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Whitney Johnson

Recognized as one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world (Thinkers50), Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and...

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Dennis Kennedy

Dennis Kennedy is an award-winning leader in applying the Internet and technology to law practice. A published author and...

Tom Mighell

Tom Mighell has been at the front lines of technology development since joining Cowles & Thompson, P.C. in 1990....

Episode Notes

Disruption may sound like a bad thing to have at your law firm, but it could be the key to inspiring innovation among your employees. In this episode of the Kennedy-Mighell Report, hosts Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell talk to guest Whitney Johnson about disruption, the s-curve of innovation, and how these techniques can help you manage your law firm effectively. They discuss how to mentor employees based on where they land on the learning curve, including building up their strengths and pushing them to take risks. And as always, stay tuned for the parting shots, that one tip, website, or observation that you can use the second the podcast ends.

Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption; specifically, a framework which she codifies in the critically acclaimed book “Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.”

Have a technology question for Dennis and Tom? Call their Tech Question Hotline at 720-441-6820 for the answers to your most burning tech questions.

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Mentioned in This Episode

Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work by Whitney Johnson


The Kennedy-Mighell Report

Disruptive Innovation in a Law Practice



Intro: Web 2.0, Innovation, Trend, Collaboration, Software, Metadata… Got the world turning as fast as it can, hear how technology can help, legally speaking with two of the top legal technology experts, authors and lawyers, Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell. Welcome to The Kennedy-Mighell Report here on the Legal Talk Network.


Dennis Kennedy: And welcome to Episode #217 of The Kennedy-Mighell Report. I am Dennis Kennedy in Ann Arbor.

Tom Mighell: And I am Tom Mighell in Dallas. Before we get started, we would like to thank our sponsors.

Dennis Kennedy: Thanks first to TextExpander for sponsoring our show. Communicate Smarter with TextExpander. Gather, Perfect, and Share Your Knowledge. Recall your best words instantly and repeatedly. Learn more at

I would also like to add that I have really been seeing the benefits of TextExpander recently. I am a fan.

Tom Mighell: And we would also like to thank ServeNow, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. Work with the most professional process servers who have experience with high-volume serves, embrace technology, and understand the litigation process. Visit to learn more.

Dennis Kennedy: In our last episode we discussed data destruction and deletion best practices. In this episode of the podcast we are excited to announce that we are going to be adding more interviews to the podcast, starting right now with a very special guest. I guarantee that you will like this one.

Tom, what’s all on our agenda for this episode?

Tom Mighell: Well Dennis, in this edition of The Kennedy-Mighell Report we will indeed be speaking with Whitney Johnson, the author of the books ‘Disrupt Yourself’, and more recently ‘Build an A-Team’, as well as many great articles in the Harvard Business Review and other prominent publications.

And as usual, we will finish up with our parting shots, that one tip, website, or observation that you can start to use the second that this podcast is over, but first up, a conversation with Whitney Johnson.

In following the theme of one of our recent podcasts, I am going to use Whitney’s LinkedIn bio to introduce her.

So LinkedIn says, Whitney is an innovation and disruption theorist, keynote speaker, best-selling author and executive and performance coach.

We usually find however Whitney on the podcast that our guests usually do a much better job of introducing themselves than we do. So is there anything Whitney that you would like to add to tell our audience more about you?

Whitney Johnson: Oh wow. So with that kind of lead in, I am not sure, but let’s see. What I do is I help you become a boss people love to work for by building great teams.

Dennis Kennedy: Yeah. And I think that I really noticed that and felt that after reading your new book, so I can’t wait to dive into some of your ideas.

But first, I want to start with the notion of disruption. So Whitney, you actually worked with Clayton Christensen, who is the father to me of disruption theory. Now, the word disruption gets thrown around a lot these days and wildly and it seems to mean almost anything these days, but it actually does have a precise meaning that I find really helpful.

So your description of disruption in ‘Build an A-Team’ is as clear and succinct an explanation I have ever seen. Would you tell our audience your view of disruption?

Whitney Johnson: Yes, absolutely. So there are lots of different types of innovation; I am talking specifically about disruptive innovation. And what it is, is it’s a silly little thing that eventually takes over the world.

And so let me give you a couple of examples. You think about how the telephone disrupted the telegraph, the light bulb, the gas lamp, the automobile disrupted the horse and buggy. More recently we have had things like Toyota disrupting General Motors and Netflix Blockbuster and Uber has disrupted cabs.

