Plenty of folks are happy to tell you (for a fine sum) that the answer is (pick one):

  • (a) to get global, and fast, preferably by merging on payment of a “success” fee;
  • (b) to adopt a single-minded laser focus on what you do best;
  • (c) to double down on client service;
  • (d) to go the boutique route;
  • (e) to become an exquisitely talented maestro of assembling just-in-time teams you put together  for one project at a time, with the precise blend of talents, capabilities, and capacities to get the job done and then to disperse (think producing a Hollywood movie or constructing a major downtown office building);
  • (f) to relentlessly pursue the top right quadrant of that handy two-by-two matrix and spurn all but the most high value, premium, price-insensitive work (this is a perennial entrant in the strategy race);
  • (g) and surely there are other configurations I’ve missed.

My own idea is somewhat different.

We have no idea yet what BigLaw will look like in the future, and the only way to find out is to invent that future.

Please take this as a gravely serious observation, not flippant or glib in the least.

Remember what Drucker said about each firm having to find its own (new) answer as to what it’s business is.  Time for creativity, imagination, innovation. Try things. But don’t try one big thing, try lots of little things. Don’t put all your chips in the center of the table; learn as you go along, make midcourse corrections, seek continuous feedback, react.  As Air Force fighter pilots have been taught since the days of the Korean War, in a dogfight you have to observe the “OODA” loop:

  • Observe your environment;
  • Orient yourselves towards your clients and competitors;
  • Decide what you’re going to do right  now;
  • Act
  • (Repeat)

Grand plans don’t perform well in midair, and it may feel to some of us as if we’re being thrown into midair. Nimbleness, decisiveness, and immediate readjustment perform much better.

Step back: Imagine someone presenting you 10 years ago with a slim plastic/metal slab slightly longer, narrower, and much slimmer than a pack of cards and asking you what you would like such a device to do if you could carry it around in your pocket or purse all day long? I suspect most of us—most assuredly including yours truly—would have had not the remotest idea. Tell time? Play music?

Or, far more historically profound, recall your high school or college biology and learning about the Cambrian Explosion. Some 650 million years ago life on Earth changed in ways never seen before or since: All the major phyla and forms of animals we know today suddenly appeared; we went from “almost nothing to almost everything, almost overnight,” as one biologist put it.

Two critical points: First, no one saw it coming (assuming the counterfactual that there had been anyone to observe it beforehand); and second, it involved wildly unbridled trial and error, with far more extinctions than successes. Yet the successes were world class: Limbs for locomotion, eyes and ears, digestive and reproductive systems and the start of organized neural networks to mastermind it all.

I think we may be at a similar turning point. It’s time to experiment, folks, to learn from what fails and what succeeds, and to invent our futures, even though we have no idea what it will look like yet. This is not optional; it is the signal challenge confronting us. It’s not too much to say that if we don’t get this right, nothing else matters.

Because if we don’t do this, someone else is going to do it for us and to us.

Let’s get to work.


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