Trade a Paper Clip for a House

Well, not just any old paper clip, a red paper clip. What 26 year old Kyle MacDonald announced on his one red paperclip blog was his intention to trade up his one red paper clip until eventually he winds up with a house. Implausible? Ridiculous? Impossible? Well, he seems well on his way.

Kyle’s quest and blog have gotten wide notice as he has traded with people from across Canada and the United States, and is now sitting on a year’s free rent for an apartment in Phoenix. I came across this bit of news as I read my CNet News emails.

MacDonald’s trades have gone as follows:

• Paper clip for a fish-shaped pen
• Fish-shaped pen for a clay doorknob with a funny face on it
• Clay doorknob for a camping stove
• Stove for a generator
• Generator for an “instant party”
• Instant party for a snowmobile
• Snowmobile for an all-expenses-paid trip to Yahk, British Columbia
• Yahk trip for a panel van
• Van for a recording contract
• Recording contract for the year of free rent in Phoenix

What has made this “journey” so impressive, is that those who have thus far participated have stated that they did so because of MacDonald’s personality. According to the CNet News article, Bruno Taillefer, who traded a van for the trip to Yahk, B.C. said, “It has everything to do with his personality, and his drive. Not anybody could do this. He’s the type of guy I wanted to get involved with as soon as I met him. I really wanted to help him get his house.”

Ok, Ellen, this is all interesting, but what the heck does it have to do with managing law firms? Good question.

Some time ago I wrote an article entitled Enticing Entrepreneurial Lawyers. The response to that article was rather surprising. A lot of firms called to bemoan their inability to locate the true entrepreneurs who have the highly-desired “fire in the belly” coupled with a natural gift for rainmaking. But an equal or greater number of calls came from self-professed entrepreneurs complaining that their attempts to find employment with or merge into firms usually resulted in disappointment and failure.

The disconnect was not a single anomaly. There were too many calls which echoed the same experience on the part of the entrepreneur. The number of calls were significant enough that I thought seriously about the financial model and functioning of a headhunter. And had time constraints not prevented me, I would have added yet another “hat” to my toppling collection. I know that some day, I will likely explore this in greater earnest. But back to the point . . .

What seems apparent to me is that firms still have not allowed themselves to break with tradition in terms of the “ideal” candidates they seek. I hate to use the now-trite expression, but firms have not learned to think “outside the box” where hiring is concerned. Too often the true entrepreneur doesn’t fit the “traditional” model. Particularly those who have entered law as a second career.

Such is the case with one recent caller. After many years as a successful CEO of various companies, with notable achievements, including earning a “high six” salary for much of the time, he decided to reinvent himself as a lawyer. The problem is that no firm will touch him, in spite of his realistic salary expectations.

At one of the largest firms in the nation, headquartered in Philadelphia — this candidate’s home town — a partner has presented his resume expressing an interest in hiring him. But the HR person in charge of screening attorney hires has rejected him as a candidate without so much as an interview.

I gave him some specific recommendations for firms where I thought he would be an excellent fit for a variety of reasons. None would even interview him. He believes his age is more the issue than his salary history. I believe he just doesn’t fit the “mold,” and most firms are unable to visualize the value he might bring to the table.

Short sighted vision, for sure. Because I can tell that this fellow will be successful if he can just get in the door. He will understand clients’ businesses from a perspective most lawyers don’t and can’t have. He will have a stake in their success. He has burning, smoldering fire in the belly, maturity, and a history of achievement. And he already has more business connections at high levels than most mid-level lawyers. He has the ability to become a tremendous rainmaker. In short, this is a fellow, my gut tells me, who can trade a paper clip for a house. He just needs someone to allow him to be a lawyer with their firm, and to refine his skills in the profession.

I am reminded of a young associate at a successful mid-sized firm I once managed. The top partners at the firm didn’t respect him. He had managed to sneak in with lesser credentials at a time when they were desperate to make a hire. He didn’t go to one of the “right” schools. He wasn’t in the top 10% of the graduating class. Heck, I don’t think he was in the top 30%. He didn’t do things “their” way. They thought he was a mediocre lawyer. They thought he spent too much time documenting the files and needlessly visiting the clients. He started bringing in clients, and they were resentful of that because they detracted from his ability to service their own clients.

Eventually they politely told him to make other career arrangements. He did. He went out on his own. Today his firm is almost 50 attorneys strong, has several offices, and enjoys an excellent reputation. Even if he was and is a mediocre lawyer — I doubt it, based on his reputation — what he understood was how to find clients, and what client service was all about. He clearly had that “fire in the belly” early on. He was the kind of person who could trade a paper clip for a house.

Who screens the attorney resumes at your firm? You? How finely tuned are your antenna for the indicators of motivation, potential, and, as Dr. Larry Richard calls it, “Emotional Intelligence”? When is the last time you thought about whether the credentials you seek are producing the candidates you really want? Perhaps it’s time to rethink the shape of your mold.


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