Now, in terms of the framework itself, this is what it looks like and here is how you can think about it. A disruptor secures a foothold at the low end of a market, so you think about Toyota in the 1960s, and initially its products were in fear and its position is weak. And so that’s the thing we have to remember about a disruptor, in the classic sense of it, it’s a silly little thing. It looks like a toy.

And so then at that point in time General Motors is looking at them and thinking well, this is just like a silly little Corolla, let’s go after bigger and faster and better and let’s manufacture a Cadillac.

The bad news of course or the good, depending on your point of view, is that once that disruptor gains a foothold it also is motivated by bigger, faster, better and in the case of Toyota it was Lexus.

So that’s the basic definition of what disruptive innovation is.

Tom Mighell: So then let’s take that and maybe extend it or maybe bring it down to focus specifically on the legal industry. As you know, most of the folks who listen to this podcast are lawyers or somewhere related to the legal industry and I would imagine that as with most fields, we see those in law who say that they focus on legal disruption and legal innovation and, as Dennis mentioned, I think that they just kind of throw that out there and think that it means something.


But I really think that with lawyers, and traditionally anyway, lawyers have been a conservative industry. They are far behind the adoption curve, terms like disruption and innovation can really be confusing to them. I know that you have worked with some in the legal field, and mostly been in-house I guess, do you have any thoughts on how or whether disruption might be different for lawyers?

Whitney Johnson: No, I think it’s something that’s really very generalizable. It’s just a question — I think that the way that it might be different is that you have got cultures and that can be either work cultures or country cultures that are more amenable to change or less amenable to change and so perhaps in the legal industry, at least the way you have described it, it might be a little bit less amenable to change, but the broad principles apply regardless.

Dennis Kennedy: Okay. I want to jump in with I think one of the really important concepts that runs through both your books and that’s the S-curve. And so I think that a lot of our listeners, whether they know it or not, have followed S-curves in their career path, and so we can look at Tom, who is a lawyer and then kind of peaked out in that and jumped into electronic discovery and has moved in some different directions as time goes on. And for me, it was a phenomenally useful way to understand where I was at in my career in some of the patterns.

So you have talked so much about the S-curve, but do you want to describe it for our audience and then talk about how it helps us get insight into our own careers?

Whitney Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the big aha’s that I had as we were investing using this framework of disruption, we were using it to identify investment opportunities, was that at a very high level this framework is actually a framework for managing change that begins with the individual. So it doesn’t just apply to products, it also applies to people. And one of the tools that we used in investing was the S-curve, which was popularized by E.M. Rogers in 1962 to help figure out how quickly an innovation is going to be adopted.

So at the base of an S, growth is going to be very, very slow with an innovation until the knee of the curve or a tipping point is reached, which is typically 10-15% of the market, and then you move into hyper-growth and then 90% or saturation, the growth, it tapers off. Now, that’s for a product, that’s for an innovation.

The aha I had was that it also applies to people. So for example, you are a brand-new lawyer. You are straight out of law school. You are at the low end of a learning curve. You don’t know what you are doing. Everything you thought you knew coming out of law school you actually don’t know very much and so there is this jumble of pieces. There is a lot of days where you come home from work and you are like, I don’t know what I am doing and you can kind of feel discouraged. That’s because you are at the low end of the curve where you are working hard, it’s that base of the S, it doesn’t look like much is happening.

But then you start to put in the work, and as you put in that work after six months, maybe a year, you move into the sweet spot of the learning curve and that’s that steep part, it’s the hyper growth, where you are increasingly competent, with this comes confidence, all your neurons are firing and so you are like this is fun, like I am enjoying myself. You feel rather engaged.

And so that typically can last for one to three years and then you start to become a master, where you really know what you are doing. You are very good at it. Things are easy. That jumble of pieces that you fell to the bottom, you are now this jigsaw puzzle and you are kind of like yeah, I know how all these pieces fit together.

The problem is, is that once you get to the top of that curve, because you are no longer learning, there aren’t many things that are novel, you start to get bored, and so once you start to get bored, you either want to leave or you get complacent and stay and bored and complacent people don’t innovate, they get disrupted.

And so the whole premise of all this is, is that every single person is a learning machine. We want the challenges. It’s the biology of who we are of not knowing how to do something, figuring out how to do it, mastering it and then starting all over again, to learn, leap and repeat.

And so that’s what the S-curve helps us understand is those cycles of learning that each one of us go through throughout the course of our career.

