I am a huge believer in a simple tenet: you never no where life takes and where the next opportunity may come from. The three attorneys in my office each personify this concept in their own way. More than in any other office I have ever been associated, the two named partners in my firm, Ken Cutler and Andrew Rader, seem to understand and embrace being thought leaders. They are involved in so many different community organizations and are regularly sharing their thoughts, wisdom and advice with these groups. The amount of business the firm generates simply by being out and a part of our wonderful community, as opposed to traditional forms of advertising, is beyond impressive. Recently, I have rediscovered one of my first loves: writing. I have had a few thought pieces picked up and published by The Daily Business Review and our local newspaper, the Sun Sentinel. Since starting this, in the last few months alone, I have been fortunate to have had such amazingly complimentary feedback from colleagues and potential referral sources, who are seemingly viewing me with a certain level of authority and credibility as a result of this new aspect of my practice. By putting myself out there, stating a few opinions and sharing some thoughts, I have gotten others thinking, not just about the topic I wrote about, but about my firm and me individually. The phone is ringing and our business is certainly picking up steam.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Weitzner. Howard has spent the majority of his legal carrier devoted to representing the injured victims of negligence. Over the last 13 years, his zealous pursuit of justice for the injured has earned him the distinction of being named to the Super Lawyers Top Attorneys in Florida-Rising Stars list from 2014–2019. Mr. Weitzner has represented thousands of injured South Florida community members and recovered millions of dollars for them following car accidents, trucking accidents, premises liability accidents (slip/trip and fall), medical malpractice and wrongful deaths. Mr. Weitzner lives in Parkland, Florida, with his wife and their two sons. The family is involved in numerous local organizations. Mr. Weitzner was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, and moved to Coral Springs, Florida with his family at the age of nine, where he was raised until college. He is a graduate of the University of Florida, with a Bachelors of Science in Public Relations, and obtained his law degree from the University of Miami.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Sure. I am a personal injury attorney, husband and father of two amazing boys. I sort of fell into the practice of personal injury litigation. As my father-in-law, whom I wanted to emulate, practiced as a trial lawyer for 30 plus years. As a third-year law student, I was fortunate enough to see him in action. After a few days in the courtroom, I was hooked. I knew then and there that this was going to be what I did for the rest of my life.
As rewarding as my practice is, I get just as much if not more out of my work coaching little league teams in our hometown of Parkland, Florida. Of course, the time I spend with my own children, watching the grow as people, athletes and teammates, is beyond words. The stories we have and the laughs and tears we share will fill our hearts and minds for years to come. But the relationships I have built with other children and their parents on the baseball fields and basketball courts have been equally fulfilling. Seeing these kids develop and knowing that I helped give them positive experiences and put a smile on their faces is among the accomplishments of which I am most proud.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
Being considered a thought leader is nothing that has ever been bestowed upon me and certainly not an appointed title. Thought leadership, in my mind, is a subcategory of leadership by example. No matter what role I have ever been, I have never been afraid to have a thought and express it. I also practice and teach that you need to be responsible and accountable for yourself and for your team. Own your mistakes and share your successes. This is true for me in all aspect of my life: professionally, in my practice of law, coaching little league teams and everywhere else. For whatever reason, as I act this way in life, others seem to follow suit.
While working at one law firm, though merely an associate with no supervisory title or duties, peers, even more seasoned attorneys, would regularly solicit my advice on everything from the handling of cases to personal matters. They would often look to me to express any concerns we may have had to our managing attorney in the office. I always found him to very level-headed and approachable, and there was certainly no fear factor, but the others in the office just seemed to feel that the thoughts would come better from me. They seemed to have a certain level of confidence in my opinion and how I chose to express it. It was, of course, flattering, and something that I was happy to take on.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The wonderful thing about the practice of personal injury law and litigation are that there are some many interesting people and stories that you encounter. There really are too many to count. That is what keeps me coming back for more every day.
