How is that solo and small firm lawyers are thriving at a time when biglaw is crumbling? Why does the the spirit of optimism still prevail among most solos even as our large firm colleagues experience hopelessness and panic?
Over the past few months, I’ve pondered these questions, but I’ve never seen the answers articulated as powerfully as in this inspiring New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell, forwarded to me by a reader, on How David Beats Goliath. (Full disclosure: I’m a raving Gladwell fan as evidenced by earlier posts, here and here). As Gladwell explains, David beats Goliath for the same reasons that solos succeed: (a) by playing by their own rules and (b) through sheer grit and dogged effort which trumps ability every time.
A. By Their Own Rules
Gladwell describes that Davids don’t just beat, but dominate Goliaths when they avoid engaging Goliaths on their terms:
In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”
The same holds true for solos. If we try to compete for business head-on against biglaw with fancy offices and a highly leveraged associate system and expense account lunches and costly yellow pages advertising, we’d suffocate under the weight of our overhead. Moreover, clients would have no reason to engage us – they’d just as well hire a real biglaw firm rather than a pallid imitation. So instead, successful solos have created our own playing field , filled with virtual offices and client portals and alternative billing and education-based marketing through blogs and ebooks that offer value to clients without breaking the bank. Consequently, even with the economy spiralling downward, solo and small firms are still attracting business.
B. Grit and Determination In many circles, big firm lawyers are considered “the Elect” or “the Chosen” by virtue of sheer intellect alone that motors them seamlessly through top tier law schools, Law Review and federal clerkships to $160,00 a year jobs. I have friends who’ve taken this path and I won’t lie: there are many more days than I’d like to admit that I envy their talent and the seeming effortlessness of their rise to the top. But at the same time, I realize that the reason that my solo colleagues and I are still standing when so many big firm lawyers are not is because at the end of the day, what matters is effort, not talent. Gladwell offers this example:
Consider the way T. E. Lawrence (or, as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia) led the revolt against the Ottoman Army occupying Arabia near the end of the First World War….But when Lawrence looked at his ragtag band of Bedouin fighters he realized that a direct attack on Medina would never succeed…. Instead of attacking the Turks at their point of strength, Lawrence reasoned, he ought to attack them where they were weak—along the vast, largely unguarded length of railway line that was their connection to Damascus….
When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men. The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert.
This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life…
It makes no sense, unless you think back to that Kentucky-L.S.U. game and to Lawrence’s long march across the desert to Aqaba. It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.
Many of the solos whom I know who eventually succeed quite frankly, aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. Yet, they are persistent and they are dogged and they are willing to work round the clock, if necessary, to make their firms succeed.
In an age where we strive for Four Hour Work Week and instant notoriety in 140 characters or less, effort is neither hip nor sexy. But as Gladwell (ironically, one of the hippest writers I can think of) repeatedly emphasizes, relentless effort explains how David beats Goliath and how lawyers succeed as solos.