Tom Mighell: So in a minute I want to ask a question about how managers manage people on the S-curve, but let’s talk about it from a personal standpoint. How do you determine where you are individually on your own S-curve? I would imagine that it’s at least as much mental or psychological as it is with objectively where you happen to be in your career.

Whitney Johnson: Absolutely, 100%. And if you think about it, first of all, there is the arc of your career, which is one big S-curve, and then there is an S-curve in a given job, there can be an S-curve with a domain expertise or a particular role.

So as you alluded to, you have got some initial markers of okay, I have been in this role for six months, I am probably at the low end. I have been in this role for one to three years, I am probably in a sweet spot. I have been in this role for four years or more, I am probably at the high end. So that’s a starting point, but there is lots of nuance.

So one of the ways you can know you are at the low end of the curve is as I said a moment ago, there’s a lot that you don’t feel like you know what you are doing, and you are asking lots and lots of questions of like why do we do it like this, because you haven’t pieced everything together. So that’s one element of being at the low end and you will know that you are at the low end.


The sweet spot is you are going to be coming to work everyday and be like wow, I am really enjoying my work, like this is fun, it’s hard, but it’s not too hard and it’s certainly easy, but it’s not too easy. And so there is this sense of just really enjoying the work that you are doing. That’s when you know you are in the sweet spot, and you are getting challenges, but it’s just fun.

And then you know you are at the high end when you start to be like oh — you find yourself saying things like I have paid my dues. People have ideas and you are like, we have tried that already and you find yourself kind of dismissing everything new, because you have kind of gotten attached to the status quo, and you are a little bit bored, you are not quite as excited to come to work as you did. Everybody is asking you questions, you don’t have any new questions.

And so those are all markers of whether you are at the low, the middle or at the high end of the curve. You can start with time, but really it’s much more, as you just said, Tom, more about how you are feeling about the work that you are doing.

Dennis Kennedy: And it’s interesting, I got an email from a friend last night talking about they had a new job opportunity come their way and they wondered whether to talk to this new company. And one of their comments was they felt they were really good at their job, but they were just super bored, and I immediately thought of top of the S-curve.

And for myself, looking back on my career, I do reach these points where I say — I start to use the word bored and I start to use the word frustrated and I really start to look for new things.

So one of your notions is once you are at the top and to me it sort of feels like once you are at the top, you are starting to decline as well, especially if you stay too long, but you have the idea of jumping to the next S-curve, which I think is just really helpful to understand.

Could you talk about that and then maybe talk about how that can work both internally in your existing organization or externally if you decide to change roles?

Whitney Johnson: Yeah. So Dennis, if you don’t mind, I want to just pause on that top of the curve just a minute longer, 30 seconds longer. It’s interesting, if you look at mountain climbing, there is an altitude above 26,000 feet, which is called the Death Zone. Your brain and your body start to die.

And I think that when you get to the top of a curve, and if you try to stay there too long, it does become a Death Zone for you, mentally. And so you can actually precipitate your own demise.

In fact, I believe, I have a hypothesis, which I cannot prove, but I think it’s true is that sometimes when people lose a job, they either get fired or they get laid off, it’s because they were at the top of the curve and for whatever reason they didn’t jump, and they knew they needed to jump and so the universe somehow just pushed them off the curve.

So I do think that that’s one aspect that’s really important to consider, especially because 10-15% of the workforce does lose their job or get laid off every year, just something to keep in mind.

Now, in terms of the jump generally, we just talked about or I just mentioned this idea of sometimes you are pushed off of a learning curve and then sometimes we decide to jump. I think for most of us it’s pretty scary to jump, because you are basically doing this free fall into something new.

What I would say is that, if we think okay, I am going to motivate myself by thinking this is going to be so exciting and so fun when I do something new. Well, most of us aren’t motivated that way. We are more motivated by what we might lose than what we might gain. And so one of the ways that we can get ourselves to jump when we know we need to is to tell ourselves here are all the bad things that are going to happen to me if I try to stay. I am going to be bored. I am going to start dialing it in. I am not going to do as good of a job. And then I could unintentionally or inadvertently put my work at risk.

And so that’s one of the ways you get yourself to think about jumping and then you pack that parachute for jumping by implementing the seven steps that I talk about in the Personal Disruption Framework to make it so that you have a little bit more of a soft landing as opposed to just this free fall into the unknown.

