Lawyers: In praise of the adaptive generalist
Lawyers are trained to strive for sustained excellence in a given practice area. Many of us take pride in handling one kind of case, acquiring expertise and avoiding pitfalls along the way. Some of our firms efficiently practice one kind of tort. Others only take cases dealing with a particular kind of injury. Some handle a single industry.
The business consultant Jim Collins labels this kind of expertise the “Hedgehog Concept.” For Collins, the excellence of the hedgehog comes from doing one thing, and “doing it perfectly over and over again.” Collins opposes the hedgehog to the fox, the generalist, or the dilettante, each of whom may appear to seek out novelty as a matter of course. And as such, they are often the subjects of cautionary tales in risk taking.
It may turn out, however, that the fox holds an important strategic key for adapting to a changing world.
The Hedgehog and the Fox
Jim Collins derives his concept of the hedgehog from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose 1953 masterpiece of an essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” framed two different personality types, each with its own method for acquiring experience. In it, Berlin drew upon the Greek poet Archilochus, who famously wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
To achieve the hedgehog’s singularity of purpose, it may seem that the fox in us must be hunted down. Berlin initially derides the fox as a skittish person who “pursue[s] many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, in some de facto way.” He is critical of foxes because their thoughts seem “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels” and subject to contradictions, differences, or incoherent patterns. By comparison, the hedgehog is celebrated for its stable personality, which relates “everything to a single central vision” or “one system.”
On first blush, maintaining this distinction in a world of lawyers makes sense. A fox might appear as a polymath, a generalist, or even worse, a serial dabbler. Though foxes might be incredibly entertaining at a party full of hedgehogs, they just aren’t what lawyers are supposed to strive to become.
But what if the distinction between the hedgehog and the fox was a category mistake, based on a definition of the fox that was too limited from the start? If the answer is yes, then the first mistake may have taken shape in the assumption that great lawyers and law firms cannot, and should not, share both traits at one and the same time. I believe they can.
For the purposes of this short article, I’d like to call the lawyer who successfully combines the skills of the fox and the hedgehog an adaptive generalist.
Barriers to entry
In the language of business, a “barrier to entry” is an obstacle to penetrating an existing industry. Common barriers include preexisting economies of scale, brand loyalties, and government regulations, each of which must be overcome by an aspirant to a given market. For law firms seeking to expand their practices into new areas or by deploying radically new methods of performing their work, these barriers are all too real. Not only must firms discover ways to compete for business, but when entering new practice areas, they must also acquire the intellectual and professional expertise to manipulate a new set of statutes, variations in case law, and nuances in legal strategy that can take years to develop.
Hedgehogs know this. They are masters of using the barrier to entry as a sword and a shield. The hedgehog’s experience not only functions to attract new cases and clients based on their track records and legacies, but it also protects them against internal and external risks. Hedgehogs know how to create and maintain barriers to entry, deploying them as a means to safeguard their growth from competition. And there is great success to be had here.
The problem with barriers, however, is that they often depend on an assumption that the world will remain the same, and that the conditions of our success will fall within the same patterns, year over year. In the past decade, this assumption of stability has never seemed in greater jeopardy.
The black swan
What happens to the hedgehog when the economic realities of the world around it change? What happens when a practice area collapses, is “disrupted,” or is dissembled by new laws, case holdings, or regulations? What happens, in other words, when one final, metaphoric animal appears – a black swan?
As described by the options trader Nicholas Taleb, a “Black Swan” is an event with extreme, unanticipated consequences, which can upend the very systems that we have come to depend on. Some familiar examples of Black Swan Events are the World Wars of the twentieth century, the rise of the internet, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these events changed the way we live and work, causing entire industries to emerge, and others to fade away.
In the aftermath of black swan events, hedgehogs can be left behind if they do not adapt. Law firms with decades of history may be forced to expand their practice and pivot instantly in order to survive, and find themselves unable to pivot in time. The brute reality of our current world, changing as fast as it is, means that law firms need to have a plan in place in order to adapt to systemic risks within their fields of expertise. This kind of adaptive plan might once have been derided as the result of a generalist impulse. But it is also the adrenaline, daily joy, and gift of the polymath at work.
Networking better for early identification of extrinsic problems
The concept of adaptation is a relative one. It requires that we adapt to some condition outside us, some circle outside our own that requires us to change the way we think or work. In other words, adaptation is an eccentric and often social enterprise.
Lawyers aren’t necessarily social animals. Foxes are. If one of the perceived weaknesses of the fox is that it is too eccentric, it is equally true that the fox’s strength may also come from its ability to respond to circles of experience outside its own purview, or extrinsic challenges. Adaptive generalists don’t think that they must bring their own expertise to bear on every new circle they encounter. Instead, when they do their work well, they seem to understand that adaptation is quickened and rendered more successful by listening to others, by comparing our experiences to those who are differently situated.
Becoming a better hedgehog can begin by joining a network of individuals who are experts in practice areas that are different from our own. Such cross-practice networking inevitably results in conversations about the challenges each member of the group is facing in different professional contexts. Strategic problems that may have only been felt as individualized risks suddenly take shape as challenges common to the group. And in listening to how our peers are solving challenges in one practice area, we can apply these adaptations to our own lines of work.