One story I can think of that had has had a terrific impact upon me professionally was when my family and suffered a flood in our house. We lost just about everything and were completely uprooted. We retained an adjuster and an attorney and went through the handling of claim.
Going through that process taught me a great deal about my clients and how to better serve them. No matter how in tune you think you may be to those you represent or work for, unless and until you have gone through it yourself, you cannot possibly understand their plight. Being a client for the first time, I felt the frustration of knowing that certain things were beyond my control. I did not like the idea of needing someone else to be my mouthpiece. I learned so much about how to properly communicate with my clients, which includes the art of listening. It was a truly unfortunate and difficult experience, but I am thankfully able to pull that lesson from it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I started doing insurance defense work, for a little more than a year out of law school. My assistant was out on medical leave, and I took it upon myself to do my own typing, without asking the managing partner to find me a temporary replacement assistant. I assumed it was a “next man up” sort of mentality. No task was “beneath me,” and I was happy to quietly pick up the slack and do whatever was necessary to get the job done. Great thought, right?
Wrong. After a few weeks, the managing partner called me into his office and went nuts. He told me that I was costing him money, because no matter how fast I thought I could type, my assistant could do it faster and I would be freed up to handle other tasks. I was called out on the carpet for doing extra work! I was shocked and tried to justify why I took this upon myself. Looking to now save my job, I started dictating notes again later that week and my new assistant was far better at typing than I was. My productivity soared.
What I learned from that one incident is that no man is island and we are all part of a team. Each person plays an important role on that team. Since then, I have never been afraid to delegate or to ask for help.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
A thought leader is one who can distance himself from the task at hand and see the whole chess board. Thought leaders see different angles and offer insight, guidance and perspective. Where a typical leader may rally the troops to charge through a wall, a thought leader will offer guidance as to what will happen once we get through that wall, versus what will happen if we stay we where are, go around the wall or dig under it. Conventional leadership is about motivation and following. Thought leadership is more about getting the others around you to think, to understand the benefits and costs of certain actions or inactions and having them buy into the approach that you have suggested.
Influencer is a more recently created term and, with the popularity of social media influencers, raises some concerns for me. I tend to think of an influencer as focusing on trends, buzz words and creating things in their own image. There is a feeling of a cookie cutter culture and blind following as to what the cool new method may be. Leadership comes with responsibility, accountability and authority. Leadership can identify traits on others and capitalizing upon them. Leadership can mold their approach to the team they are working with. Influencers seek the team to adapt to them.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
Being a thought leader, you develop a vested interest in the success of your company and those around you. Your work stops becoming a job. I could sit at my desk and handle my cases, one by one, punch the clock and go home. Or, I could handle my caseload and think about trends in the industry I am seeing, identify successful methods employed by colleagues and competitors and learn from our mistakes. I could stick with what has worked for me in the past or I could look to other industries, determine successful practices there and try to apply them to my work.
Being a thought leader, choosing to look around the world outside of the four walls of my office, and sharing my ideas, clearly benefits my personal practice of law and those around me. I spend a good deal of time reading about the law, but also about things wholly unrelated to law. For instance, last year, I read “Tribe of Mentors” by Tim Ferriss. I found it to be tremendous and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about true thought leaders. The few dollars I spent on the book, and the time I invested in reading it, have proven to be invaluable.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
Absolutely. I am a huge believer in a simple tenet: you never no where life takes and where the next opportunity may come from. The three attorneys in my office each personify this concept in their own way. More than in any other office I have ever been associated, the two named partners in my firm, Ken Cutler and Andrew Rader, seem to understand and embrace being thought leaders. They are involved in so many different community organizations and are regularly sharing their thoughts, wisdom and advice with these groups. The amount of business the firm generates simply by being out and a part of our wonderful community, as opposed to traditional forms of advertising, is beyond impressive.