Tom Mighell: So Whitney, in ‘Build an A-Team’, you discuss this S-curve I think more in terms of managing the team than from the personal S-curve. Dennis kind of has alluded to, I have had good experience on both sides from two different careers. Right now I work for a company not in the legal field and I manage a team and what you put forth in the book and everything that you have said really makes sense to me. Some of this stuff is immediately actionable. I can use it. It makes a lot of sense.

But when I think about my time in the law firm, I am more confused about how a law firm might use it, because those management concepts I think are not followed well or often or well in law firms today. It’s a different management style. Senior partners who probably are at the top of that S-curve are typically more concerned with managing their book of business than the career trajectories or how the associates work for them other than bill us more hours and make me more profitable.

I don’t know if your advice would be different for law firms, but I will throw it out, I will ask anyway. How would you advise the lawyer manager to make the best use of that S-curve in the law firm environment?


Whitney Johnson: Yeah. So to eat my own cooking just a minute, I would say, first of all, so if you are a lawyer manager and you don’t want to, I am going to make it scarier for you not to change, because what will mean is you can keep managing your firm the way you have, but then you open yourself up to disruption; whether it’s LegalZoom or someone else, you start to be at risk.

And one of the things that I think is important to be aware of is if you actually are — you think everything is good and you are like I wonder how we are doing because it looks like everything is good, all you have to do is you take the pulse of your workforce. If you have too many people at the high end, you are actually at risk, because you are bored and you are not innovating.

So in terms of how you might apply this inside of a law firm, what I would say is it’s easy when you have got your new associates, right, they are at the low end of the curve, they don’t know what they are doing. They think they do or they want to think they do, but they don’t.

And so the way as a lawyer manager you really take advantage of your new associates and yes, they work a lot of hours and yes, you want to bill the hours. I mean I started in investment banking, I know that game and it’s fair and it’s comfortable and that’s what we do.

But I think the opportunity lost is, is you have got these young associates coming in and saying, why do we do it like this, and that is a goldmine for you as a law firm in terms of their making suggestions of things that you could do differently and you are not listening. And so what I would say to you with those new associates is to be willing to listen to them and allow their ideas.

So let’s move into the sweet spot. So now you have got people who are three, four year associates, they know what they are doing. Instead of just having them do the same thing over and over and over again, give them stretch assignments, push them and have them figure out new ways and new approaches.

And so here is a great example. Jayne Juvan, she is a lawyer at a firm called Tucker Ellis out of Cleveland, and when she was I think a three or four year associate, her mother was ill, she needed to take care of her mother. For a variety of reasons, she could not go out and network to the same degree that other people could. And so she was like, what am I going to do? She had this constraint.

Well, she tended to manage her constraint by figuring out ways to network people online, through social media, this is like eight or nine years ago. And initially the partners were like what, like social media, Twitter; again, this is eight or nine years ago, but she needed to do it because it was the only way she could network because she couldn’t do it in person.

Well, they were willing to let her do it, although they were kind of hesitant, but as a consequence she was able to really build out her network much more broadly, ended up having a book of business much earlier on than you typically would, and made partner by the time I think she was like 32 years old.

And so that’s a great example of allowing your person, your associates who are in the sweet spot to give them a little bit of room and say okay, I am going to push you, I want you to figure out ways to innovate, because now you know enough that you can do some innovating and to give them some room, some space.

Now, for you, who are at the high end, who you are a partner, you can stay right where you are. I mean that’s sort of the beauty and the bane of where you are, but you are also probably a little bit bored. So the question I would ask you is what are you going to do? What kind of situations can you put yourself in? You don’t necessarily need to leave, you like being a partner, that’s fine, but what situations can you put yourself in where you are learning something new? There is some novelty and follow your own natural curiosity, but put yourself in a situation where you some days don’t know what you are doing.

And maybe you say to your first and second year associates, I need you to teach me, what do I need to know, what am I missing? That requires a tremendous degree of humility and self-confidence. But then it will allow you to continue to up your game. And when you are willing to focus on your craft, like really your craft of being a lawyer, really your craft of figuring out how to run a partnership, you are going to find that you are going to have innovation opportunities, but it’s going to have to be very self-directed, because no one is going to force you to do it. Over time the market will, but in the near term the only real impetus is going to have to come from you.

Tom Mighell: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great advice.

Dennis Kennedy: Yeah. And what’s interesting is that the best managers I have I think intuitively got this and if they look at this framework, they would recognize themselves in it.

