Making Experts Out of Employees

Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

In this chapter, we’ll explore the difference between traditional legal knowledge management and a more modernized way to leverage knowledge in your firm.

To illustrate the difference, I want to share the story of one Law Insider user who takes an interesting position on training her associate. In short, she trains him to be strong enough that he could easily leave her firm.


A New Lawyer as a New Kind of Lawyer

Joycelyn Brown is the principal of the IPS Legal Group in Miami, Florida. After working in a large firm, she decided to start her own practice and quickly grew to add a new associate. At that point, Joycelyn had to decide how she’d train knowledge workers.

As with so many businesses in the modern context, she found the task complicated.

To begin, Joycelyn identified first principles. I asked how she’d describe the role of an attorney. She answered, “I need to be a walking resource for my clients. Full stop.” She expects that same standard for her associate.

As we spoke, Joycelyn and I talked through the anxieties so common for attorneys. She explained that we need to be a resource and a sounding board, sometimes an expert and often a cheerleader. The counsel her clients expect requires strong positioning.

“I need to be able to speak from a position of knowledge and authority. And especially of confidence.”

You can imagine, then, the anxiety she felt when adding an associate to the mix. That new lawyer is an extension of her firm, someone who needs to reinforce her air of authority and confidence.

If she trains that person to be a mere technician—to either tell clients “no” or to find a solution in backward-looking tools—she risks having to explain herself to unhappy clients.

So Joycelyn doesn’t train her associate to be a traditional cog in a knowledge machine. Even knowing that it may empower her associate to grow beyond her firm, she’s training him to become a True Counselor.


The Risk of an Untrained Associate

To understand the value of a True Counselor in your firm, consider an activity Law Library Associate Director Robin Schard assigns to her students.

To illustrate the risk of copy-paste lawyering, Robin sets her research students in front of a form-building tool. They use the tool to build “smart contracts,” answering questions that automatically populate sections of a draft form. They’re armed with client names and basic fact patterns, so they confidently stumble through the questions. The form generator pumps out a contract that each student could pass on to the imaginary client.

At the end of the exercise, Robin asks her students what they know about the client’s rights after completing the form. With a valid, executable contract in hand, what do they know about the commitments the contract signers will bind themselves to? “Nothing,” she says. “You’re not even sure what you licensed away.”


It’s Not Always About the “Right” Answer

Every experienced lawyer has learned this valuable lesson at some point. We’ve relied on a tool without paying much mind to the output, and we’ve been burned. More than an ethical quandary, that approach to knowledge is counter to any True Counselor method.

If you’ve ever hired staff or been in a job yourself, you know this tension. The boss wants maturity and a team member that needs little management; the worker just wants to know what the right answer is, or at least the one that will avoid trouble with the boss.

Russ Ackoff used to say this need to find the “right” answer is what kills creativity in children. We learn early to give the answer that adults want, failing to think outside the lines.

If you don’t consciously push your associates away from that cultural limitation, they can undermine your firm’s efforts to stand out as True Counselors.

To contrast that creativity-killing, by-the-numbers kind of associate practice, imagine how you might train a young attorney to deal with knowledge differently. Thinking through this might even help you redesign the way you manage your own expertise.


Training in Designed Steps

Here’s how Joycelyn described her principles for training an associate: “If he’s more entrepreneurial and a better counselor now, he brings more value to the firm—even calculating in the risk that he’ll leave.”

So how does she cultivate the kind of knowledge that’s needed for her True Counselor associate? By employing the “Getting to Know” process.

The “Getting to Know” process is a method shared by David C. Baker in his book The Business of Expertise. It starts by recognizing that you’re not currently the expert you aim to become, and that’s okay. You get there as you identify and fill gaps in your knowledge.

Joycelyn has used the “Getting to Know” process in her own work. She gave the example of business acquisitions. In her earlier practice, she didn’t do much in that area, so she recognizes it as a gap in her knowledge, but she also knows it’s an area her clients expect her to have real knowledge about. So she proactively seeks out the knowledge.

As she explained to me, Joycelyn reads books, articles, and relevant contracts to better understand the acquisitions process for clients. With every knowledge piece that she consumes and creates herself, she gets closer to being a “real expert” rather than the imposter she initially imagined herself to be.

Joycelyn told me that she employs this same process for her associate. She doesn’t expect him to know everything now but she pushes him to grow. We’ll share the exact steps of this process later, but recognize that Joycelyn wants her associate to “speak from a position of knowledge and authority.” Even if that gives him the platform to eventually leave her firm, she knows that the process of purposefully filling gaps in relevant knowledge is fundamental to modern knowledge practice.

As Baker explained in his book, this “Getting to Know” process—recognizing and purposely filling in the gaps in your knowledge—is not counter to the method of expertise, it is fundamental to it. There’s no “faking it until you make it,” only purposeful growth. That comes from seeing patterns and identifying insights, the kind of work no automaton can take from you.

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about how client demand is driving this new way to look at legal knowledge. Rather than relying on faux scarcity and exclusivity, Joycelyn and her associate grow through the purposeful acquisition of new knowledge.

This reveals some useful principles for your practice:

  • We all feel the anxiety of clients’ expectations that we be the “adult in the room”;
  • To serve that demand, we can’t simply be copy-paste lawyers;
  • Only by recognizing our weaknesses will we overcome them, fostering a more valuable True Counselor offering for clients.

In the next chapter, we’ll examine clients’ needs and expectations to help direct our method. If you can interpret their often nebulous expectations, you can practice with the confidence that Joycelyn demands of herself and her associate.


Read the next article in the series:
What Clients Want

All articles in the series:
The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner

  1. The Cheapening of Knowledge
  2. Your Latest Transaction
  3. The Legal Knowledge Business
  4. Knowledge Management
  5. Making Experts Out of Employees
  6. What Clients Want
  7. The Advisor’s Burden
  8. The Modern Knowledge Firm


Tags: The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner


Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

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