The Modern Knowledge Firm

FeaturedTags The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner

Kevin Winters is an attorney practicing in Michigan and New York. He’s been president of the East Lansing-based law firm JK. Winters, P.C. since its founding in 2010. When we spoke, he peppered in the occasional folksy aphorism that revealed a lifetime of learned experience.

“It doesn’t have to be my idea to be a good idea,” he said in reference to using databases for finding known knowns.

“Why hire somebody when I could walk across the street and take an expert out to lunch,” he asked when explaining how he networks with other practitioners to create new knowledge for his clients.

Each personal proverb reflected the patterns I saw in other successful Law Insider users. The principles I’d uncovered through many interviews seemed to roll off his tongue like small-town truisms, something told to locals-in-the-know since they were young.

But Kevin’s experience is not unusual for lawyers who’ve developed certain habits of mind. He's spent a lifetime thoughtfully adapting the way he practices law. Despite overgeneralized cliches about experienced lawyers, I was struck by the modern-ness of Kevin’s firm. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Just as I’ve encouraged you to do, Kevin built his practice on proven principles. As we close this conversation, I want to underline those principles by sharing Kevin’s story.

 

Getting to Know

Early in our interview for this piece, it was clear that Kevin humbly accepts what he does not know. Returning to an earlier chapter about developing a practice of confident expertise, I saw a hint of David C Baker’s “Getting to Know” process in Kevin’s career development.

Before I explain Kevin’s learning path, let me describe the “Getting to Know” process in more detail. Undertaking the expert method means first recognizing the distance between the expert you want to be and the imposter you feel like now. Rather than allowing that gap to hold you back, use the defined steps of the “Getting to Know” process to become a True Counselor:

  • First, list the issues that a “real expert” would know about your practice area or chosen audience.
  • Second, identify content projects that give you an opportunity to develop opinions on those issues. Maybe you write a blog post or record a podcast, or speak at an event.
  • Third, order each issue by importance and set a date by which you’ll create the chosen content piece.
  • Fourth, research and write 3,000 words on each issue in order of importance.
  • Fifth, share your writing with smart people who’ll give you honest feedback.
  • Sixth, publish your work, using public “peer review” as a way to further develop your opinions.

By following these steps, Kevin has become a visible expert.

Kevin is active in his community. Not only does he sponsor local events and buy the occasional ad, he does his “Getting to Know” work out loud. With every content piece, he establishes the authority needed to attract trusting clients.

His engagement is not a distraction from his expertise, it is a tool that helps him develop it.

Kevin didn’t follow Baker’s process on purpose—it didn’t exist until Baker released The Business of Expertise in 2018—but he did follow it. The law is Kevin’s second career. His habit of lifelong learning brought him to the law, and he brought the habit with him. Kevin has tackled imposter syndrome by following a method, and you have a chance to do it on purpose.

What do you have to learn in order to become the expert you claim to be? Be honest and humble. Can you list those things now and schedule the creation of a content asset that will force you to develop an informed opinion?

By piling up these explorations of foundational issues, you’ll start to see patterns in similar situations. Over time those will become the collected insights of the expert.

You simply need to follow the method.

 

Collaborative Knowledge

Another practice habit that Kevin mentioned in our call is his use of networks to build his own knowledge offering.

“My firm is a club,” he told me. He cultivates relationships with smart friends that often advise him on cases, and he occasionally sends work their way. He is not locked in his own mind. By relying on his club, Kevin is able to provide clients with big picture counsel beyond the legal transaction. He purposefully seeks out the contribution of other experts.

As Kevin described his informal team of complementary experts, I was reminded of a movie line that ABA Center of Innovation Project Specialist Sarah Glassmeyer shared with me: “We've got a bunch of smart guys. We lock 'em in a room and kick 'em in the ass until they come up with some solutions.”

That line comes from the movie Thirteen Days, which recounts the tense moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you know that time, Bobby Kennedy’s apparent statement feels ironic—the smart guys had a really hard time coming up with any good solutions.

The reason for their failure highlights Kevin’s method for creating his own club of smart people: he focused on a diversity of perspectives and heuristics.