I have been having a lot of conversations lately around legal innovation and in particular with the group that’s focused on the new role of a Chief Legal Innovation Officer in a law firm or corporate legal department, what’s been striking to me is how much attention is paid to what everybody else is doing and sort of taking incremental approaches, and sometimes in the context of not even talking to the clients and customers.

And so I think that brings us to another of your most important concepts and that’s the two types of risk and how they come into play. And I think that lawyers tend to fall in the competitive risk side because it’s safer, but it’s the market risk, especially in innovation that becomes especially interesting to me.


Whitney Johnson: Yeah. So let me talk about what those are quickly. If you think about the two kinds of risks, there is the competitive risk, where you look at it and you go, there is a big market, huge opportunity. You have got all these productions so you can completely scope it out, and to be fair part of being trained as a lawyer is teaching you to understand that and manage the risk around that. I mean, that’s a lot of what the legal profession trains you to do and so you’re going to be — your sort of neural pathways are going to take you in that direction, and you’re probably actually very capable of competing and winning and taking on competitive risks. So, you’re good at it too, so that’s getting reinforced.

The thing that we know from the Theory of Disruption is that if you want to improve your odds of success significantly and your revenue opportunities significantly you’ll do a lot of market risk, and market risk is where you don’t know that there’s a market.

Like, I was talking about this lawyer Jayne Juvan, they didn’t know if they were going to be people who were interested in developing relationships, et cetera, through Twitter and social media, that’s what market risk is, but it turned out that there was a market.

So, competitive risk is, you know there’s a market, there’s also competition. Market risk is, you don’t know if there’s a market, but if there is, then there’s no competition because you just created the market. And so, I think from a legal perspective, again, you are great at taking on competitive risks. Some of the ways that you can take on market risk is when you’ve got ideas bubble up, you’ve got a lawyer who comes to you and says, you know, I really — for example, I really want to do X, and you’re like, well, you can’t do X because someone else is already doing X inside of our firm.

But, if you can find a problem that needs to be solved that no one else is solving, and again, they are younger typically, they are out in the marketplace, they can see what kinds of disruptions are taking place. If you can say to them, if you can find a problem that needs to be solved that other people in the firm aren’t solving and make a case for why we should go after it, you don’t necessarily have to know what the ROI is immediately because you don’t know what the market is, but you can make a case for how, here’s what we’ll learn, here’s what I’ll learn, here’s how we will develop, et cetera, then we’ll try it for three months, we’ll try it for six months.

And so, when you’re willing to take on that market risk as a firm and you’re willing to let the people who work for you take on market risk, then you by definition are taking on market risk, and when you take on that market risk you’re, again, six times more likely to be successful.

Tom Mighell: All right, well, we’ve still got more to talk about, but for now let’s take a quick break for a word from our sponsors and then we’ll be back for more of Whitney.


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Tom Mighell: And now, let’s get back to The Kennedy-Mighell Report. I am Tom Mighell.

Dennis Kennedy: And I am Dennis Kennedy, and we are joined today by our special guest, Whitney Johnson.

Whitney, let’s look at the practical now. So, I know that you sort of have seven things that you recommend. I don’t know that we need to go into all of those, but sort of what are the practical steps that somebody can take either personally once they realize where they are at on the S-curve or in management. You may talk a little bit about the mix of where people are on the S-curve in the team concept, which I think is very important. What are the practical steps that somebody who would want to take action on this would want to get started with?

Whitney Johnson: Yeah, so on an individual basis for you who are trying to manage your career, we just talked about the very first step in personal disruption, is this idea of taking on more market risk, and especially because we know that a vast majority of the jobs that are going to exist in 15 years don’t yet exist, to be willing to look for more ways to take on market risk and less competitive risk.

Another one I’ll focus on the personal, and then we can talk about what this can look like for you as an organization is strengths. It’s important to play not only to your strengths but to your distinctive strengths, the things that you do well that the people around you don’t. And the reason this is important is that so often the things that people do best they don’t actually value. Someone walks in the door and they’re like, here’s my résumé and here’s what I know how to do and frequently what they’re going to list on their résumé is all the stuff that they worked really hard to learn how to do, but that means that that’s something that they do well but not what they do best, and what you want is you want people who were doing stuff that they do best.

