Insight

Responsive Initiative

A Fresh Twist on Innovation

Responsive Initiative
DH

Deborah Epstein Henry

March 31, 2016 12:00 AM


Starting Two Businesses, Responsively

In 1999, I was a commercial litigator at a Philadelphia law firm and a mother of two, working reduced hours on a delayed partnership track. Despite the support from colleagues, I felt isolated and challenged by the prospect of thriving as a lawyer and playing an integral role in my kids’ lives. When I spoke to other lawyer moms about these issues, they were equally dismayed. I occasionally had lunch with three colleagues, and I found it helpful to talk about our strategies, successes, and frustrations. I decided to do more with these occasional lunches, and I shared the idea with a colleague who encouraged me to do so.

I sent an email invite to six women lawyers who were working reduced hours at Philadelphia law firms. The email announced that I was starting a brown-bag lunch group for lawyers interested in work-life balance issues. I encouraged recipients to forward the invitation to anyone they thought might be interested. Within days, 150 lawyers emailed me back. Excited by the response, I felt I had struck a nerve. After running that first brown-bag lunch event in July 1999, I knew that this innocuous support group could be much more.

According to Merriam-Webster, “responsive” means “reacting in a desired or positive way” or being “quick to react or respond,” while “initiative” is “the power or opportunity to do something before others do.”

Soon to be named Flex-Time Lawyers, LLC, the organization became a network for lawyers to derive support and career guidance as well as find networking opportunities and a means for change. In January 2000, National Public Radio featured a Flex-Time Lawyers event and the response was viral. Within months, my inbox was inundated with “Dear Debbie” emails from lawyers around the country. Over the next decade, I stopped practicing law, created a New York chapter of Flex-Time Lawyers, started consulting and speaking on work-life and women’s issues, developed a national network of over 10,000 lawyers, and authored my first book.

In 2008, I reconnected with Garry Berger, who had worked with me as a summer associate 15 years prior at a large law firm in New York. Garry got in touch because he ran a virtual law firm and had learned of my Flex-Time Lawyers network. He relayed that his roster of corporate clients kept asking to borrow his firm’s lawyers, and he no longer had enough lawyers to lend. So, Garry and one of his colleagues, Suzie Scanlon Rabinowitz, asked me to help fill their “secondments,” where together we would lend out high-caliber lawyers from the Flex-Time Lawyers network on temporary engagements to clients through their virtual law firm. Thus was born Bliss Lawyers, an accessible bench of top lawyers ready to work for Fortune 500 companies in a full range of industry sectors in states across the country.

Responsive Initiative Defined

The evolutions of Flex-Time Lawyers and Bliss Lawyers have many commonalities. Neither involved an initial business plan or even a clear vision for a new company. Flex-Time Lawyers began as a small grassroots movement of stigmatized working moms at a time, 1999, when no one was talking about work-life issues. Bliss Lawyers began so Garry wouldn’t have to disappoint his corporate clients who needed flexible staffing help and a way to circumvent full-time headcount constraints.

While there was little premeditation in either of these businesses, they both relied on a strong responsive component. Once it was clear that there was a compelling unfulfilled interest in work-life issues in the legal profession, I knew to respond to those needs even if I didn’t quite know how. And, when it became evident that Garry’s clients had a need for lawyers to work differently to meet their legal needs, we knew to address the client needs even if we had not worked out the particulars of how best to do so.

“Responsive Initiative” is a concept I think needs coining as an oxymoron and a fresh twist on innovation. According to Merriam-Webster, “responsive” means “reacting in a desired or positive way” or being “quick to react or respond,” while “initiative” is “the power or opportunity to do something before others do.” Thus, combining these two concepts, Responsive Initiative is the ability to create something new by reacting faster and more effectively than anyone else in the marketplace to a force or thing that already exists and presents itself. This is contrary to the notion that something new must be original. Instead, Responsive Initiative teaches us that something new can merely be a different reaction to an existing gap that needs to be fulfilled.

The contrast in the terms “Responsive” and “Initiative” should be heartening to an intimidated entrepreneur, a reluctant leader, or a hesitant job seeker. So often, people stagnate because they are waiting for “the big idea,” or they are worried about making a fatal mistake and they don’t want to make a decision until they feel 100 percent secure in it. This is regularly the case with individuals who want to start a business, lead an organization, find a job, or pursue countless other beginnings. Being paralyzed by seeking out the perfect solution, idea or path is quite common, and it can be crippling.

