Opinion

Alison Frankel

Biggest idea at Aspen Ideas Fest: Don’t run from risk. Grab it.

By Alison Frankel
June 27, 2013

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that a law firm in possession of a strong client base must be in want of pretty much nothing. (Apologies to Jane Austen.) As a species, lawyers are risk-averse. The practice, after all, is paved in precedent and bad things can happen to you and your clients if you veer off-road.

Here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, however, risk is not a four-letter word. I attended four panels Thursday, on topics ranging from the future of the Republican Party to financing the energy projects of the future. The single theme that ran through all of them is that opportunity grows out of crisis, and the winners of the next decade will be the leaders who aren’t afraid of new ideas.

That might sound intangible, but there are practical implications for lawyers and law firms. In a breakfast session, for instance, U.S. Trust President Keith Banks, whose firm manages about $200 billion in assets for ultrawealthy people, predicted an imminent boom in mergers and acquisitions. Companies are under pressure from shareholders and directors to expand their revenues, he told me after the session, and can’t grow fast enough organically. With almost $1.45 trillion sitting in corporate treasuries, he said, bottom lines are strong, but with growth in the United States stuck at about 3 percent, top lines are still anemic. So in Banks’s view, companies are going to turn to expansion through acquisition. (Banks is generally bullish on equities and on the private sector broadly; he told the audience that he’s not worried about quantitative easing because he thinks the Federal Reserve will slowly decelerate to a phase he called quantitative maintenance.) A significant uptick in M&A means more work for law firms. If you’ve already got an M&A practice, make sure clients know about it. If you don’t, perhaps this is the time to start thinking about laterals.

In the energy business, there has perhaps never been a richer opportunity for private-sector start-ups and the investors who fund them, according to panelists Kristina Johnson (a former Obama undersecretary of energy who specializes in hydroelectricity), James Rogers (CEO of Duke Energy), Christopher Hyzy (of U.S. Trust) and moderator Robert Gruendel, head of the energy practice at DLA Piper. Ingenuity comes from the private sector, emphasized Rogers, a former big-firm lawyer whose abundant business success speaks to the benefits of risk-taking. Hyzy predicted that private equity funds are going to turn to the energy sector because they’ve seen the potential for technologies that revolutionize the business. A trillion dollars of investment, Johnson said, would permit the United States to meet its energy goals (even though she had to personally guarantee some of the money her start-up borrowed from a local bank for a small hydroelectric project). It’s difficult to attract investors for utility-scale projects, the panel conceded, but old-school engineering and industrial companies that will design and construct the infrastructure for shale oil and natural gas are good bets. And venture capital is going to be chasing ideas like batteries to store energy on a scale we can’t even yet imagine. DLA partner Gruendel mentioned the role he’s already playing as a matchmaker between capital and projects. Surely there’s opportunity for other lawyers and firms to follow his lead.

I’ll admit that there was no legal business angle to the session on the future of the GOP, featuring former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, former congressman Vin Weber, former Bush policy adviser Michael Gerson, and GOP strategist-in-chief Karl Rove, but there was a lot of talk about risk and opportunity. Gerson and Weber said the Republican Party has to articulate a policy rationale for the party, embracing the idea of social mobility in a way that it doesn’t right now seem to do. Rand Paul’s brand of libertarianism is a threat, said Gerson and Rove, not least because Paul himself – unlike his father – is a formidable politician. (The audience laughed when Gerson said that Rand Paul is libertarianism without looniness.) Both Rove and Chao seemed to be unwilling to give much ground on the bedrock Republican principles of low taxes and small government, but Gerson had some creative ideas for redefining the party and widening its voter base, such as opposing the concentration of power in big banks and opposing corporate tax breaks. (Rove agreed with him on that point.)

An audience member who directs a Hillary Clinton political action committee asked the panelists whom they’d like to see as the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. None would name their preferred candidate, but between them, they mentioned a lot of names, most of them (except for Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio) governors: Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Jeb Bush. Rove said he’d like to see fewer debates, which he said empower unelectable fringe candidates and damage the eventual nominee.

One of the amazing things about the Aspen Ideas Festival is that the crowd is full of bold-faced names. At lunch, for instance, I almost overturned my very full plate on Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson, and shared a table for part of the breakfast session with Don Baer, the CEO of Burston- Marsteller. As it happened, the legendary political columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post was sitting right behind me at the GOP panel. Afterward, I asked what he thought. Dionne said the panelists had skirted an audience member’s question about the Tea Party and its influence on the GOP and didn’t effectively address the very hard issue of economic inequality. He also said that he believes Rand Paul and libertarianism are a real challenge for the Republicans, at least in the short term. In the long run, he said, the party will have to find a balance between conservatism and libertarianism.

AOL founder Steve Case underlined my perceived theme of the day in a panel called “Be Fearless: How Big Ideas, Experimentation and Failing Forward Can Save the World.” The title was a bit grandiose for my taste, but the message delivered by Case and his wife Jean, who runs the Case Foundation with him, is a really important one for law firms. There are two kinds of businesses in the world, Case said: attackers and defenders. Attackers are disrupters of the status quo. They have big, transformative ideas. Defenders resist change and risk. They move slowly and incrementally. Most start-ups are attackers, Case said; established companies tend to be defenders, “trying to protect what they’ve got.” But the businesses that will continue to succeed, he said, are those that “manage what’s there with an eye toward what’s coming.” (As examples, he cited Google and Wayne Gretzky.)

“There’s enormous opportunity for entrepreneurship,” Case said. “Most of the incumbents are going to play defense. That creates opportunity for entrepreneurs to play offense.”

Case was speaking specifically about companies that figure out how to use the Internet to improve health, education and transportation over the next 25 years, in what he called the second Internet revolution. But he could have been talking about law firms as well. Will firms that stick to their old ways still be leaders in 25 years? Not if the folks with big ideas in Aspen are right.

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