Let me give you a quick example. Michelle McKenna-Doyle, she is the Chief Information Officer at the NFL. When she started the job she saw that a lot of people that were working for her were good but they weren’t slotted to their strengths, and one person in particular, his name is John Cave, he was running all of the systems, and she looked at him and she’s like, you know, he’s doing this, but what he’s really great is a building thing. So, why do I have him managing payroll?

So, she goes to him and she says, okay, you know, John, I want you to build stuff, I want you to advance the game of football through technology, and he was like, no, no, I don’t want to do that, because he was afraid that she was taking stuff away from him. This is somehow a demotion. She said, no, trust me, you’re going to be a great innovator, and he is.

And so, part of what this looks like for you as an individual and for a manager is, number one, is to be willing to play to your strengths, put yourself in a position where other people are not.

So, coming back to the example of Jayne Juvan, no one else was doing social media, so that became a strength of hers and it was something that other people weren’t doing, so it became a distinctive strength, something other law firms weren’t doing, so it became a distinctive strength for the law firm and when you know what your strengths are, you’re much more willing, it’s a flywheel effect to play where other people aren’t playing.

So, those are two examples of how do you disrupt successfully as a person and because the fundamental unit of disruption is the individual those both lead to disruption writ large inside the organization.

In terms of your organization what we found in our research and the work that we do inside of companies is that you build a team that can innovate. A team that can manage or change a place where people want to work by having 70% of your people in this sweet spot at any given time, which is probably pretty easy to do in a law firm because you’ve got lots of associates, 15% of your people at the low end because they’re asking those questions that lead to innovation, and then 15% of your people at the high end, and when you’re willing to load-balance those curves you’re going to be able to be best positioned to be able to innovate and to lower your wear-about to be a disruptive score.

Tom Mighell: Well, let’s take it down to maybe a more micro-level, or I guess, even a more practical level than that. I think those are some great practical steps to get started, but let’s just say that people are listening to this podcast, they are interested in the topic, they really want to start applying some of these approaches, let’s say they want to get started this weekend. From a let’s get started right now standpoint, what do you recommend people do?

Whitney Johnson: Well, the first thing I would do is an audit of your team and figure out where people are. If you go to my website, you can take what we call the Learning Curve Locator and have people on your team take it, but you can also suss it out and say, okay, well, how many people do I have at the low end? How many do I have in the sweet spot? How many do I have at the high end? And just make sure you’re properly and thinking through — you’re never going to be able to do it perfectly but just thinking about, is my team optimized for innovation? So, that’s one very practical thing you can do immediately.

What I would say for your people at the low end of the learning curve, the practical step would be, be patient with them. They are brand-new, they are going to be slower and know that that doesn’t necessarily mean you made a bad hire. It’s just that they are at the low end of the learning curve and at the same time when they give you suggestions for why don’t we try something, be more open to it because that is the opportunity for innovation. For your people in the sweet spot what I would say is push them.

The other day I was talking to one of our clients who was telling me about this person on his team who’s a rock-star, and I’m like, fantastic, are you pushing her? He’s like, you know, I’m not, and so stretch a slime 28:40 it doesn’t mean just more, it means you give them more of what will push them and what’s easy for them you take off their plate.

The other tip for that sweet spot person is to appreciate them. They’re not a problem child. Don’t make them one by ignoring them.

For your people at the top of the curve, what I would say and so assuming that we’re talking to people who are partners, the way you want to manage yourself or the people that you work with is say, okay, you’re at the top of the curve. We know from the neuroscience that once you’ve been doing this for a long time you’re going to get a little bit bored. So, do you have any thoughts off the top of your head of what you could do to mix things up a little bit so we can unleash some of that innovative capacity inside of your mind on behalf of you, but certainly on behalf of our law firm as well? And so, those would be some things that I would do ASAP.

Tom Mighell: The last point you were making, I think is really interesting, because it’s so non-threatening to tell people, hey, there’s the science out there that says this is going to happen. So, we are going to help you with that when you reach the top of the S-curve in advance of your career. So, it’s not considered — I don’t think it feels so much like you’re being attacked. So, I think that’s a great thing.

The other thing that I always got from your talks, your podcasts, your books that I think is really useful is that notion that — and that you alluded to of, we don’t really appreciate what it is that we do well, and so a lot of times if you just ask people, what they think you do well?


And if you hear yourself going like saying, oh, anybody can do that, that should be a tip-off to something that could be one of your unique strengths that you need to explore more?

