Dürer and New Law: Everything Old Is New Again?

One of the many advantages of studying history and the arts is that one gets a very broad sweep of perspective that other subjects can’t provide.

Business school case studies are very interesting but are usually always based on contemporary successes as anything older than ten years is deemed irrelevant. However, if like me, you enjoy reading the books of economic historian Niall Ferguson, you will appreciate that everything old will become new again – if you wait long enough.

It is trite to say that although there are many other different ways lawyers can bill their clients, no one has come up with a better model than the billable hour (for lawyers, at least). As I have opined in earlier columns, the billable hour has been great for law firm partners, but disastrous for investment in information and knowledge systems that help lawyers to work more efficiently.

The billable hour is of course a relatively recent construct, developed by Reginald Herber Smith in or around the 1950s as a cost accounting tool. Before the billable hour, the idea of a state monopoly for lawyers generally extended to the state prescribing the fee that the lawyer could bill.

But just go back a little farther to look at other business models, to a time when professionals and other people were regulated by guilds rather than by statute. If there were to be a Renaissance business school case study, it would probably alight on Albrecht Dürer. What can a 16th century artist teach law firms about how to practice law in the 21st century? Quite a bit, it seems.

By 1521, Albrecht Dürer was the most famous artist in Northern Europe, but rather than being a “parasite” grovelling for commissions from the great and the good, he made money by selling copies of woodcuts and engravings. Although making the engraving was as laborious as drawing, Dürer and his assistant could crank out hundreds of copies without being in thrall to a publisher, because he owned his own printing press.

Dürer developed different channels of trade in the art market. His art became available to shop-keepers, artisans and merchants for the first time. Customers could also buy Dürer’s art from his shop in Nuremberg and he used agents to handle his print sales in further away places. In this way, Dürer controlled the verticals of design, manufacture, and retail, in a way like no other entrepreneur until Steve Jobs.

While conservative in some areas, he pushed the boundaries of printing technology. His 4 x 3 metre Triumphal Arch, produced for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, used 195 separate blocks and remains impressive in scale and complexity.

His business model made sound financial sense, too. Dürer found painting in oils to be slow and boring, and not to mention elitist, since few people would be able see his privately commissioned masterpieces. A good oil portrait would be painstaking work and take at least a week to earn ten florins. However, at a florin a sheet, he could easily make 400 florins per year, a substantial amount of money at the time.

Dürer was ahead of his time in relation to intellectual property as well. He was vigorous in defending his intellectual property in court to prevent fakes and in building his brand by using his trademark “AD” device in a prominent position in practically every sketch or drawing he composed.

Knowledge management was not a known term in the sixteenth century, but Dürer excelled at it. He drew or painted nearly everything of interest he encountered. He kept all these sketches and watercolours in a system, most of which were repurposed imaginatively into composite scenes.

Dürer was a Renaissance man, who invented an entirely new business model for artists. He was rewarded not only by monetary wealth, but also in spreading his name and brand far across Europe. He embraced technology and created new markets for art. Above all, he freed himself from the tyranny of the buyer’s market, where the commissioner of work would pay what he or she thought it was worth.

Law firms could emulate Dürer’s business model by working out their value proposition and finding imaginative ways to sell their services. Renaissance Firms would invest time and money in technology to automate drafting of routine correspondence and documents and other processes such as client intake that don’t add value. Dürer also shows that careful management of intellectual property and knowledge assets would also pay dividends.


  1. Before law firms “emulate Dürer’s business model” they would first have to understand that his methods though they may appear as such were not about mass production. What Dürer accomplished was to share his art with an optimum amount of people even though each creation required great skill and talent on the part of the creator. His use of technology maximized human endeavor; it did not minimize nor trivialize the talent, but made the product produced because of Dürer’s skill more accessible. He did not use technology as a replacement for human skill and input in order to maximize profit. Instead what he did without compromising quality was to make art that was – to borrow a phrase from Weaver D’s motto and made famous by REM – “automatic for the people”. IMHO, law firms can do the same if technology used as a “tool” would make the skills of the legal professionals and staff more accessible to an optimum amount of people.