CURIOUS MINDS: A Talk with Mark Cohen

We continue our new column, “Curious Minds” created and written by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work.

In this installment, Rose speaks with Mark Cohen, founder & CEO of legal consulting firm Legal Mosaic, about his influences, his creative process, and his thoughts on failure.

Rose Ors: Who are the thinkers and leaders outside of the legal industry that have influenced you?

Mark Cohen: One influencer was Steve Jobs, but not for the reasons one might think.

Jobs is a case study in resilience, passion, and the pursuit of perfection. Most people think of him as “the billionaire genius behind Apple.” He was that, of course, but his story starts with his unceremonious exit from the company he founded. Who would think he would come back to achieve what he did? My exit occurred with Clearspire and I am just realizing the rewards of my comeback. I never lost the passion for the Clearspire mission to create a customer-centric, organically diverse, melding of the practice and business of law functions. Fortunately, I am working with others to achieve that end — and it is gratifying, hard, and fun.

Rose Ors: How did you come back from failure?

Mark Cohen: Let me start by sharing how I regard “failure.” Some businesses launch with an outstanding idea but fail to execute. Other times the reverse is true. But there are times when both the idea and execution are spot-on, and yet the venture is not a commercial success due to timing and other variables the founders could not foresee or control. I do not view what happened with Clearspire as a failure but as a lesson-learned.

In my view, the most successful people are those who draw from the past, learn from it, and use that experience and processing to move toward the future.

If Clearspire had launched seven or eight years later than it did, I suspect it would have been a financial success because the legal buy/sell dynamic has changed dramatically. Legal buyers are far more receptive to new business models; our separation and integration of the practice and business of law functions is now more widely understood; and social media would have made it easier for us to put across our message to a broader audience. As the late Lou Reed said, “Those were different times.”

After Clearspire, I took a step back to think about what worked and what did not work. I then took the lessons-learned and apply them to the work I do today. For example, I am working with the Singapore Government and the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) to apply many of the key aspects of the Clearspire model to improve legal delivery there, in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. The lessons I learned from Clearspire are also being applied by a number of leading legal service providers today who have sought my input and participation. It is gratifying, even if the gratification has been a long time in the making.

I have moved forward. In my view, the most successful people are those who draw from the past, learn from it, and use that experience and processing to move toward the future.

Rose Ors: What books have influenced your work and how you approach it?

Mark Cohen: I will start with The Stranger by Albert Camus. In addition to appreciating it as a great piece of literature, The Stranger taught me the importance of context, understanding your audience, and fitting the story to an objective. The right story at the wrong time or the wrong audience can become cruel irony as it did for the protagonist in the Camus novel. Stories must be crafted. That informed my career as a trial lawyer and still does today because story telling is artful persuasion. And law — like so many other things in life — is about persuasion.

Curious Minds

Mark Cohen

I have also been influenced by an article about Cream, one of my favorite rock bands. The piece put a spotlight on the power of collaboration: how three marquee musicians created something together that none was able to reprise on their own or with other musicians. They did not last long but what they achieved together was sublime. That’s the power of collaboration.

Rose Ors: Where do you get your most creative ideas?

Mark Cohen: One place is when I have my fingers in dirt. Gardening allows me to engage a passion and provides me quiet time to think. The same is true of taking long walks. As a Moody Blues song said, “Thinking is the best way to travel.”

For me, these quiet and contemplative moments have sparked some of my best ideas. Less contemplative but equally inspiring for me is talking with others or listening to music. What is common to all these activities is that each offers me stimuli that moves me to think about things in a slightly more mentally-intense yet relaxed fashion.

Rose Ors: What’s a key, big-picture question facing the legal industry?

Mark Cohen: What’s a lawyer? If you pose this question to 100 lawyers, you will probably get 100 different answers, maybe 101 different answers. But the question is best viewed from the perspective of the client: what they need lawyers to do and what can be done by other professionals, paraprofessionals, and/or machines.

In the digital age, lawyers must offer more than a basic knowledge of the law. They must also acquire other skillsets that include project management, data analytics, design, business basics, digital basics, risk prediction and management, and talent management among other skillsets. Law is not simply about legal knowledge anymore — it’s much broader than that. Lawyers must serve more clients and serve them more efficiently, holistically, empathetically, and, yes, cost-effectively.

Another question is how does the legal industry do a better job for its clients and for society? The data shows that lawyers generally think they do a very good job. Clients on the other hand, give lawyers terrible Net Promoter Scores. The data also shows that about 80% of Americans who need legal services can’t afford them, including about 65% of small- and medium-sized businesses. I think those are pretty indefensible statistics.

We must ask ourselves: “What can we do differently to do better?”

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