Dennis Kennedy: I want to talk a little bit about collaboration, because Tom and I wrote in our book Law is all about collaboration. Law is always part of teams, but too often they really aren’t very good at building teams or our running teams.

So, I think that S-curve analysis is really useful in keeping teams together in building teams, but I also think it’s interesting in hiring. So, you do have that metrics that says, okay, here’s if I can kind of assess what percentage is in the different range of the S-curve, I think that can help you higher, and then, I think you also talk a lot about how, if you just go out and say, I’m looking to find somebody who can do exactly what the last person did or exactly what I think somebody should do and they have all these specific credentials, that oftentimes is a person out at the top of their S-curve and may not be as good a hire as bringing in someone who sees what they are doing is a challenge or something new to them. Could you elaborate on that?

Whitney Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the things that happens is that we tend to be like, I want the gold standard. I want top of the curve expertise, but when you do that, now you know, from the neuroscience, that they are going to be because they are at the top of the curve, once they’ve figured out how to navigate things internally within six months a year they’re going to be bored, now what do you do?

And so what you want to do is focus on people at the bottom of the curve, which is sometimes harder because it’s actually even hard on our ego because we want to hire people who — it seems like they are more impressed than they are more prestigious.

Now, I’ll give you actually a really quick interesting example that has to do with the legal profession.

I was talking to a woman who had had a paralegal working for them and she was excellent, like just top dwarf, fantastic, and so she goes back to law school and she comes in and she’s like, okay, I’m ready, I want to be a lawyer, and they wouldn’t hire her. They would not hire her because she had not gone to the right school, and that to me is such a huge, huge opportunity missed.

And so, when you think about top-of-the-curve expertise or even top credentials, one of the ways that you can really play where no one else is playing, when it comes to hiring, is to hire where no one else is hiring, and that can be those unconventional talent pools whether it’s people who have been working for you, like internal candidates. In this particular instance, this woman who is a paralegal, who was an internal candidate, but if you were willing to unpack what she could really do, you would have hired her in a nanosecond.

Another place away is On-Rampers, and I think within the legal profession you’ve got a huge opportunity to hire On-Rampers because you’ve got so many individuals that have been trained as lawyers. They come out of the workforce for a few years to care for parents, care for children. Now, what have they gotten? A crash course, a master class and leadership skills. The various skills that you may need in terms of mediating disputes, et cetera, and so that’s another huge opportunity in terms of being able to hire where no one’s hiring, get people who are at the load of the curve. You’ve got then those On-Rampers, those people who aren’t the usual suspects, they are not overpriced, they are not over-picked, and they are often hungry with something to prove. So, those are some great ways for you to practice your own disruption. Your own pocket of the world is not necessarily in the markets you go after but just how you hire.

Tom Mighell: Alright. We’ve got time for one more question and I’m going to take a point of personal privilege and ask about something that is really kind of meaningful and important to me, both when I was working in the law firm and I’ve maintained an interest in this, and that’s the idea of mentorship and mentoring.

In the book you discussed, how employees at the top of the curve who are in that master position can serve as trainers and mentors for employees further down the curve; recently a lawyer wrote an online opinion piece and I’ll quote it, that said, “Many of us lawyers, 45 and older, have little to offer in mentorship for the next generation.” I definitely have an opinion about that, but I wanted your take on that and the place of mentoring and working with less experienced employees.

Whitney Johnson: First of all, Wow, how could a person feel that way? That’s so surprising. So, what it would say to me is that that person doesn’t really understand what mentoring is, and the thought that I have is that, like, whenever — it’s been said that whenever a person, old person dies, it’s like a library burning. And I think that whenever you are at the top of the curve and you jump to the bottom of a new curve it’s like a library burning, and so, there’s this wonderful opportunity for people at the top of their curve who are feeling a little bit stagnant.


One of the ways that you can re-energize yourself is to say to yourself, okay, what am I going to teach people who are coming along the curve? That in and of itself can be a new learning curve is really figuring out how to train the next generation.

The other thing I think that we overlook is that in the process of teaching someone and coaching them, because there’s this automatic feedback loop. They’re introducing ideas and ways of doing things that can really be interesting and an opportunity for you to learn as well.

So, I’m not sure why this person said that. I’m sorry that they feel that way because there’s so many wonderful opportunities and experiences awaiting them within the confines of their organization to actually really mentor people. And we all know, we’ve all had, or at least most of us have had at one point, a great boss, a person who was pivotal in our career and we will remember them to our dying day because our career went in a different direction because of that person’s influence.

