Building the Perfect Firm for 2008

Last night I pulled my hamstring while making a lunging (and quite dazzling) shoestring catch for our softball team.

How is this relevant to law?

Many commentators have used the old Gretzky adage – don’t go to where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be. It applies the same to baseball. When a ball is hit, fielders mentally calculate the velocity of the ball and its trajectory, then run to where the ball will be. Same with quarterbacks in football – they throw the ball to a spot on the field where the receiver will be.

All of this means that law firms that want to gain competitive advantage must look at the changes happening around them now, calculate what those changes will do to the delivery of legal services, what services consumers will require and who the competitors will be 5 – 10 years down the road; then determine what the winning combination of structure, talent and management will look like.

Is your law firm doing this?

Armed forces around the world are often maligned for investing in weaponry and tactics based on lessons learned from past theatres of war. This makes them very well prepared to fight the last war – but not necessarily well-prepared for the next one.

I find that law firms are similar. Most firms looking for competitive advantage assume a number of things:

  1. Their competitors are only the law firms across the street;
  2. That in 2025, clients will buy the same legal services in the same way; and
  3. That the number of lawyers and non-lawyers required to do tasks in 2025, will be exactly the same as the amount needed today.

As a result, firms claiming to want change, ignore where the puck/ball/receiver is going to be. They simply nibble around the edges making minor adjustments that don’t reposition the firm for material sustainable competitive advantage in the future.

In other words, most firms that claim to be retooling for 2025, seem to really be on the road to building a great firm for 2008.


  1. How can students heading into the recruitment process gain concrete information about “is X law firm doing this?” What should law firms be doing, specifically and how can we measure firm adaptation in a comparative way?

  2. Dave, I think the answer to your first question is “ask”. Reach out to firms that you’re interested in, go to firm tours or events at your law school and ask the question: Does the next five years of legal services look the same as the last five years? If not, what does the firm think about that? How do they see themselves transforming? Where might a young lawyer such as yourself fit into that transormation?

    Personally, I think the firms that are adapting are the ones who are re-examining or questioning the things that make law firms look like law firms: the billable hour system and billable targets, the rigid division between lawyer and “support staff”, divisions into specialist practice groups, rigid relationships with clients, the partnership structure, rainmakers, etc. I don’t think there’s any consensus about where things should be going (except that the billable hour system doesn’t serve clients or associates particularly well) but the fact that a firm is asking the question and willing to look at other options should be seen as encouraging.

    Just my two cents.