Mark A. Cohen
CEO & Founder
Pamela: Hi. My name is Pamela DeNeuve and welcome to Lawyer of the Week. I am so pleased and honored to have Mark Cohen as our lawyer this week and to give you a little preview of his success: Just this week Mark’s blog, Legal Mosaic, was named by the ABA for their Web 100 as one of the top 50 legal blogs in the world, globally, so I really feel very honored to have Mark with us and let me tell you a little bit more about him.
Mark is a global thought leader in the legal industry, Focus on Legal Delivery and Education. He has had a distinguished 40-year career, the first part of which was devoted to legal practice.
He earned an international reputation as a “bet the company” civil trial lawyer with stints as Decorated Assistant, United States attorney, big law partner, national litigation boutique founder and managing partner, federally appointed receiver of an international aviation parts business, conducting operations on four continents, and outside general counsel to three insurance companies. During the past 20 years, Mark has focused on the business of law and developing and managing delivery models that improve legal circuit service and education.
He was co-founder and managing partner of Clearspire, a revolutionary, two company model law firm and legal services company that was the first to separate legal practice from legal delivery, the business of law. The Clearspire model, in its use of technology and project management, set a new industry standard that remains today. Mark decided to join Elevate because of its alignment with Clearspire’s vision. In addition to serving as Elevate’s chair of the Advisory Board and Chief Strategy Officer, Mark is a distinguished fellow at Northwestern University Law School, a regular contributor to Forbes, where I’ve- this is where I first met- or saw Mark.
I didn’t meet him, but I read his articles, where he has a column on the global legal marketplace, a sought-after keynote speaker and CEO of LegalMosaic, and we’ll have all of his links below, a legal business consultancy and repository for his work.
He has won recognition as a legal innovator, writer, speaker, teacher, and trial lawyer. His LegalMosaic blog was recently honored by the ABA as one of the 50 Outstanding Worldwide Blogs, which I had mentioned earlier. Mark, welcome. We’re so glad to have you here.
Mark: Thanks, Pamela, and boy, I love your enthusiasm!
Pamela: Well, I just- I’m so excited to have you here, and you know, I’ve been reading your articles. You’re really great- a lot better than I am- on Twitter and I hear you- see your following and read your article in Forbes and I was just- before I talked with you, I was so excited to hear that you were recognized by the ABA for your- the work that you do on your blog because you really have some very provocative topics.
Mark: Well, thank you very much. I was equally surprised, and I hope you don’t mind my saying it publicly, that you disclosed to me- not only that you have a granddaughter, which is hard to believe, but also that you have a granddaughter who’s about to graduate from a little university in New Haven called Yale, so congratulations to you and for all the work that you do.
Pamela: Thank you, thank you so much. I appreciate that. So I’m going to go ahead and ask you- oh, I want to just say this: that you too, are- you should add on your biography- excellent husband, world traveler, speaker and Wonder Father with two wonderful daughters.
Mark: Well, I say that my daughters would say probably my greatest strength is I’m a world-class schmoozer.
Pamela: That’s great! I love that. Okay, so I’m gonna ask you the Lawyer of the Week questions. The first one is when and what made you decide to become a lawyer in the first place?
Mark: Well Pamela, I think if I’m to be honest, I had two choices prenatally- either I was going to be a doctor like three generations of my family or a good lawyer, not a lawyer but a good lawyer. I don’t know that I really managed to do either of them but I did become a lawyer. And I think that from a very early age- as you can tell, I’m not a shy individual. I like people.
I like the idea of speaking, communicating and persuading. And as a result, I found myself from an early age thinking, “Hmm. I’d sort of like to be a trial lawyer.” And that’s the first 30 years of my career was being a trial lawyer.
Pamela: Interesting. Now, are there any other lawyers in your family or just doctors?
Mark: Just doctors. No other lawyers, although when people used to comment about- you know, my trial ability and they’d say, “Is there anyone that you’re ever afraid to, you know, enter into an argument with?” And I’d say, “Only my wife and daughters.” And that holds true today.
Pamela: Very good.
Mark: I haven’t won too many cases at home.
Pamela: I was just curious, what did you- what was your family’s reaction when you decided to become a lawyer instead of a doctor?