Tom Mighell: Well, I have to think. If I’m speculating, I’m thinking that the person who thinks this is of the opinion that, frankly, I share a little bit is that older generations of lawyers, they don’t understand things like Blockchain or Artificial Intelligence or all these new things that are coming down the road that younger lawyers are going to be involved in. I think like you say, mentorship is a whole lot more than that. It doesn’t have to be about teaching them about what’s in the future, it’s teaching them about what worked in the past that can work in the future.

But thank you anyway. I think that’s about all the time that we’ve got. We’d like to thank again, Whitney Johnson, for joining us on the podcast.

Whitney, tell us about your books, where we can get them, where people can learn more about you or get in touch with you if they want to?

Whitney Johnson: Yeah, so the easiest way to get in touch with me is That’s my website. You can find me there and then in terms of buying ‘Building an A-Team’ or ‘Disrupt Yourself’ you can buy it anywhere the books are sold. And., the diagnostic for those of you who want to take that is just,

Dennis Kennedy: And thank you also, Whitney, it has been a great show and I appreciate the conversations we’ve had, the little bit of work I’ve got to do with you over the last year. The conversation we had right at the point where I was trying to decide whether the take early retirement was incredibly valuable to be, and I’m so glad we had the chance to get you on the show and share your great ideas.

Whitney Johnson: Well, thank you.

Dennis Kennedy: Now it’s time for our parting shots. That one-tip website or observation you can use the second this podcast ends. For a change I’ll start this one.

So, I want to start with Whitney’s podcast which is called ‘Disrupt Yourself’ and thoroughly recommended a lot of great interviews with people who are on different places on the S-curve. Lots of really interesting people doing interesting things. I’m going to especially recommend one from August 2017 where Whitney had somebody who is brave enough to do a live coaching that was recorded for a podcast. Absolutely fascinating for the insights and Whitney’s approach, and to me, one of the most valuable podcasts I’ve ever listened to.

Tom Mighell: Alright. I’m also going to recommend a podcast. This one is technology related. It’s called Converge. It’s from one of the reporters who works with ‘The Verge’ magazine. He has a different guest on every week where they actually create a game show and play it. The episode I’m going to point to in the show notes is about the conventional wisdom about passwords is wrong. It’s really not anything new that we haven’t talked about on this podcast before that getting a password manager is the best way to manage passwords in today’s age.

But what I am going to do is I’m going to use that as a jumping off point for something that this podcast that I listened to on Converge made me decide to do which is to create what I’m going to call the Password Manager Project.

I hear from people that managing passwords is hard and that password managers are not that friendly to use. So, I’m going to take people up on that challenge and challenge you and return it.

There are listeners to the podcast who want to learn more about how to use a Password Manager. You have to beat these criteria. One, you have trouble managing your passwords; two, you have never used a Password Manager or you tried in the past and it didn’t work, and three, you’re willing to share some screen time with me, going through it, learning about it, talking about it. I’m willing to work with three different people. I’m going to post on the blog also about it, but I’m announcing it here first that if you’re willing to work on using a Password Manager, I will show you how it can change the way that you manage your passwords.

And so, that wraps it up for this edition of The Kennedy-Mighell Report. Thanks for joining us on the podcast. You can find show notes for this episode at

If you like what you hear, please subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or on the Legal Talk Network site, where you can find archives of all of our previous podcasts.

If you like to get in touch with us, you can reach out to us on LinkedIn, or leave us a voicemail, remember (720)441-6820. We would love to get questions for our B-segment.

So, until the next podcast, I am Tom Mighell.

Dennis Kennedy: And I am Dennis Kennedy and you have been listening to The Kennedy-Mighell Report, a podcast on legal technology with an Internet focus.

If you liked what you heard today, please rate us in Apple Podcasts and we will see you next time for another episode of The Kennedy-Mighell Report on the Legal Talk Network.


Outro: Thanks for listening to The Kennedy-Mighell Report. Check out Dennis and Tom’s book, ‘The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together’ from ABA Books or Amazon, and join us every other week for another edition of The Kennedy-Mighell Report, only on the Legal Talk Network.


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Episode Details
Published: July 9, 2018
Podcast: Kennedy-Mighell Report
Category: Best Legal Practices
Kennedy-Mighell Report
Kennedy-Mighell Report

Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell talk the latest technology to improve services, client interactions, and workflow.

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