Recently, I have rediscovered one of my first loves: writing. I have had a few thought pieces picked up and published by The Daily Business Review and our local newspaper, the Sun Sentinel. Since starting this, in the last few months alone, I have been fortunate to have had such amazingly complimentary feedback from colleagues and potential referral sources, who are seemingly viewing me with a certain level of authority and credibility as a result of this new aspect of my practice. By putting myself out there, stating a few opinions and sharing some thoughts, I have gotten others thinking, not just about the topic I wrote about, but about my firm and me individually. The phone is ringing and our business is certainly picking up steam.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
1. Step outside of your comfort zone
I like to say that our experiences make us who we are. New experiences make new people. We can learn an unbelievable amount by trying something new, experimenting and leaving the comfort of your “home.” The focus of my legal practice is personal injury, but working on some commercial litigation matters has taught me a great deal about the importance of document drafting and regular communication with clients. Other seemingly random experiences, attending a webinar in a wholly unrelated field, a cup of coffee with a financial planner, even a yoga class, have given me something that I can take away and apply to my everyday work and life.
2. Surround yourself with thinkers
I work in a very small and intimate law firm of just three attorneys. We also have 2 marketing professionals on our staff, an independent public relations firm we recently began working with and a business coach who has been with us for years. Each of these individuals brings something different to our team. Most importantly, each of these professionals challenges me to think from a different point of view. Far from being “yes men,” they bring ideas and questions into the conversation, requiring careful thought, analysis and ultimately action. I may not have all of the answers, a fact I readily understand. But working with such a diverse team, I have learned that there are many questions that I did not even know to ask.
3. Read, Write, Repeat
There are times in my life when I have revisited certain pieces of literature, reading the same book probably a dozen or more times. And each time I have read it, I got something different out of it, because I was at a different point in my life, with different external forces guiding me to what was important. Similarly, if I find any book, article or even a quote that impacts me, I’ll return to it here and there and see if I can get anything new from it.
It works with writing too. I have a folder of essays from college, legal memoranda from my practice and random thoughts. Coming back to some of these pieces, years down the line, much of what I said then holds up today. However, there is an equal amount that I would write much differently today. The act of sitting down and editing a piece written long ago, or even rewriting it, generates a tremendous amount of thought and insight.
Listening is probably the single most important aspect of effective communication, and something that I find most people, myself included, can incredibly poor at doing. You must listen to what people around you feel is important. If your thoughts are well-developed and intelligent, but the audience that hears them is focused on something completely different, then they lose all impact. Just because you see something as being important does not mean that your team does as well. Listen first. What are they talking about? What are they working on? Then step back, analyze, think, think again and then speak. Listening and honing your thoughts will make your audience feel empowered and that you understand them. This will lend a level of credibility to your thoughts.
Our firm is thankfully growing. Just the other day, we were discussing some future steps that we will be taking. Your could immediately see that some of our staff was not able to process that information, because they are overwhelmed with their current workload. We changed the topic of conversation on the fly and tackled some of there more pressing concerns, identifying potential causes and solutions for the backlog of work on their desks today, rather than talking about where the firm hopes to be tomorrow.
5. Share what you’ve learned
This concept seems like a give-in, but it is often taken for granted. If you’ve learned something that you feel is important, something that you think might benefit another, share it. We tend to keep the best ideas to ourselves, thinking of them as the secret sauce or the special ingredient. By sharing your magical though with another, you’ve just doubled its effectiveness. By sharing it an open forum, its power grows exponentially. Then, and only then, do you truly become a thought leader.
One of my mentors recently invited me to his firm, after hours, to see how he is running his practice these days. In just a few short hours, I took away at least six different things that I could immediately use on cases that I am currently handling. The following morning, I immediately sat down with the two named partners in my firm, shared with them what I learned and developed action plans to implement some of those strategies into our practice.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
Well, I mentioned Tim Ferriss above. He, and the people he interviewed in the book and on his podcast are usually terrific examples of thought leaders. I often look to comedians for insight. These professionals often have a different way to look at everything around us and make us think. The late-night talk show hosts in particular are some of the greatest thought leaders around. Watch David Letterman’s interviews on Netflix. He goes so far inside his interview subjects, and while listening, is not afraid to be questioned himself. He and his guests share so willingly and so openly. Honesty and candor certainly have a place in the professional world. We would all benefit from seeing more it.
