Designing Lawyers

This post originally appeared on the LexisNexis UK Future of Law Blog under the title Stealing the market: The degree that now has infinite value.

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On 17 October I saw Daniel B. Rodriguez, Dean of the Northwestern University School of Law, speak at the ARK Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession conference.  His presentation explained how some of the challenges that we are experiencing in law firms have trickled down to the law schools, and he gave some examples of how they are adjusting their approach and curricula to better prepare their students for the “new normal”.  One of the solutions he described was partnering with other schools to provide joint degrees. Since the economic downturn, Northwestern has reduced the number of traditional JD-only students, but has increased the size of their JD/MBA dual degree program. He also expressed an interest in partnering with a medical school to develop a JD/MD curriculum, and he made a passing mention of possibly doing something with “the humanities”.

I wholeheartedly applaud the joint degree approach. In my opinion, there is a severe lack of basic business understanding among lawyers. The fact that the phrase “not all revenue is profitable” often requires a lengthy explanation is a good indication that attorneys need more business training.  The JD/MD seems a little less immediately applicable, except of course to medical and health care law, but anything that gets attorneys to see how other people think is probably a good thing.  Which brings me to “the humanities”.  As a former music major, I can say the JD/MFA in vocal performance, or piano pedagogy, will probably have limited application; however, there is joint degree program that I believe could provide infinite value to attorneys, firms, and clients: a JD/MA in Design.

In BigLaw, the phrase “Who else is doing this?” is so common a response to any new idea, that it has officially become cliché.  We have a tendency to focus heavily on what our competitors are doing. Unfortunately, we only perceive other BigLaw firms as our direct competitors.  We benchmark our businesses against similarly sized firms that think, act, and are run, very much like we are.  Meanwhile, there are a number of firms, and non-firms, providing legal services that are so far beneath our radar that they might as well be underground and they are beginning to get traction with our client base.  Unless we are careful, they will eat away at that base from the bottom, until we are fighting over the last scraps of global legal work that these smaller firms can’t handle.  But of course, by that point, they’ll be able to handle the big global work too.
There are numerous precedents for this kind of race to the top of the ladder, while an unexpected or unrecognized competitor dismantles the ladder from the bottom up.  Most famously in the US airline industry, where traditional airlines bench-marked exclusively against each other while low cost airlines like Southwest and JetBlue stole their market from the bottom.  

Incidentally, the epithet “low cost airline” is a bit of a misnomer.  While these companies do indeed offer lower priced tickets than traditional airlines, they have stolen much of the market by out-designing their predecessors. They designed new customer experiences, and new business models, while the old guard was focused on what all of other big airlines were doing.  Frankly, these “low cost” airlines have a better product that many consumers prefer, and they happen to deliver it at a much better price. And today, there are only two US airlines bigger than Southwest. They are the last two standing after a series of bankruptcies and mergers.

I think BigLaw faces a similar fate – not tomorrow, or next week, or next year, but that future is out there waiting for us – unless we begin to design new legal products, new customer experiences, and new business models that make those products and experiences profitable. We need to fight for the bottom and the middle of the market, if we hope to continue to provide our premium services at the top. I would probably start by hiring people with joint JD and design degrees, or even, maybe just the design degrees.

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