Cross-practice networks, especially when they are comprised of different perspectives, may produce group recognition of systemic risks faster than practice groups working in isolation. The breadth of your professional network – especially if it straddles different practice areas – can foster the early communication of adaptive strategies. And the sooner we identify problems and potential strategies for addressing them, the closer we may be to pivoting to succeed in new conditions.
Case study: R.J. Waldsmith
Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss adaptation with R.J. Waldsmith, a trial lawyer with thirty years of experience handling complex catastrophic personal injury litigation. R.J.’s firm, Abramson Smith Waldsmith, LLP, has successfully weathered several black swan events, from the bust and boom of the internet, to the 2008 housing crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
When I asked R.J. about how he conceived his practice, his immediate reaction was striking: Trial lawyers are hedgehogs, but their understanding of practice areas requires the agility and responsiveness of the fox. In his view, trial advocacy requires a skill set that has largely gone unchanged over the years. Jury instructions, evidentiary rules, and the rhetoric of argumentation are stable systems that lawyers can master over time. But the way a lawyer, or a law firm, presents the facts of a case must move as quickly as our culture does. To bring a case to life, one must be constantly on the alert – for new modes of communicating information, for visualizing the nature of complex injuries, and for explaining the textures of causes of action for juries with evolving ideas of fault, liability, and damages. These are the skills of the fox.
The lesson that emerged from my conversation with R.J. was this: The primary threat to the hedgehogs is complacency. It is not enough to continually improve one’s trial practice. It is just as important to stay abreast of contextual changes in the landscape of litigation, which affect and lend color to the way lawyers tell their stories in the courtroom. As R.J. puts it, we need to get better every day, both inside and outside the courtroom.
As a further example of adaptation, R.J. described his law firm’s decision in February 2020 to move to an entirely paperless work environment. Having seen the business landscape change all around it, Abramson Smith decided to downsize its office footprint and digitalize its practice. The firm did not know that the COVID-19 pandemic was right around the corner. The firm was simply implementing technology to improve efficiency, respond to market conditions, and to stay professionally nimble. But the strategic shift – which had nothing to do with trial advocacy as such, but the business of running a firm in a competitive environment – resulted in immediate benefits, as the firm was able to address remote work during Covid, and continue to develop its cases, almost instantly. While the timing of the shift was serendipitous, the consequences were not “lucky” in any sense of the word.
The compelling motivation to adapt to more efficient practices (going paperless) resulted in collateral success in addressing another, more systemic one (how to function in a global pandemic). In other words, even if the pandemic had not happened, market conditions favored adaptation anyway. The pandemic simply amplified the importance of the law firm’s adaptive strategy.
Learning to work horizontally
In a world of hedgehogs, I was always cautioned to beware of the fox. Before I became a lawyer, I studied and taught philosophy and literature, first at the University of Colorado, and later at New York University and Stanford. By the time I had earned a PhD, I had studied with some of the most eminent scholars in the world. What I noticed during this decade of intense thinking and reading was that the advice I was given by my well-intentioned mentors about developing a career often ran counter to the advice of visiting scholars. Mentors advised graduate students to find a single topic, and research it, no matter how minute its range, until they became experts. The idea was simple: Your career will follow your expertise. This was called working vertically through a subject line.
But I soon noticed that visiting scholars (such as Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler) were messaging a different strategy for career growth altogether. Their stories were about the need to stay intellectually and politically responsive. Of course, they were masters of their subject fields. But for these thinkers, it was equally important to continually adapt the archives of their learning to the new demands of the world. Where there were gaps in applying these lessons, new modes of thinking were required. Conceptual bridges needed to be tested and designed. And it was in building these bridges that their careers and philosophies stayed relevant and alive, and their audiences grew in the process. Such bridge building could be described as working horizontally across subject lines.
In my second career, as lawyer, I’ve followed both vertical and horizontal approaches to developing my practice. The cases I handle range from catastrophic personal injury and representing survivors of rape and sexual assault (often by powerful celebrities and under the cover of institutions), to cases involving discrimination and sexual harassment in the C-suites of Silicon Valley. While my firm does not fit into a tidy box for marketing and cannot yet compete with the experience and gigantic advertising budgets of other legal firms, I’m convinced that some of the skills I have learned to survive will help my firm grow, and may also assist other members of the plaintiff’s bar in the same position.
In this rapidly changing world, it is more important than ever to unpack the conceptual assumptions that drive us to be hedgehogs alone. Further, we may see that expanding our networks and practice areas not only allows us to adapt more quickly to changing circumstances, but also results in a more fulfilling breadth of practice.
And if we become a little more like foxes, we may find organic models for networking better, listening to our colleagues more, and enjoying fuller, more inspired lives in the process.
Scott Herndon has a PhD in Literature and Philosophy from New York University. He has taught at Stanford University and the University of California, and is the principal at The Law Office of Scott Herndon, PC, in Berkeley. Scott is a plaintiff’s trial lawyer, focusing on catastrophic personal injury and civil sexual abuse and assault on behalf of victims.
2022 by the author.
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