Mark: Oh, they were fine with it. They were absolutely fine with it. In fact, my father offered me just one little piece of advice about integrity. And that you can only compromise your professional integrity once, so don’t do it, and that was good advice. I remember he told me that the day I was sworn in as a lawyer.
Pamela: Wonderful. It’s a great- a great bit of advice and maybe more people would heed that, in and out of law, truly.
Mark: I would agree with that.
Pamela: Now tell me, how did you become a writer and a thought leader for the legal community?
Mark: Well, I’ve always enjoyed writing. It’s something- it’s just a way of, you know, one of the ways I express myself and I guess it was a combination of wanting to put down into writing some of my professional experiences, some of my observations, and people encouraged me to do it.
They said that, you know, I kind of had a story to tell- and I’m all about storytelling. And so, to be honest Pamela, I did it more initially as a- kind of a catharsis as, you know, just the form of self-expression. I never really particularly thought that too many people would be interested, particularly writing about, you know, my legal career.
I thought certainly if I had written about maybe my personal life, that might have been a little more interesting but lo and behold, I started to see that people started responding to it.
They would write to me, they would tell me that it moved them or, you know, they- and curiously enough, if you don’t mind my just riffing a little bit longer on this, one of the things that I thought was very interesting to me is I’ve always tried to be a very authentic human being.
And when I used to pull juries, that was one of the things that people would repeatedly tell me is that, “We liked your authenticity.” And I think I’ve sort of done that, as well, with my writing. I try not to denigrate people but at the same time I try not to pull punches and I call it as I see it.
And I don’t, in any way, mean to suggest that I’m the Delphic Oracle or that I have all the answers. But, you know, I’ve been around for a while, I’ve seen our industry from many different perspectives, and I also try to inject a little bit of my personality and humanity into the writing. And I think that’s something that people have told me that they respond to.
Pamela: That’s great! I mean, you are very authentic in what I’ve read- and you don’t pull any punches- you know, you’re not smiling and glad-handing the legal community.
Now, just- you know, just going back in history a little bit- so when you began practicing law, you know, it was a very rigid and kind of a strict, firm culture and this is the way it’s done and how does that background- and as you know, there’s still a lot of that- how does that background affect your message today?
Mark: That’s a great question. Well, I remember at the time being horribly disappointed by legal culture. I thought, as you had mentioned before, that it was very rigid, it was very pedigree-centric.
You know, where you went to school and frankly, how you looked and how you acted, were- you know, more important often than what you could do to advance client interests. And I was kind of amazed, having grown up in New York City, I was kind of amazed at-how you know, frankly, pale stale and male the legal environment was.
Women, I think- you know, I noticed very early on, were systematically given short shrift and I thought that there is more than a little bit of irony to the fact that, you know, a profession that is charged with, you know, acting in the best interest of society, preserving the rule of law, and all those- you know, sort of lofty ideals, itself would be structured this way and it really bothered me.
So to come back to, you know, how that informs what I do today- I’m a little disappointed that in the 40 years since I’ve become a lawyer- that the good news is, you know- I just read that Eversheds, for example, just appointed its first female Global Managing Partner. That’s great but I find it distressing that we have to think that that’s somehow newsworthy. Or, you know, when an African-American is promoted to partnership or a Managing Partner, that that’s somehow newsworthy. I’m waiting for the time when that’s no longer newsworthy.
Pamela: Wow, that’s really very thought-provoking. Now, given that, what would you say the message that you are- the overall message that you’re trying to convey when you write and in your blog and in Forbes- because it’s- I look at it as it’s kind of like a wake up, “Wake up” wake up call- so what do you- what is the message that you’re conveying?
Mark: Well, I think, Pamela- there are a couple of messages. First, let’s not pretend that law is not a business. It is certainly a profession and lawyers first and foremost are guided by- you know, ethics, by doing the right thing- and doing the right thing, in my mind, is simultaneously, zealously, competently, ethically and within the boundaries of law- representing to clients- the first everybody knows, which is the client that engages or retains a lawyer, but equally importantly- and I think something that’s often forgotten, particularly in big law but also in retail law too, is that lawyers have a social compact with society, as a whole, to represent it and to defend the rule of law.
