Wanted: A Disobedient Law Firm

On March 24, Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn) reminded us that the deadline is fast approaching to apply for the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award. Just the name of the award alone caught my attention. In a world of conformity, it was startling to see an award for nonconformity.

So what’s the rationale for it? Here’s what Hoffman had to say:

Progress comes from innovation, and innovation happens when inventors, entrepreneurs, activists, organizers, and others refuse to accept the status quo. Instead, they pursue new paths and new solutions – and sometimes bend or even break the rules in the process.

To be clear, this award is not intended to reward lunatic risk-taking. Rather, they are looking for something far more special, as Joi Ito (Director, MIT Media Lab) makes clear:

This prize is a one-time experiment that, if successful, we will consider repeating in the future. It will go to a person or group engaged in what we believe is excellent disobedience for the benefit of society. The disobedience that we would like to call out is the kind that seeks to change society in a positive way, and is consistent with a set of key principles. The principles include non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The disobedience can be in — but is not limited to — the fields of scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate.

This notion of a one-time experiment is entirely in keeping with the ethos of the Media Lab. This is clear from the Hoffman’s description of the Media Lab:

It’s an institution that prioritizes methodical but untethered experimentation, where researchers with widely varying areas of expertise are encouraged to collaborate and improvise in ways that become not just multi-disciplinary but antidisciplinary – disobedient.

What a concept: “an institution that prioritizes methodical but untethered experimentation.” Does that sound like a law firm near you?

So here’s the question for you. Is there anything you are working on or your firm is working that, in its own context, might be an example of creative rule bending (or breaking) for a greater purpose? If Hoffman is correct that such behavior drives innovation, then I hope your answer is yes. On the other hand, if you and your colleagues are squarely in the conformity camp, you need not apply for the award. Worse still, you may be missing the amazing opportunities that result from the curiosity, experimentation, and intelligent risk-taking typical of the ethically disobedient. One thing is for sure — you are unlikely to innovate.

I’ll be very surprised if a law firm or even a single lawyer wins the award. But wouldn’t it be nice if such a thing really were more likely?


[Photo Credit: Leon Riskin]