How Curiosity Shaped Us in 2018

Think back to the first day of summer when you were a child. What was around the corner? Chances are, the possibilities felt endless, and you were brimming with ideas for how to play. This desire to investigate, explore and learn is the very definition of curiosity. And curiosity, naturally present during childhood, provides energy and insight and has made possible many of the achievements and inventions of our time. Some of the greatest minds in history are famously noted to have listed curiosity as one of their essential qualities. Albert Einstein famously said, “I am not a genius, I am just curious.” Walt Disney said that “curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Naturally, it was our curiosity about the future of the legal industry that ultimately helped shape the theme of our second annual Volta Forum: can we help transform the legal industry and reimagine law firm leadership by harnessing the power of collaboration? The answer, we believe, is yes. Now, as the end of the year approaches, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on what we learned that summer day so that we may, perhaps, spark some curiosity in others in our industry as we head into 2019.   

The Forum brought together 65 law firm professional development leaders in New York for a full day of ideation and collaboration (and, dare we say, fun?). We were grateful to have Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and author, to kick off the day by sharing her experiences as an entrepreneur reforming the transportation industry using a collaborative business model. We were then led by Evelyn Williams, a professor at the Georgetown McDonough School of Business and consultant, in a hands-on workshop that offered participants a deep-dive into design thinking. Lastly, a panel of PD professionals were invited to share their own ideas for transforming the legal industry. 

 In her keynote, Chase explained three miracles: 1) we can defy the laws of physics (by leveraging excess capacity); 2) we can tap exponential learning (by building on existing platforms for participation); and 3) the right person will appear (because of the diversity of peers). Chase’s work has demonstrated that, by harnessing the power of these three miracles, it is possible to alter the business landscape. For example, Chase pointed out the exponential growth of Airbnb as compared to InterContinental Hotel Group. Airbnb grew to the same size as the largest hotel chain in the world (InterContinental Hotel Group in four years).[i]  She then challenged Forum attendees to think of using their own peer power to address the critical issues facing the legal industry. Together with Chase, attendees collaborated with each other to think about where and how excess capacity in law firms could be leveraged. At all times, Chase reminded the group to be led by curiosity which underpins Chase’s work, her teaching and her success. The resulting ideas were unique and impressive (Task Rabbit for law firms?! or repurposing law firm space during non-business hours).

Linking up with Chase’s work, Evelyn Williams emphasized that curiosity is what drives design thinking. At its core, design thinking is a human-centered method to innovate solutions to existing problems.[ii] Design thinking focuses on the process of problem solving; as Williams would say design thinking “pushes you to do and create things, rather than hang out in the theoretical.”[iii] Williams led Forum attendees through a design thinking workshop and shared tools for improving listening and inquiry skills and for exploring ways to create solutions to perceived problems. Like Chase’s focus on collaboration-based businesses, Williams’ work on design thinking provides a collaborative process for co-solving problems. Often, solutions to problems can focus on zero-sum outcomes where a “winner” takes all, while others are left out or disappointed. Williams offered a different model where participants created physical representations of potential solutions to problems so that they could start to literally see solutions.  

In the final part of the day, Forum attendees were treated to thought-provoking TED-style talks by their peers. Inspired by a conversation with a PD colleague, Volta CEO, Sang Lee, suggested that we simply ask provocation speakers to answer the question “Wouldn’t it be great if _______?”  These powerful vignettes invited Forum attendees to upend their assumptions about familiar topics and see them anew. Topics included eliminating our blind spots by creating a culture where every law firm has a coaching program, finding a new way to approach OCI and listening to others without bias. 

In wrapping up the 2018 Forum, we saw that there is an opportunity for us, as peers, to think about the business of law through a new lens. Leadership in the 21st century is built around dynamic connections rather than command and control models. In our hyper-connected world, peers can and must collaborate, connect, innovate, and (always) be curious. And so, with 2019 right around the corner, we ask you this: How might you be curious as you end 2018? How will that willingness to be in inquiry mode help you to lead those around you?  

[i] Peers Inc, Robin Chase, p. 73
[ii] The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley; see also https://www.ideou.com/pages/design-thinking
[iii] https://msb.georgetown.edu/newsroom/news/new-design-thinking-course