour model, which affects management, power, structure, work-life balance, diversity, culture, and nearly everything else in a way that is inconsistent with by convictions, my education, and my experience about what it means to do business in this economy.

How did you re-frame your understanding of the market in a way that you saw your firm as viable and beneficial to clients?

You know the saying “treat people the way you want to be treated”? I believe the customers of law firms do that . . . they give us a fixed-price for their services and they don’t nickel and dime me by billing me for food, photo copies, and phone calls. I deal with CEOs all the time and have done so long before becoming a lawyer and nobody does business this way. I didn’t need to reframe my understanding of the market because my understanding of the market (non-legal) is the way I think it should be. If you google the words “Billable Hour” you will find that nearly everyone hates it!

Was it challenging to see things differently, or communicate or sell the idea to others that didn't see things the same way?

For me, it was intuitive to see things that way. Regarding whether it was difficult to communicate to people who did not agree I have this to say: I learned at a very young age about optimism and its power. My mother was a pessimist. Before I knew any better I thought she was doubting me and that really made me angry. In my rebellion years I channeled that anger into a passion to succeed and, even, to prove that I could do anything. It was after several straight successes in my endeavors that I saw the power I had within me to affect positive change with raw conviction to succeed and pure optimism. When I got older I learned what is really going on with pessimists and never took offense again to the doubt they project. You see, pessimists are not doubting that others can do something . . . that is just how their world view manifests itself . . they are projecting their own self-doubt onto others. Therefore, the view of a pessimist says more about them than it does about me. I have known this since I was a young adult, and ever since then I knew what I was looking at then I met a pessimist . . . someone who will never reach their potential.

Did you have a manifesto, philosophy, values statement or guiding vision? Was it in writing?

Absolutely: There are several philosophies and a set of eight core values that guide or vision. Myself and each new member of the team are guardians of these values and philosophies. They are our foundation and our constitution and cannot be compromised at any cost. They are in writing at the moment.

2. Appreciating the Positive

Lawyers tend to see the obstacles to a new idea, or the flaws in an argument or proposal, rather than focusing on what is working well, or appreciating the positive. What were/are some of the positives that you focus(ed) on that led you to launch and pursue an entrepreneurial model? Was it challenging to focus on the positive when lawyers are trained to find the vulnerabilities?

Law is actually 1 of 2 professions of 104 professions where pessimists perform the best! I am an optimist by nature. I know my strength is as a visionary and not someone who would be mired in the details of deal. I have interviewed more than 300 attorneys in person and over 500 by phone in 2 years. You ask if it was a challenge to focus on the positive when most of them are trained to focus on the negative. To me the answer is absolutely not. Why? Because I knew what I was looking at when I saw it. Lawyers to focused on weaknesses or barriers to success were doing me a favor a self-identifying as people that would never be a part of our team! Not only that, I am sending them back into the market to go work for the competition and create barriers to success over there! I knew with a marketplace full of pessimists at the country’s largest firms that a truly visionary and positive firm could rise to heights never seen (we have years, if not decades to go mind you). I take great wonder and amazement in the fact that many law firm partners think a fixed-price model will not work because they are too ignorant to understand that hourly billing only started in the late 1950’s and was an accident. Most of them had no idea that corporate law was fixed priced for hundreds of years!

Clearly, you started your firm because you saw an unfilled opportunity in the market. What was that opportunity, and why do you think you saw it and others have not?

I will answer the last question first. I was not the first to see the opportunity. Visionaries in the professions such as Ron Baker, author of “The Firm of the Future” saw the market opportunity long before I was thinking about it. In fact, the problems with the billable hour have been increasingly at the forefront of discussion in the legal profession over the last decade or so. The difference is that this world is in not in a shortage of revolutionary ideas. It is in a shortage of revolutionary leadership. Now, I saw that the opportunity was enormous because there are so many systemic problems that can be solved simply by changing the business model. . . one change, . . . and it impacts so many problems . . so many people . . . so many lives:

- Competitive, Individualistic work environments.
- Attrition rates at all time highs
- Work-life balance at all-time lows
- No Mentoring/Lacking Mentoring
- Bill Padding (Unethical practices quietly promoted by partners)
- Continued lacking in diversity and women in leadership
- Client Hoarding problems
- Power Struggles at partnership level
- Self-accommodation in the compensation committees
- Class System: Terrible treatment of Associates
- Inhumane Business Operation: New hires are used as leverage with NO visible up ladder, goal-setting, or leadership development
- It is clear that today’s Partners will DIE with their book of business. . . . they are sending
this signal loud and clear to Associates because they are not developing new leaders . . . they are simply allowing those who provide the most leverage to stay while the real leaders walk out the door. The future of such a business is bleak at best.

I can go on and on.

Some attorneys can re-frame a situation, appreciate the positive, and even recognize a market opportunity, but haven't a clue what to do about it. As you were planning your venture (and implementing it), did you clearly see the steps to take to launch the practice? Did you have a plan with specific, workable, time-specific steps? If not, how did you go about starting your entrepreneurial venture? Did you have a business plan? Did it work out the way you envisioned it?

Yes – I did 6 months of full-time research and wrote a business plan before I did anything. I was how all of the parts interrelated . . . which parts were critical, and had to understand all of the conditions precedent. I knew that I was embarking on a life-long adventure and it was even larger than I had imagined. As for your last question, it certainly did not go exactly as planned. It never does. But what entrepreneurship means is that you have to balance a solid plan with the ability to roll with the punches. Our weakness as people are that we tend to think people are like we are. I went into this marketplace with complete conviction and belief in what we are doing. . . . as a leader. I thought there were more people out there who would burn the ships for a vision of a better way. . . . . at first I was disappointed . . then I came to realize that the same cause of my disappointment was the reason for my being the first to undertake the challenge . . . this industry needs leadership, and when I saw what was out there it just reinforced why it had to be me. We are everyday seeking leaders at different levels to explore their talents, the market, and a vision within Exemplar’s vision and intend to remain an entrepreneurial organization for the life of our firm. Then again, the dearth of leadership in our industry only magnifies the market opportunities for those who have the guts to create the future. There is a saying “The people who get on in this life . . . if they do not find the circumstances they are looking for, they create it” That is the essence of Exemplar. We are creating the Firm of the Future. The way we envision it to be. It has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Never a dull moment!

More questions? Bring it on! :-)

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