Law 2.0, The Future of Law Firms and The End of Competition: Will Rearranging the Deck Chairs be Sufficient?

Just last week the largish( 350) law firm where I once worked chose a new CEO. Or more accurately, a new CEP (Chief Executive Partner). And, of course he was interviewed by the local press. His comments were truly startling. And here I paraphrase: In describing his role he boldly committed himself and the firm to the highest standards of client service. And to achieve these lofty client service goals he also committed himself and the firm to finding and retaining the best talent available.

Of course this ship is unsinkable. But there's a report from the bridge of some sort of iceberg ahead. And that iceberg is Enterprise 2.0 or Web 2.0 or Law 2.0.

What does superb client service mean in the world of Law 2.0? You pay me by the hour to answer certain questions for you. And if I am better than my competitors I get you your answers faster? How does this definition of service survive in a world where solving problems is an iterative process and the boundary between client and lawyer is fuzzy at best. Where sharing and collaboration are not a novelty - they are the accepted norm of business. If we are all connected then why do lawyer's get to be labelled as experts?

But wait there's more. In the brave new world of wikis and mashups not only will the lawyer's work product be redefined- the structure of the organization to produce that new work product must be radically altered. In his brilliant piece in the Financial Times, Lost or Hurt at Sea ? Phew! Victor Mallett drew a powerful distinction between the rules of mountain climbing and the rules of sailing.

Get hurt or injured on a mountain?

Its very likely that you will be left to fend for yourself as other mountain climbers pursue their quest for Everest. By contrast, there is a rich tradition in ocean sailboat racing that if a competitor is lost or injured others immediately put aside their individual desires to help their fellow sailor. Mallett describes a rescue during an around the world race where a sailor turned back into the face of a vicious ocean storm to save a competitor from certain death.

I think I can say without too much controversy that to survive in most law firms you darn well better be a mountain climber. Oh sure there may be an organizational chart and a formal genuflection to teams. But the informal rules of survival are written with words like self interest, watch your back, you help me and maybe I'll help you, zero sum game, high achiever, and rainmaker jerk.

How will law firms driven by static notions of expertise and a mountain climber notion of achievement fare in the new world order? I can't say for sure. But with the size of the icebergs ahead I suspect that being a mountain climber could mean being irrelevant.


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