An eerie parallel for my former clients and colleagues

24Aug09

Catching up on some neglected categories in my RSS reader last night I came across this August 17 Techdirt post by Michael Masnick.  It’s written about the newspaper industry, but it immediately brought to mind widespread behaviors and attitudes I observed in my former domain, law firms.  (I suspect it would be equally applicable to many more categories, too, but I’ll only claim knowledge of the law firm world.)

I encourage my former clients and colleagues to read the post, shown below in its entirety, ignoring the literal example of online content, but otherwise substituting “law firm” wherever you see “newspaper.”

There’s this concept out there in the newspaper world, pushed by Alan Mutter more than any other, that the “original sin” of the newspaper industry was failing to charge when they put their content online. This is simply wrong. Many did try to charge, and they failed, because no one paid. However, Steve Buttry has a post making a much better point. The real “original sin” by newspapers wasn’t failing to charge, but failing to innovate. Basically, the entire competitive landscape and the entire marketplace they were used to changed. Entirely. And nearly all of them seemed to think that they could get by doing the same basic thing they had always done.

These days, they’re blaming everyone else for their problems: bloggers, readers, Craigslist, Google, some unknown “aggregators.” But the simple fact is that these newspapers were incredibly fearful of innovating themselves, and basically let all those other sites online do the innovation for them. And now they’re upset that the traffic goes to the innovators? At every turn in the game they were free to innovate themselves. They didn’t. To then step up late in the game and look for legal and regulatory support to hold back those who did innovate seems inherently ridiculous.

When the bottom fell out of the legal service demand market, many law firms acted as if they could get by doing the same basic things they had always done.  They cut costs and evinced the posture that they could ride out the crisis, with the implied return to normalcy (read: business as usual) at some point.

Many have their “blame lists,” too.  They include clients’ budget cutbacks, rising associate salaries, inordinate rainmaker power/mobility, escalating overhead, etc.  Peel the onion, though, and a closer, honest look reveals an almost complete lack of innovation.  Law firms have affirmatively resisted change throughout their histories.  Even allowing for the cultural effects of the precedent-oriented nature of the law itself, this is still a woeful record of intractability.

It’s not too late, my friends, to accept that the game as you knew it for X decades is over, never to return, and try to leap ahead on the innovation front.  Think boldly:  What will a law firm have to look like to satisfy the needs of its entire ecosystem of stakeholders, i.e., lawyers/staff and their families, clients, suppliers, and their surrounding communities?

As always, I welcome fresh thinking, amplification, disagreement, brickbats — whatever you think.

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