Curious Minds: Speaking with Firoz Dattu of AdvanceLaw

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Curious Minds

We continue our new column, “Curious Minds” created and written by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers and learn what influences and inspires their work. In this installment, Rose speaks with Firoz Dattu, the founder and chair of AdvanceLaw, about what influences him and where he gets his most creative ideas.

Rose Ors: Who are the thinkers outside of the legal industry that have influenced your work?

Firoz Dattu: The Motley Fool co-founders, Tom Gardner and David Gardner, who brought transparency and democratization to the world of investing. In my 20s, I read a book they wrote and was impressed by how they demystified investing for me. By making available information and analysis that was not available or affordable to millions of people, they rocked the investment industry.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Tom Gardner a couple times, including having been on a panel with him on industry disruption, and I find him to be incredibly thoughtful and down-to-earth. As I have listened to him speak in person and through social media, I admire how he shares his knowledge and messaging through provocative questions that engage audiences rather than lecturing them.

Then there is Simon Sinek and his study of what makes some leaders and organizations extraordinary. He suggests it is their ability to clearly articulate the “why” or purpose of what they do, before getting to the “how” or “what.”

It is an important insight because most people do this in the opposite order — they describe the features or aspects of their idea or service or product. But you don’t move people that way, you bore them. You need to engage people and create an emotional connection. You have to inspire and make them believe. I have tried to take this lesson to heart in communicating the “why” of what we do at AdvanceLaw.

Rose Ors: What are some books that have influenced your work?

Firoz Dattu: The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath has been highly influential. The lesson of the book is that to have a lasting impact on people — personally and professionally — you need to design “moments” that bring about “peak experiences.”

For example, on an employee’s first day at work, a peak experience might be receiving a handwritten note from the CEO welcoming her. This gesture is a peak experience because the recipient feels recognized at a very important time. It is an experience that will have a positive lasting impact versus the more common onboarding experience of reading and completing a bevy of forms and manuals — activities the authors call “filling potholes”. All this is equally important in the customer context, not simply with employees.

The other book, or set of books, that have been very influential are Brené Brown’s books on vulnerability. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who describes what she does as telling stories with data. Her field of study is human connections.

curious minds

Firoz Dattu

In her famous TED Talk, Brown underscores the importance of connecting with one another in an authentic way. I think relationships — personal and professional — grow when you put yourself out there in a genuine way. Why? Because it invites others to do the same. Ironically, being vulnerable takes courage.

Rose Ors: Where do you get your most creative ideas?

Firoz Dattu: It is amazing how many of my “aha” moments happen while I’m taking my morning shower. I think the total lack of distraction, coupled with a decent night’s sleep while my mind is sorting things through, is the magic formula.

I also have “aha” moments at business conferences. The admission I’ll freely make is that these insights are not rarely related to what is being presented. The presenter says something which leads to one thought, and then to another, as I give myself permission to relax and let my mind wander and explore. This underscores the problem we all have being tethered to devices 24/7, and constantly multi-tasking. Creativity is stymied.

Lastly, I have “aha” moments whenever I brainstorm with AdvanceLaw’s CEO, Mike Williams. Mike and I have this rapport and rhythm, and we challenge each other. I think people underestimate how much having the right thought-partner is the catalyst for insight. Having someone to talk things through, without any posturing or politics, is so important to idea generation.

Rose Ors: What’s a key big-picture question facing the legal industry?

Firoz Dattu: While many of us talk a lot about new service providers, which I don’t discount as we are one of them ourselves — working with clients to identify innovative law firms and create mutually beneficial panels — a big question is how law firms will transform, and which ones will be around in 5 or 10 years.

I have three observations about this. First, while a lot of innovation is being developed by service providers, this doesn’t mean law firms won’t incorporate these innovations to create one-stop shopping for their clients. The firms that do this, without fear of cannibalization, will have a powerful offering.

Second, a number of firms are over-doing it with associate-to-partner ratios, in part to attract and retain star partners through higher partner profitability. This is a risk as it creates tension within firms and runs counter to what clients are looking for. Clients want creative solutions from someone who knows the business, and big teams often disintermediate the star lawyer with business knowledge from the work.

Third, many pedigreed firms dominating the legal market in terms of profitability forged their reputations at a time when clients were looking for something different than they what they want now. The blue-chip firms of the past are not necessarily the blue-chip firms of the present.

Collaborating with 250 general counsel, we are stacking law firm panels with innovative firms for the express purpose of migrating a large proportion of high-stakes work from “white shoe incumbents” that are underwhelming on efficiency and service quality. This, I think, is a leading indicator of what is coming.

So, who will adapt and prosper? And who will go the way of the dinosaur?

This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.