Responsive Initiative asks you to do something different. It asks that you pay attention to your surroundings, rather than discover them. It asks you to notice what people are seeking you out for and then figure out how to address the needs presented to you. And, if it is not readily apparent what need in the market you are meant to fill, it gives you the tools to find it.

Of course, Responsive Initiative is not meant to replace other types of discovery. There is still plenty of room for different ways that businesses, ideas, and careers originate and develop. Yet Responsive Initiative is a way for those who are otherwise missing or skirting an opportunity for fear that it’s too intimidating to seize upon it. That said, Responsive Initiative is not magical. I don’t want to oversimplify and suggest that you simply put your toe in the water and if a ripple results, you have a new business or a new way to lead or pursue a career. There are many steps in between.

The Importance of Homework

Research is key in determining if you have identified a gap in the market that is viable and needs to be filled. The research to make such determinations may take many forms. For Flex-Time Lawyers, once I realized there was a need for a network of lawyers seeking a resource on work-life issues, I had to determine if that need was already being met. While I knew that competition often demonstrates a market need, I also didn’t want to duplicate efforts. I remember someone relaying that the Philadelphia Bar Association had a “Lawyers at Home” Committee, so perhaps it was not necessary to start another organization with overlapping needs. However, “Lawyers at Home” was addressing a very different community: lawyers who had left the law. I knew it was precisely this difference, between lawyers who had left and lawyers who were trying to practice in an alternative way, which was driving the energy around Flex-Time Lawyers. My research otherwise involved speaking with the constituents. Every lawyer mother whom I spoke to seemed to be struggling with the same challenge of how to be successful in both realms—the home and the workplace—and no outlet seemed to be addressing this dual aspiration.

For Bliss Lawyers, the research involved speaking with the clients. While promoting my first book, I ran events around the country with high-profile general counsel. Regardless of industry or geography, these general counsel said the same thing: They were getting pressed to reduce their law firm budgets and do more work in their law departments, yet they were not getting authorization to increase their headcount. They were uncertain of their staffing needs, and they sought greater flexibility by accessing highly skilled lawyers in a temporary workforce. Rather than automatically hire outside law firms, these general counsel were beginning to turn to secondment firms to perform some of the work of traditional law firms. These general counsel also expressed a frustration about having to pay for the real estate costs of their outside law firms, knowing that part of these law firms’ high rates was due to their overhead (and the artwork on the walls). Hearing this feedback, Garry, Suzie, and I were affirmed in our purpose, and it propelled our work forward.

The Importance of Piloting

Identifying a market need and interest is one thing, but assessing whether there is a profitable business or a viable business strategy is another. Many business leaders and entrepreneurs make the mistake of launching without testing the concept or product or determining if they are the best source to fill the need in the market. Thus, piloting is essential. It not only ensures the viability of the service, market, product, or path but also assures that you have developed the expertise and resources, and you are the best one in the market to fulfill it.

For me, three years has been the magic timeframe to pilot a business, but the amount of time, of course, will vary depending on the nature of the business or initiative. With Flex-Time Lawyers, I ran events for three years pro bono before ever charging a fee. This brought a lot of value. It enabled me to determine whether the market need was real and assess its dimensions. It helped me discover whether I could charge for my services and how I could best be responsive to the constituent needs. The time also allowed me to develop an expertise and following before billing for services.

Piloting reduces the risk of failing and enables you to harness and hone instincts to ensure a readiness for market. At Bliss Lawyers, for three years, we lent out lawyers to Garry and Suzie’s law firm clients before we formed a separate entity to run our secondment business. We knew we had identified a market need but those three years of piloting allowed us to see if we could be the ones to meet the demand better than others. In part, that came back to research. Competitors had already designed a successful model of lending out high-caliber lawyers to clients for secondments. We liked that model and added to it by building our company on a virtual platform, instead of in a brick–and-mortar office, enabling us to bill our clients less while providing generous compensation and benefits packages to our lawyers. It was our way to ensure we were distinguishable and the best in meeting the
market needs.