I cannot remember being as moved as when I watch John Stewart testify in front of Congress earlier this year. The bravery, passion and dedication he showed was rivaled only by those first responders on whose behalf he spoke. He saw an issue that spoke to him, that required thought and leadership and he took it on with full force.
What these comedians can teach us is that no question should be out of bounds. Hold those in power accountable. Don’t take yourself too seriously. And if it is something you believe in, from a new coffee machine in the office to bettering employee benefit programs or gun control, go ahead and speak your mind and fight for what you believe in.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I tend to agree with that. I am not a big fan of labels to begin with. I am a big subscriber to the book of commons sense. Whether in the office, mentoring interns or dealing with boys at home, I do not consider myself a thought leader. Leadership connotes this sense of seeking a following. In other words, labeling someone a “thought leader,” while empowering that individual, may have the opposite effect on others closely associated with him. There can be a general culture of simply looking to the leader for productive thoughts and ideas, de-stimulating the remainder of the team, potentially losing equally important thoughts from other sources and curtailing creativity. Whether leading through thought, action or example, the fact of the matter is we must all carve our own paths. No matter what our position or role within a project or organization, we are all capable of having insightful and meaningful thoughts.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano once gave a terrifically moving speech, while he was dying from cancer, which I’ll paraphrase here. He said that each day you should try to laugh, think and cry. Too often, I have encountered leaders who feel the need to be stoic faces of their organizations. The only time they emote it is done with negativity: screaming at a low-level associate, berating an opposing counsel, admonishing a secretary. Fear does not motivate your team.
Be appropriately emotional. Let those around see and feel that you care and feel. Think about everything before you react and respond. Laugh at yourself, laugh off troublesome dilemmas, laugh with your team. Cry when you have a truly momentous success together or a truly valued team member leaves you. Emotions are real. They are outlets. They truly create unity with your team and, when you feel, you want to come back the next day, eliminating burnout.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That’s really an excellent question. As a father of two young boys in Parkland, Florida, it would certainly be easy and appropriate to discuss gun control. Despite the heroic efforts and leadership of those amazing students and the affected families, and some of our local elected officials, very little has truly changed in our society. Mass shootings are becoming so commonplace, and yet we are still carrying on debates and not addressing the true problems.
Staying away from the politics for a minute, I would also focus on destigmatizing mental health and encourage counseling for professionals. Substance abuse, suicide and early burn out are becoming too prevalent among professionals, particularly younger ones, in my community. Early intervention, making it okay to talk about your problems or thoughts, breaking down those barriers and discussing effective coping mechanisms, can benefit many lives, personally and professionally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Being an avid reader, a history buff and a huge fan of popular music, there are too many to list. One quote that I always come back to is from Bob Dylan. “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Never stop trying new things. Make yourself open to new possibilities. In my mind, growth is the meaning of life.
I also believe in the Jewish concept of b’shert, which means meant to be. The universe tends to unfold itself as it should. Whatever happens, good, bad or indifferent, work to find purpose and meaning within it. There is a reason you are facing this task ahead of you. Once you determine what that reason is, you can power through it and truly benefit from the experience.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
That’s a fun question. I mentioned John Stewart a little earlier. Being a Jersey boy and living comedy, he’d certainly be on that list. I always find Mark Cuban to be fascinating and I’d love to see what makes him tick. Another person who has truly evolved from a professional into so much more as a thought leader is George Clooney. He has always been someone that I have looked toward with admiration. I know he does the Nespresso commercials, so maybe a cup of coffee with him could be arranged!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn, where I regular post articles published in a variety of print and online media platforms.
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.