I’m very troubled by the fact that- as Derek Bok, a lawyer and the former president of Harvard University once famously said, “There’s too much law for those that can afford it and too little for those that can’t.” And I am appalled that, you know, about 80% of individuals in this country in need of legal representation, can’t afford it, about two-thirds of small businesses go unrepresented in matters which, for them, are bet the company. And there’s just something really wrong with that, and I think that our profession needs to do something about that.
And it’s also- ironically, will also be good business. Lawyers just have to, you know- I think to get out from under the notion that, you know, that legal services are only about lawyers and, you know, they’ve kind of got to get with the program a little bit.
Pamela: Yes, yes.
Mark: It’s a changing world and you look at how many other industries are efficiently and effectively, for example, using technology, using process to create greater access to goods and services, to provide consumers with more choice, affordable options- a range of options, you know, and lawyers have to realize that sometimes good is good enough.
Pamela: This just brings me to- this is another question out of the blue for you, but I’m enjoying this discussion- why, in your years being in the atmosphere- why do you think the law firms are so reticent to making the change? Why do you think it’s so difficult for that profession to make adjustments?
Mark: Well, as my friend Richard Susskind famously wrote, “It’s hard to tell a roomful of multimillionaires that your economic model is broken.” If I had to reduce it to one word- really, it’s greed. And- you know, from partners’ perspectives, until very recently- I think, you know, they understandably believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I think that clients are now starting to drive the bus.
Clients are now starting to recognize that law is no longer the delivery of legal services, is no longer exclusively the province of lawyers, that they can get legal services outside of law firms, that the practice of law and the delivery of legal services are two different but related things, that there’s technology available that, you know, can help to make things more automated, that can better leverage differentiated legal skills- you know Pamela, it’s just- it’s a different ballgame.
I mean- and this is nothing unique to the law- you look at how the world has changed, you know, in the years since the global financial crisis just a decade ago. Back then- Amazon, you know, was only, you know, selling books online and there was no uber, there was no Airbnb, there was no iPhone.
The world has changed a lot and so to have- look at the retail industry and what’s happening there. I’m not saying what’s better and what’s worse, but the train has definitely left the station. And I think that for several years, the legal industry was still on the platform. But now- I think consumers are insisting that law, you know, sort of becoming more modernized.
Pamela: Yes, so- and I want to add to your list of Airbnb and uber- iTunes.
Mark: iTunes. There you go.
Pamela: Revolutionized the music industry.
Mark: Yes, it did.
Pamela: I just want, as a side note- it’s interesting- I had a call from someone from Asia earlier today who was talking about that legal- these online tech companies that have- they can click on a button, and they have a legal problem and if a lawyer is available, or whoever’s available, they can get their services done for some, you know, nominal amount of money.
Pamela: That’s the first time- and I’m a little slow, so I did- that’s the first time I actually realized how widespread this is becoming and what a blow this is to the “traditional legal community.”
Mark: Well, you know Pamela, I don’t think that this is a zero-sum game. That is to say that I don’t think that a group of technologists are necessarily going to co-opt the legal industry.
But what I do think is going to happen is that for the tens of millions of Americans- and by the way, the same access to justice crisis is in evidence throughout Europe, in Australia, in Canada even- that lawyers are going to have to see- smart lawyers are going to see that, you know, technology is not necessarily a foe but it’s going to be a vehicle by which they can, you know, sort of re-engineer the way they deliver their services and do it in a much, much more cost-effective way.
And I think it’s remarkably short-sighted of them to say, “Oh my gosh. What if, you know, my billable hours- my rate goes from $300 to $100, you know, I’m ruined.” Well- but what if that, you know, reduction in rate allows you to be wildly more efficient and represent five times as many clients as you do today? I really do believe that it could be a win-win and that lawyers really should start thinking of it in those terms.
Pamela: Excellent. I totally agree, I totally agree. Now, we try to encourage peak performance- or I do since I work with lawyers for peak performance, and I really would call you our model for peak performance.