The Importance of Failure and Risk

Even with good research and effective piloting, it is difficult to avoid being stymied by fear. There are numerous strategies to help people overcome their fear of failure. Many of these strategies involve contemplating worst case scenarios and determining how to overcome them. Helpful strategies also involve contingency planning, goal setting, and consultation with others. In addition to these approaches, being resilient and willing to persevere and regularly put yourself out there is essential. And, rather than seeing your unsuccessful attempts as failures, see them as lessons and learnings to incorporate into your next effort.

In running Flex-Time Lawyers for 17 years, I can’t count the number of initiatives that have failed. If I really let myself think about, it is embarrassing how many ideas I’ve thrown out to key contacts of mine only to see the momentum of those efforts extinguished. To reference baseball, batting .300 (and failing more than two-thirds of the time) means you are among the best batters in the league; and that is the message. Responsive Initiative is not about perfection. It is about doing your homework, piloting, harnessing, honing, and then launching.

Resulting Growth Opportunities

While facing your fears and taking risks are scary, the benefits may be ones you have never dreamed—which is what makes taking the risk worthwhile in the first place. What Responsive Initiative does is exemplify how one thing leads to another. Great opportunities are ones you will never discover unless you take the first step to try.

At Bliss Lawyers, lending out high-caliber temporary lawyers to our clients led to them asking to convert our lawyers into permanent employees of their companies. Temp-to-perm growth led to full-blown recruiting, where clients asked for access to our talent pool for their permanent hires, not just their temporary needs. Law firms started to wonder if they should mirror their clients’ model and similarly expand and contract their talent pools as needed; thus, the Bliss Lawyers law firm division was launched. These examples of growth and expansion are the organic results of opportunity. It is about not only taking risk, but also being agile and listening and responding to client and constituent needs as they ebb, flow, and grow.

The Value of Hybrid Growth

Although we have focused on the value of creating and responding to opportunities that present themselves in the marketplace, I am also a big fan of hybrid growth, i.e., building and improving upon the innovations of others.
In developing Bliss Lawyers, the goal was to be the first thriving business founded on merging two innovations pioneered by others—the secondment and the virtual firm. The importance of this approach goes beyond our goal of creating a more competitive business model and better choices for our clients and our lawyers. By developing a company that builds and improves upon the teachings of others, we hope to do our share to further market efficiency.

Listening and Acting

As an entrepreneur, leader, job seeker, or individual hoping to make an impact, it is not always clear what path to pursue. The opportunities and various directions that you consider may be daunting. In my own case, a lot of the decision-making was resolved by paying close attention to not only the vagaries of the market but also what others kept on seeking me out to do. This is where Responsive Initiative, again, can be a guide. Being responsive reminds us to listen and pay attention to what is around us. So often, individuals act without proper reflection. Listening is essential. Yet being responsive, alone, is not enough, it must be coupled with action. Initiative gives us the impetus to take action and respond to the challenges we observe. In addition to listening and acting, a dose of humor and humility will go a long way to helping you build both your business and your career.

Related Articles

IN PARTNERSHIP

The Wolf Near Wall Street


by Rebecca Blackwell

When tensions among shared real estate owners reached their tipping point, Adam Leitman Bailey P.C. stepped in and solved a modern issue with an ancient remedy.

New York Real Estate with Adam Leitman Bailey

IN PARTNERSHIP

What is The Grieving Families Act (2022)?


by Michael L. Taub

Best Lawyers honoree Michael Taub explains The Grieving Families Act and what it means for wrongful death and malpractice cases in New York.

Image of grieving person on blue background

IN PARTNERSHIP

Results That Make a Difference


by John Fields

Thomas Moore and Judith Livingston continue to secure some of the largest verdicts in New York state for their injured clients.

Male and female lawyer in blue suits

Protecting Small Business Owners: Trial Experts Connick Law LLC Notoriously Successful with Fire Litigation


by Justin Smulison

When small business owners become the target of insurance companies in fire-related lawsuits, hiring a firm with a reputation for understanding the science of fire suppression trials can save their livelihoods.

Gold Indoor Sprinkler Heads on Red Background

Anna Inventing: The Importance of Diversity in Innovation


by Emily C. Peyser

A patent from 1887 by female inventor Anna Connelly not only revolutionized fire safety, but highlighted the need for diversity in innovation. Our world is facing big problems that need diverse voices at the table to find solutions that work for everyone. Building diverse teams and encouraging diversity in innovation is a beneficial step forward in resolving our collective challenges.

