Innovation or irrelevancy? It’s your choice

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When Bruce Springsteen sang that glory days will pass you by, he was talking about the sorry middle-age of those who peaked in high school.

But according to Bruce MacEwen, the same goes for lawyers who rode the wave to success in the late part of the last century and the early years of this one – they’re coming to understand they’ll never return to “the glory days of 2006 or thereabouts.”

As part of the research phase of its Legal Futures Initiative, the CBA asked MacEwen, president of U.S. legal consulting firm Adam Smith, Esq., to sum up where the legal profession finds itself south of the border.

He describes a bleak job market – the Bureau of Labour Statistics forecasts 20,000 new jobs a year for each of the next 10 years, while ABA-accredited law schools are graduating nearly 45,000 JDs a year, leaving a cumulative surplus of 250,000 over that period. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of current grads are unemployed or working in marginal jobs, he says.

MacEwen rounds up the usual suspects to explain the gloomy legal marketplace: globalization; technology; increasing regulatory complexity; economic downturn; and market-empowered clients.

The legal profession has been hit by change before, he says, but in those cases, the change – FedEx, email, the internet – affected how things were done, not what lawyers actually do. That’s no longer the case. Client empowerment and the increasing prominence of non-legal professionals willing to take on legal work for less money are putting pressure on the industry to make significant changes.

Interestingly, MacEwen suggests the legal profession puts itself at the greatest risk of becoming obsolete where it stubbornly insists on continuing to do what it does best. It sounds like MacEwen has it backward – why wouldn’t you keep doing what people keep paying you well to do? But he backs up this odd claim with examples, perhaps the most striking case being that of Kodak. The film and photography pioneer actually patented the first digital camera, but maintained its focus on film, its core business. It filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

“Business history shows incumbents following this behaviour pattern so often that it’s far safer to predict firms will choose the route to irrelevance and failure far more often than they will adapt themselves to the emerging paradigm,” MacEwen writes.

MacEwen also cites Dr. Larry Richard’s Caliper test, administered to more than four million white-collar workers in North America, whose results suggest that lawyers are deeply skeptical, value autonomy, and well above average when it comes to abstract reasoning. These are all excellent traits for lawyers, but when the legal business model is under threat even their acute sense of urgency spells disaster.

“These people (a) challenge everything you say; (b) cannot take direction to save their lives; (c) analyze things to death; (d) bounce from emergency to emergency while never stepping back to examine the broader landscape; (e) don’t deal well with failed experiments; and (f) find it very challenging to collaborate, commiserate, and strategize with their colleagues premised on a frank admission that what’s worked in the past might not in the future.”

With its Futures initiative the CBA is taking up the challenge – stepping back and examining the broader landscape in order to help the profession find the best path to future practice. We want to invite lawyers to put their vast analytical skills to work: not to analyze things to death, but to debate, to thrash out ideas, to innovate, to disrupt – to make a case for change.

Those who fight for the status quo should remember that it’s the status quo that’s under attack – it’s the thing that no longer works for lawyers or for clients.

“Stubborn dependence on our business model during the growth years is no longer feasible,” MacEwen writes. “Clients have now had a taste of their ability to get more for less, and they are never going back.”


May 15, 2013 |
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