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May 03, 2017

What lawyers could learn from other professions about change

Over the last few decades, many lawyers have gotten comfortable with their own success. But, as Microsoft founder Bill Gates has noted, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

As the law firm marketplace has become more challenging, a number of law firms have already lost. Just ask the lawyers and staff who used to work at Bingham McCutcheon, Dewey & LeBoeuf, Heenan Blaikie, Howrey, Heller Ehrman, Thelen Reid & Priest, or Thacher Profitt & Wood. Each of these firms had hundreds of lawyers at one time, but now the firms are gone.

These failures have often occurred with little warning to the rank and file. In a study of 37 large law firm collapses since 1988, John Morley of Yale Law School concluded that “law firms often go from apparent health to liquidation in a matter of months or even days and they never manage to reorganize their debts in bankruptcy and survive.”

Every law firm that has gone out of business had its own unique problems. But lawyers often use this as an excuse to think: It couldn’t happen here. Actually, it could. As Richard Susskind summed it up, “The legal market is in an unprecedented state of flux. Over the next two decades, the way in which lawyers work will change radically… Unless they adapt, many traditional legal businesses will fail.”

This type of rapid change has been seen in many other industries. In 2014, a medallion to operate a taxi in New York City cost about $1 million. According to a recent Bloomberg report: “Owning one used to be akin to owning a gas-guzzling, money-printing machine.”

However, thanks to the success of Uber, Lyft and ride sharing services, by 2017 a medallions’ value had been cut in half, and it is still declining.

There are many other examples of people who experienced great success and thought they couldn’t lose. Here are some of the companies they used to work for: TWA, Pan Am, Eastern Airlines, MCI WorldCom, American Motors, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth’s, RCA, Compaq, Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang, Drexel Burnham, E.F. Hutton, PaineWebber, and Lehman Brothers.

But the world changed and they didn’t; and now all those companies are gone, along with many others.

In the last few decades, the forces of global economic change and technology have radically transformed such industries as telecommunications, airlines, retail, mass media, and medicine.

Similar forces have now begun to transform the business of law. One of the most interesting analyses of lessons from other professions was offered by Clayton Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma and a professor at Harvard Business School, in a keynote presentation at a Harvard Law School conference on “Disruptive Innovation on the Market for Legal Services.”

Here's one example Christensen presents:  A few decades ago, steel was made in massive integrated steel mills, which were quite expensive to build and to operate. The products they produced ranged from low-quality rebar to the high-quality sheet steel used to make cars. Then, in the late 1960s, new technology enabled mini-mills to produce steel much more cheaply by melting scrap in electric furnaces.

At first, the steel produced by mini-mills was low quality and only satisfied the rebar market. Integrated mills were happy to let the rebar business go away because its gross margins were about 7%, and they could make 12% with higher quality steel.

For a while, everybody was happy. Mini-mills had a 20% gross margin and made a ton of money taking over the low-tier business. And the average gross margin profits of integrated mills went up when they stopped making rebar, because they had eliminated their low-margin work.

But by 1979, mini-mills had driven the last high-cost integrated mill out of the rebar market. When the mini-mills had only each other to compete with, the price of rebar collapsed by 20%, and none could make money. Naturally, the mini-mills concluded that if they could make better steel, they could go after a whole new market. So they attacked the next tier, angle iron with 12% profits.

Again, the integrated steel mills seemed happy to let them have it because they were making 18% on sheet and structural steel, and again their average profits went up. And the same thing happened again. Everyone’s profitability improved in the short term, until the last high-cost integrated mill was driven out of the middle-tier business in 1984 and prices again collapsed by 20%.

Mini-mills then found a way to make high-quality steel, and they now account for 85% of North America’s steel production. All but one of the integrated mills has gone bankrupt.

Could something similar happen in the legal profession, with lower-cost competitors first taking away the simplest work (say e-discovery and contract lawyers) and then gradually moving to more complex matters?

It is always dangerous to generalize across industries, but if you’d like to consider whether law firms are immune to massive change, you might want to study the history of other industries that thought they were immune, including:

  • Travel agencies
  • Bookstores
  • Newspapers
  • Airlines
  • Video rental stores
  • Mini-computer companies
  • Railroads
  • Canal operators
  • Buggy whip manufacturers

As jazz great Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography, “The world has always been about change.”

Now it’s lawyers’ turn to change.

This post was adapted from LegalBizDev’s new LPM Tools and Templates.

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