That old #justalawyer excuse


I had an interesting, personal experience at this evening’s Startup Weekend Johannesburg finale. I was one of the judges and had an opportunity to chat to some of the startup teams including a couple who called their startup “Avioneta” (no, of course I didn’t get their names, what a silly question) which was probably my favourite startup even though they didn’t win.

Their idea involves using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, “drones” for us plebs) in some interesting use cases. I think this is going to happen in some form or another and I spent some time with them after the evening’s events were concluded and people were packing up to head home. I shared my blue sky thinking about possible use cases for UAVs and markets they could exploit. I did a lot of talking as I tend to do when I am interested in something and they politely let me jabber on for a while.

They asked for my details and I pulled out a business card and caught myself saying to them “I’m just a lawyer, not a strategist or anything”. As soon as I said that it struck me how limiting that thought process is. There I was sharing ideas about possible business models for Team Avioneta’s drones (Mr Avioneta built a slightly rough and off the shelf version of the AR Parrot drone in an hour, apparently, talk about a smart guy) and when it came time to own that, I slipped back into my #justalawyer qualification mode, as if I could never be anything else.

What is ironic is that I frequently find myself engaged in fascinating conversations about strategy, social trends, technology and its impact on culture and, yes, legal and compliance topics. What I say seems to be interesting or, at least, engaging to people I talk to. It seems to add some value to conversations I participate in and yet my first response is to shrink back into my #justalawyer shell.

Mr Avioneta was uncomfortable speaking to a room full of people (even though he handled it pretty well). He didn’t seem to be the sort of person who speaks to rooms full of people and yet, at the same time, he basically taught himself robotics by being curious and reading about this and other topics until he acquired the knowledge to build and operate these UAVs. Granted, the prospect of speaking to loads of people may not energise him but he could be the next Larry Page or Sergey Brin. Heck, even Mark Zuckerberg was reportedly almost painfully awkward in interviews until he received media training and relaxed a lot in interview contexts.

It seems to come down to a question of what qualifies a person to do something he or she may not have been trained to do and yet who am have a talent for that something? Should Mr Avioneta be relegated to his work bench? Should I stick to my legal knitting or should we acknowledge that we are qualified to step outside our mental preconceptions, if we choose to do so. Am I #justalawyer or do I get to be a strategist, entrepreneur, digital stunt co-ordinator and, of course, lawyer? Where are the limits? Are there any?

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