Diversity in Innovation and Technology

Forging Bonds, Building Business


by Crystal L. Howard and Lizl Leonardo

As disorienting and occasionally frightening as the pandemic has been, it has also forced lawyers to find innovative new ways to stay connected and do business.

Pandemic Sparks Innovative Ways of Conducting

Will Recent Boeing Settlements Create Tailwinds In Corporate Law?


by Justin Smulison

Prominent litigation against Boeing is setting a precedent of accountability, professionalism and commitment among company boards as well as ushering ESG further into the courtroom to help monitor and prevent safety issues.

Recent Boeing Settlements and Corporate Law

Colorado's Best Lawyers 2022


by Best Lawyers

Our 2022 Colorado's Best Lawyers publication features top-ranked legal talent in Boulder, Denver and Western Colorado.

Colorado's Best Lawyers 2022

East Side Story


by Adam Leitman Bailey

The made-for-Hollywood tale of a 16-year legal tussle to help a dedicated band of Manhattan “homesteaders” take ownership of the buildings they had moved into and begun to rehab.

Rosario Dawson's Family Fight for NY Building

Newly Launched COVID-19 Litigation Project Offers Open Access To Pandemic-Related Court Judgments From Over 70 Countries


by Sara Collin

A worldwide database of COVID-19 cases is uniting more than 70 countries as judges, lawmakers and lawyers continue to navigate pandemic related litigation and the ways in which it’s evolving amid year three.

COVID-19 Worldwide Litigation Project

Results That Make a Difference


by John Fields

Thomas Moore and Judith Livingston continue to secure some of the largest verdicts in New York state for their injured clients.

Largest Injury Verdicts in New York State

Patrick A. Mullin, Esq. - Annual Report


by Patrick A. Mullin, Esq.

Veteran federal criminal defense attorney Patrick A. Mullin, Esq. provides an annual report of his victories in high-stakes criminal and tax matters.

Patrick A. Mullen Annual Report of Defense

A Reputation for Success


by Justin Smulison

Best Lawyers “Lawyer of the Year” David Perecman on his 40-plus years representing injury victims.

A 40 Year Career in Personal Injury

New York's Best Lawyers 2022


by Best Lawyers

Our 2022 New York's Best Lawyers publication features top-ranked legal talent and legal editorial from firms in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

New York's Best Lawyers 2022

Road to Somewhere


by Mark LeHocky

How can attorneys take steps to improve settlement efforts and avoid unpleasant surprises as they map out a dispute resolution? One litigator-turned-general counsel-turned mediator (with some help from a distinguished rock star) points the way forward.

Improved Dispute Resolution Settlement

Look for the Zoom Label


by Anne R. Yuengert and Matthew C. Lonergan

Will the virtual platforms that got such a boost during the pandemic replace how you interact with your employees, unions, and lawyers?

Virtual Platforms Replacing Work Interactions

Trending Articles

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees


by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023


by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers proudly announces lawyers recognized in South Africa for 2023.

South African flag

Could Reign Supreme End with the Queen?


by Sara Collin

Canada is revisiting the notion of abolishing the monarchy after Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, but many Canadians and lawmakers are questioning if Canada could, should and would follow through.

Teacup on saucer over image of Queen's eye

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some


by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?

IN PARTNERSHIP

2022: Another Banner Year


by John Fields

Block O’Toole & Murphy continues to secure some of New York’s highest results for personal injury matters.

Three men in business suits standing in office

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees


by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers


by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom


by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

The Upcycle Conundrum


by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

Thirteen Years of Excellence


by Best Lawyers

For the 13th consecutive year, “Best Law Firms” has awarded the most elite and talented law firms across the country through a thorough and trusted data review process.

Red, white and blue pipes and writing on black background

Caffeine Overload and DUI Tests


by Daniel Taylor

While it might come as a surprise, the over-consumption of caffeine could trigger a false positive on a breathalyzer test.

Can Caffeine Cause You to Fail DUI Test?

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect


by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Australia.

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Germany™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Germany.

Black, red and yellow stripes