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In the 19th century one of the big business revolutions was the adoption of a new technology called “Railroads.” Of course when railroads were first proposed, two things happened. The first was a general uprising from the establishment about why this was a bad idea. This push-back came from those you would expect – the ones with a financial interest in keeping things the same way.
Although the first railroads were successful, attempts to finance new ones originally failed as opposition was mounted by turnpike operators, canal companies, stagecoach companies and those who drove wagons.
The second reaction was an “irrational exuberance” over the potential profit to be made and the speed at which change would occur. Mass quantities of speculative dollars were thrown at building rail lines from here to there to everywhere. Which of course resulted in much lost money when change didn’t come that fast.
Obviously railroads did not fail in general. I understand we still use them. But what did happen? It took about 50 years for railroads to fully embed in the US economy. From then on, this new way of doing business was considered business-as-usual. So instead of a quick revolution, change came about incrementally over a much longer period of time.
In the 20th century something similar happened with TV, only the commercial adoption was shortened to about 20 years. This highlights the accelerating rate at which new technologies are being adopted. For tablets, I think it was 3 years – although I just made that stat up.
The obvious conclusion, according to this history and everything I read about BigLaw, is that we have about 10 minutes left before BigLaw collapses and the Phoenix of the New Normal rises. By the time you come back from the bathroom, it will all be over.
For those of you who followed my suggestion and are now back, you will notice my predictions were proven false. Not much has changed.
As an alternative, I suggest the revolution in the delivery of legal services will take a bit longer to occur. Now I am not suggesting it will take 50 years. But I do suggest it will not come as fast as many might predict. We all know things need to change. And many see financial opportunities in that change, as they well should. However, I have been feeling a bit of irrational exuberance lately about how this will all play out.
So don’t look for BigLaw to collapse or for new-style providers to sweep through the market in short-order. Instead watch for steady, incremental changes in the way law firms function and deliver their services. Next generation providers will continue their growth, law firms will merge and things will generally keep changing. Much like the railroads, change will come, just not all at once.