Mark: Thank you
Pamela: can you describe for us the obstacles that you overcame to become successful, as you have- and you’ve had various genres and times and different lifetimes of careers of being successful- but one thing that is consistent is your success. So can you describe how- what you did to overcome- to become successful?
Mark: Well, I’m going to tell you an example of one thing that I did which was, you know, kind of both a success and in some ways, a failure. But you know, sort of the common threads are- you have to know your craft, that’s first and foremost. You have to be yourself. You know, we’re all individuals, and I think that one of the shames of legal culture is that it does not enshrine individuality, so much as it tries to impose, you know, certain homogeneous standards and norms.
And I think that it’s really, really important- once you’ve learned your craft, to be able to draw from, you know, your different passions, your background, who you are as a person. I think that’s really important, particularly for lawyers, because I’ve always said that law is the persuasion business.
You have to be able to persuade someone in the first instance that you’re the right person, you know, to be retained as a lawyer. You have to persuade the other side that you, you know, know what you’re doing. You have to persuade the judge, you know- so on and so forth. So those are, you know, sort of some of the things.
I think you also have to- you know, hopefully, you’re going to be passionate about it. It’s not just a job, but it’s something that you really bring your A-game and maximum energy to, because if you- if you’re not going to do it, I think it’s time to check out. I checked out as a trial lawyer because I was kind of losing the passion for it.
I wanted to do other things, and I just realized that you know, hey- I shouldn’t be doing this if I’m not all-in. And so, I I walked away, to the surprise of a lot of people in my firm who knew me. And in terms of what I had promised- you know, nobody is successful straight through. Everybody has disappointments.
I spent seven years of my life creating and designing and implementing and managing Clearspire. We were in The Economist several times; the Wall Street Journal thought we were great. You know, everybody around the world was fascinated by what we were doing. They were very inspired. I think it was probably my greatest intellectual success in my career as a lawyer, but unfortunately, in seven years, I didn’t draw any money.
I lost two million dollars of my own money. And more than that, I was just supremely frustrated by the fact that something that I remain convinced- as do others, was really an inspired idea and implementation, was not the success that it could have been.
And in fact, I was just persuaded to write the Clearspire story, which has recently been published in a book in Germany and I’m going to be coming out with it just next week, Pamela. So I hope you’ll read it.
Pamela: Oh boy!
Mark: A real “no holds bar” story not only of, you know, sort of what Clearspire was and how it was, you know, novel and ahead of its time- but the very human story of what it really means to be an entrepreneur, what innovation really is about and dare I say, about unfinished business.
You know, as a kid, I was a pretty serious competitive athlete. As a trial lawyer, I don’t compete against other people. I compete against myself, and it was just very, very frustrating. And I’m kind of happy to, you know, sort of extend the sports metaphor that I’m going to be getting a second turn at bat with the Clearspire model. So stay tuned.
Pamela: Wonderful. It’s going to be in a book? It’s called The Clearspire Story?
Mark: Yeah. Well actually, it is in a book on- written by a very famous German scholar called Marcus Hartung at Viserys Law School in Germany. And Marcus and some professional colleagues have written a book on the impact of technology on legal services, and it’s a chapter in the book- it’s- I think one of the two or three English chapters- most of them are in German- and I, you know, reserve the right to republish it as I saw fit, so it’s going to be coming out in my LegalMosaic blog next week, in fact.
Pamela: Awesome! Oh, wonderful. Okay, that’s great! So, you know, one of the things that as you tell- as you speak about Clearspire- and as walking away from your successful career or practice as a trial lawyer, is I hear that you were willing- that you’ve been willing to take risks.
Pamela: And you’ve been willing to be curious and to think outside the box in order to create these different chapters in your career.
Mark: Right. You know, I don’t think that life- well maybe when I was a kid, there was a little bit of a life plan put forward to me and, you know- but I was- I just thought to myself, you know, I like doing things a little bit differently. I’m sort of traditional with an edge. I have respect for tradition. I have respect for history, but I’m also very inquisitive. I like to, you know, sort of architect things.
And so I- I guess when I first became a lawyer, I felt that this was a bit of a booby prize because, you know, here I was given certain rules and how to operate in a certain environment. That environment wasn’t exactly the type of environment that I particularly liked. And so, you know, first chance I got- I started saying, “Okay, well, I’m not going to change an industry perhaps, but I’ve got to find another way to, you know, sort of express myself.”
