The Disruptive Lawyer Series: The Birth of the Disruptive Lawyer

Although the Disruptive Lawyer stories to date (and going forward) are all relatively recent, it seems appropriate to tell the story that triggered the Disruptive Lawyer mentality.

So, let’s go back to 1996. The year Nebraska was #1 in college football, a new show called 3rd Rock from the Sun debuted, Braveheart won five Academy Awards, the Olympic Games commenced in Atlanta, Bill Belichick was fired by the Cleveland Browns, Mike Tyson TKO’d Frank Bruno, President Bill Clinton had not been impeached, a kid named Tiger won the U.S. Amateur, Tupac was murdered, O.J. was found innocent, Derek Jeter was Rookie of the Year AND . . . the Disruptive Lawyer got his first client. (Note: one of these did NOT happen in 1996; do you know which one?)

Ok, so he wasn’t the Disruptive Lawyer back then. Rather, he was a six-year lawyer trying to cultivate business. One day the phone rang and it was a potential client he had been wooing. The client had a simple message: “Here’s your opportunity. Our regular lawyer has a conflict. Before the conflict, that lawyer said this case was a winner on a motion for summary judgment (MSJ) and provided a $70,000 fee budget. If you can get rid of it efficiently, I will send you more cases.”

With this incentive, the Disruptive Lawyer assessed the new case and agreed it was an MSJ case. However, rather than serving discovery and taking depositions to prepare the MSJ, he went a different direction. He immediately set out to convince the plaintiff’s counsel to dismiss the case against his client due to its lack of merit and instead direct his attention to the other case defend­ants. It took some arm twisting, but it worked, and Bill secured a voluntary dismissal from the plaintiff’s counsel without any discovery. The fee was less than $5,000, and the case was closed within six weeks of the assignment.

The Lesson

The client was expecting a successful MSJ in about eight months for about $70,000 in legal fees. That would have been a win. But the client didn’t get the win he expected. He got a dismissal at a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time. The client’s expecta­tions were disrupted—positively.

While some might say the law firm “lost $65,000” by not litigating the case, they would be dead wrong. This result and the process that produced it led to hundreds of cases and were instrumental in growing the firm from four lawyers in a single office to over fifty attorneys across several states. The Disruptive Lawyer learned that creating and consistently applying an effective litiga­tion management program and hiring and training the right lawyers, would lead to disruptive results. He would always have work. The goal remains to be the Disruptive Lawyer who consistently produces excel­lent results as defined by clients’ specific performance goals.

The Birth of the Disruptive Lawyer

The Disruptive Lawyer is identified by two elements:

The Right Plan. A disruptive technology does not have to be an innovative new product (i.e., iPhone); it can also be an innovative new process. Here, the innovative new process is—wait for it—the litigation management program that is consistently applied and that brutally measures results (Part I of this book).

The Right Person. The right person has the right skill set to accomplish the specific performance goals defined by your organization.

For an example of the right person with the right skill set, see the movie Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as lawyer James B. Donovan. Now Donovan was a Disruptive Lawyer!

The story, based on actual historical events, is that of an insurance defense lawyer, James B. Donovan, who was assigned a pro bono criminal matter defending a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel, being tried in New York Federal Court on espionage charges. [Spoiler Alert!] Donovan went on to secretly meet with Russian and East German intelligence agents to negotiate the exchange of captured US Navy Pilot Gary Powers and an American student for Abel. Donovan was brilliant and outmaneuvered both the Russians and Germans and achieved what was thought to be unachievable. He did so well that President Kennedy later called on him to negotiate with Fidel Castro for the release of more than 1,000 Bay of Pigs prisoners during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Donovan succeeded, yet he had no international relations or diplomacy background.

That didn’t matter. He had the unique skill set to negotiate deals with the Russians, East Germans, and Cubans. Virtually any smart lawyer can learn the underlying facts or law of a given case. The key—and the hard part—is finding a Donovan, someone with the right skill set to make negotiation magic happen.

In summary, the Disruptive Lawyer embodies both elements: the Right Plan (an effective litigation management program) and the Right Person (with the right skill set). The Right Plan executed by the wrong person will lead to consistently poor results, while the wrong plan executed by the Right Person will lead to inconsistent results. The Disruptive Lawyer describes a lawyer who delivers the “wow factor” and disrupts positively your expectations.