This column is by Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton
What do we know now that we did not know in January? Obviously, we know we’re in the grip of a global pandemic, which has precipitated a worldwide macroeconomic seizure comparable to the Great Depression, and that sounds like a lot.
Yet here we are and as we turn our attention to looking forward again, it’s worth asking this: If we could have been so massively surprised in January, how certain are we that there couldn’t be another massive surprise in the year to come?
This may seem irrelevant at the moment, but we think it opens a window into a profound reality. As Daniel Kahneman put it, “The correct lesson to learn from surprises is that the world is surprising.”
In other words, if fundamental assumptions about tomorrow are actually quite fragile, how do we plan? One conclusion you could draw from how truly unknowable tomorrow is—“radically uncertain”—is that planning is therefore futile. We choose to take the opposite view: Make large plans because people are far more adaptable than you may have assumed or given them credit for. This has been amply demonstrated time and time again by so many during this (relatively short, so far) period of Coronatide.
On that premise, we are launching this new series for 2020 here at Adam Smith, Esq., “Build Back Better.”
In it we plan to tackle some of the ways firms can change, first of all, how they operate (“because we’ve always done it that way” has never sounded so lame), and more importantly, how they envision serving their clients, their professionals and staff, and their communities. And how they might adapt to compete effectively, and win, in what we hope and think will be a re-imagined business landscape.
You may recoil instinctively at the notion of change, but ossification is not an option. This is the time to reimagine how you can and should serve your key constituencies better. The pandemic has forced fundamental change on a historically change-allergic industry (that would be us) and, we believe, the pressure will only go up from here.
The imagining is already a reality; firms had no choice but to experiment widely and boldly just to keep operating. Many of the experiments have turned out exceptionally well (WFH is the poster child here). Other disruptions are a learning work-in-progress – such as elements of entry-level recruiting. There are and can be others.
Law firms need to wipe out internal friction and waste root and branch, unsentimentally abandon obsolete customs, and embrace collaboration in your hearts and minds. The competitive landscape is moving onto a new plane populated by effective, efficient, productive, and creative new entrants who operate thoroughly and proudly in business-like ways and are in this to win. Your firm can continue to get its fair share, but not if you don’t find your own ways to demonstrate your distinctive value to clients, to those who work at your firm and the broader communities in which you operate. Prepare to up your game.
By the time you’ve thoroughly embraced “build back better,” you will never miss the world of January 2020.