And I was fortunate enough to be able to do it. But- you know, if you take risks, obviously- you know, you only hear about the pioneers that made it to the promised land. Not to the ones that- about the ones, particularly, that perished on the journey.
And so- that’s why, you know, a lot of times when I hear innovation being bandied about- and law is probably the least innovative- you know, most precedent, a kind of obsessed industry I can think of, I find it- you know, almost- it almost makes me giggle, you know, to think of these Innovation Awards. I don’t know how much real innovation there is in our industry.
Certainly, some clever people are borrowing from other industries. They are adapting technology, you know, in certain ways and applying it to the law. But real innovation, I think, is- you know, it’s kind of- let’s face it. I think Steve Jobs is an innovator. You know, people like that. But there are not that many, and that’s okay.
You know, I think it’s just- let’s just say that it’s great when people are curious. It’s great when people, you know, sort of look at challenges or problems or what they perceive to be problems and say, “Can I do this differently?” I think that’s great and I think, certainly, our profession- our industry has some wicked problems that need to be addressed. And what excites me is I think that the legal field is getting a much-needed reboot.
Pamela: That’s good to hear. So what would you say- I appreciate your story about Clearspire. What would you say to some lawyers out there who might be feeling a little discouraged or feeling like they they’re kind of lost and- they’re a lawyer- they don’t know, you know, they’re stuck, or they’ve lost their enthusiasm for practicing law? What would you say to those people?
Mark: Well, I would say number one, particularly to the younger ones who are laboring under a lot of education debt, I feel for you because I think it’s just- that’s one of the wicked problems frankly, Pamela, that I think has to be solved. And they’re tools to solve it and- but back to your very good question.
I think the first thing I would say is, if you are not passionate about what you are doing- if you are bored, then I think you really should start thinking in terms of, “Okay. Let me start reading up on what’s going on in the marketplace. Let me understand it a little bit better,” because I think that knowledge is power and as Joe Walsh once wrote- before he sold himself out and went to the Eagles- he said early in his career he did a song called Garden Gate where he says, “The captain’s in the chart room, navigating by the stars.
We don’t know where we’re going because we don’t know where we are.” So if you don’t know where you are, it’s gonna be very hard to plot your next move. Or it’s not going to be very productive.
So I would say the first thing I would tell those lawyers are- you know, invest a little time and energy to sort of try to figure out what’s going on in the marketplace.
And then I would say, you know, look beyond the normal and, you know, sort of immediate knee-jerk reaction, “I don’t like this firm. I’m gonna go to another firm.” Or “I’ll look for an in-house job.” I mean, I think that there are a lot of new possibilities out there, but people have to be aware of what they are, where they are, and equally importantly- or maybe most importantly- what skills are going to be required to be able to function and take advantage of those opportunities? ‘cuz, you know, my dad- another thing my dad used to say is, you know, “In all periods of a significant change, a lot of people get lost. But they are always going to be people who will actually, you know, thrive in those circumstances and create new opportunities for other people.”
Pamela: That’s very good. Now, with all of this in your entire career and LegalMosaic and Clearspire, what is the legacy- and being a great dad and a speaker- what is the legacy that you want to leave for the legal community?
Mark: Wow. Well, legacy is a big word. I don’t know that I’m necessarily going to have a legacy but if you were to ask me maybe- if I may, put it a slightly different way and say, “So how would you like people to remember you?”
First and foremost, I would like people to say, “He’s a good guy,” even if I didn’t agree with them- you know, I think he was honorable and- you know, he called it as he saw it. And as he got older, he actually became much more tolerant of other points of view and wasn’t just so quick to say, ‘Okay, you know- no, that’s not it.’”
I guess also I’d like in some small way, Pamela- I’m not going to cure cancer, but I find it immensely gratifying- you know, when I made a lot of money- a lot of money as a practicing lawyer, I loved the craft. I loved trying cases, but I was never passionate about the profession. Now, years later, I make a fraction of what I used to make, but I have a lot more satisfaction, and curiously, I actually care a lot about the profession, which has kind of surprised me.