 

Diverse Perspectives

Kevin knows that his clients are complex people living in complex worlds. “Law doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he told me. “Only law school teaches it that way.”

That’s why he seeks counsel and knowledge from a wide range of resources and people. Unlike Kennedy’s “whiz kids” who largely came from the same backgrounds as each other and held similar views, Kevin seeks diversity of opinions and backgrounds.

When a new problem or transaction comes into his firm, Kevin employs the mental tools (heuristics) that he’s developed in his firm for years. His many ways to interpret problems come from his pre-law background and other professional relationships. He hasn’t locked himself into a method bubble.

Similarly, he seeks advice from diverse human resources. He doesn’t simply rely on his own limited chunk of knowledge. Those diverse perspectives combined with his habits of mind allow Kevin to piece known knowns together in a creative way. He’s playing with blocks and giving his clients something new.

Like Kevin, if you want to advise your clients to move beyond a simple “no” or a rote solution, you’ll need to build a network of connected expertise.

 

Big Picture Services

Finally, in addition to publicly developing expertise with a diverse club of experts, Kevin builds trust by seeing the whole client. He helps them move beyond compliance and efficiency into innovation.

Kevin runs his firm more like a consultancy than a traditional law firm. He’s an advocate in every way that a client needs, so long as he can competently deliver. As he described them to me, I was surprised by the breadth of Kevin’s services. He explained that helping a client screen a potential employee or find a deal partner fell under his role as “counselor.” That expansive understanding allows him to serve the big picture.

Thinking of his work as more than transactional legal services gives Kevin a competitive advantage. He pays close attention to ethical standards in his state to never run afoul of multidisciplinary limitations, but he knows how to respond to clients’ demands without bias toward his traditional legal training.

That means sometimes delivering a “no,” sometimes a solution, and sometimes true counsel. That’s what his clients expect.

 

What I Learned About Modern Knowledge Firms

Kevin, as I mentioned before, is not unusual. Although his method is not taught in law school, it’s lived by many of the Law Insider users I spoke with. These lawyers showed me that legal knowledge’s spread is not a disaster but an opportunity. 

No, we cannot build on exclusive access to knowledge. That option is gone. If you believed that law school was a right of passage into a world of monopolistic control, I understand your frustration. It was good while it lasted.

But now we can do something more for clients, society, and ourselves. When we incorporate good practices for collecting known knowns and stacking them to create new, collaborative knowledge, we can become the True Counselor. That promises healthier minds and more successful firms. There is an opportunity in the crisis.

 

Keep Growing

As we close this exploration, I hope it starts you on a journey. You have an incredible opportunity to build a firm on knowledge assets rather than the churn of daily practice. But you’ll have to change the method, so keep these principles in mind as you modernize your law practice:

  • Clients need more from you than legal direction;
  • You can become the True Counselor if you follow the method of expert advisors;
  • When you become known as a True Counselor, you’ll have the kind of success that’s most likely to make you feel happy and fulfilled.

Please don’t tackle these principles on your own. Cultivate relationships with those close to you and others connected by the internet. These connections will help you diversify the heuristics and perspectives that drive decision-making. I would be happy to be one of your connections.

Reach out to me at lawyerforward.com and in the Lawyer Forward Facebook group. You’ll find more than 1,000 members there who are supportive and understanding. None of us needs to do this alone.

And connect with the Law Insider team. They were kind enough to support this exploration and I hope it was useful to you. Resources like Law Insider give you the chance to modernize your knowledge firm.

Thank you for your important work, and I look forward to seeing what you can do with this chance.

 

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

 

Contributors

Mike Whelan
Mike Whelan
CEO @Lawyer Forward

More Resources from Law Insider

Cannabis Simple Agreement for Future Equity

The primary goal of the cannabis Safe is to address the regulatory complexities that come with raising money in the industry. For example, depending on whether a company is raising a priced round (i.e., selling equity at a fixed valuation) or a convertible security round (i.e., a Safe or convertible note), each triggers different regulatory reporting and/or approval processes.

Law Insider Announces Content Partnership with Laura Frederick

Law Insider is announcing today its partnership with attorney and contracts expert Laura Frederick.