And so, I guess I would like to- in some small ways, you know, continue to contribute either one-on-one or with groups where people will, you know, write to me from around the world and say, “Hey. You know, I read this- you know, life went on.” Or, you know, “I was moved by that.” That’s very meaningful. And so I would say it’s kind of propelling me to do more of it because I like it and it makes me feel good to make other people feel as if they’re, in some incremental way, getting something out of what I’m doing.
Pamela: That’s really great. The word that just rang out to me is “meaningful.” That, you know, that makes your heart happy to be meaningful- to provide something meaningful that means something to others and to the world.
Mark: Yes. And sometimes, by the way- it doesn’t, you know- it doesn’t have to be any profound or, you know, analytical kind of thing. It can be something as simple as making someone on the street smile. You know, as I get older, I find that what’s really meaningful to me is not particularly awards. I mean, everybody likes to get a trophy, for sure.
But it’s just, you know, when strangers or people I don’t know well will just say, “You made my day.” That- you know, that’s meaningful, and you hope that, you know, over a period of time- you know, in your professional life- you know, you do little things that, you know, people later say is meaningful. That’s- you know, that’s kind of how I keep score these days.
Pamela: That’s wonderful. I have a thing. I have a couple of dogs, and I live near the ocean- not on the ocean, by the way- but I live near the ocean, where I can go to the beach in the morning and walk my dogs. And I’ll do this quirky thing sometimes and that I’ll just smile and I just walk down the beach, and I smile and then if I have to stop in the store, I smile, and it’s so amazing how people light up- you know, if you just smile. Because so many people aren’t smiling.
Mark: Or also, you know, just make eye contact with people.
Pamela: Yes, yes.
Mark: I find that when I’m, you know, in large cities anywhere in the world, I’ll walk down the street- I’ll make eye contact with people- all different kinds of people. Sometimes I will smile. It’s just amazing what a difference that makes. And by the way, I think that- you know, relating this to lawyers and I know, you know, you deal with a lot of lawyers- I used to say to people who worked in my firms- um you know, “Hey, don’t check your humanity at the door when you come to work every day.”
And I think that’s, you know, that’s part of it. I mean, I think it’s really important for lawyers particularly- because you know, as a profession, we have a terrible track record of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, suicide, depression, you name it. All the not-so-good stuff. And, you know, I’m not saying that a smile or a little levity is going to prevent someone from that, but it certainly isn’t going to drive them that way any faster.
Pamela: Right, that’s great. So our final Lawyer or the Week question, which we ask everyone is: name one thing you do to relieve your stress levels?
Mark: Well, I’ll give you two. One is every day, I try to take a long walk. I don’t carry my iPhone. I don’t have even music plugged in. I just try to look at, you know, trees and in the warm weather, flowers and things- and just kind of re-acclimate myself to the world.
I find that that’s very soothing. And then another thing that I do from time to time is- my wife calls it my rock and roll dungeon- I like to, you know, blow off a little steam. I was a disc jockey for very- for many, many years. I like to go on YouTube and, you know, sort of play different music really loud.
Pamela: Oh wow! I love that. And I’m just gonna have to add with that beautiful piece of art in the back, you certainly have some passion for art, to have that piece of art.
Mark: Well, I’m a very visual guy. And, you know, if I hadn’t had to be a doctor or a lawyer- probably, I would do what one of my daughters does- and, you know, be a writer- and a Hollywood scriptwriter. You know, I’m a very visual guy. And yeah- I find art is wonderful and it’s actually very soothing.
I have a lot of art all through our house, and sometimes I’ll do that too, just to let off some steam.
Pamela: Wonderful. Well, this has been just such a great interview! I’ve enjoyed speaking with you and hearing, you know, the person behind the articles. I’m a little, like star-struck, I guess.
Mark: Aww, please. Tell that to my wife, please.
Pamela: But thank you so much for being our Lawyer of the Week.
Links for Mark
I Help Focused & Successful Lawyers
►Achieve Peak Performance
►Soar to the Next Level
►& Create a Legacy
200 Peachtree Street Ste. 103, Atlanta, GA 30303
Cove Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32224