By Dusan Bicanski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two of the biggest challenges for the Walker Clark "futures practice" are to break down the paradigms that prevent our clients from seeing the future -- and sometimes even today -- clearly, and to stimulate genuinely innovative responses.

Why is it that lawyers and law firms are so often surprised by disruptions in their own profession? Why do so many law firms always seem to be playing “catch up” with their clients and the business world in general?

Undoubtedly one of the biggest obstacles to law firms’ ability to respond to change is the effect of the paradigms that have governed the way that they conceptualize and understand the practice of law. The word paradigm originates with the Greek παράδειγμα, which means an example, model, or pattern. Paradigms are mental assumptions that we make, based on our experiences in the world, which not only govern our actions in certain situations, but can also shape the way that we perceive them. A paradigm can even cause us to fail to perceive things that we otherwise see clearly.

For example:

  • We will never get lawyers to use computers. 
  • The hourly rate is the most profitable fee structure for law firms. 
  • Law firm websites are just another form of advertising.
  • Word processing and document assembly will hurt professional quality.
  • Most clients prefer face-to-face contact.
  • The traditional law firm is the best structure for delivering quality legal services. 
  • Clients like to see artwork and expensively-furnished law offices, because it shows them that we are successful. 
  • Lawyers and accountants can never be partners in a professional services firm.
  • A computer will never replace a lawyer. 
  • Social media are a waste of time for law firms.

There are three specific principles of paradigms that have been particularly troublesome for law firms, as well as other businesses, industries, and professions:

  • Paradigm shifts usually originate from outside one’s profession, not within it. Sometimes the best ideas come from what might appear to be the most unlikely sources. This is why most proponents of a new paradigm are initally viewed as disloyal or worse within their own organizations. 
  • Paradigm shifts begin before they are noticed or needed. Firms that notice and respond to paradigm shifts first can achieve substantial competitive advantages. 
  • When a paradigm shifts, everything resets to zero. Past success does not ensure future survival. Ask the Swiss watchmakers, Blockbuster video, or Commodore Computer for more details.

Even to perceive the future of the legal profession, much less actually to understand it, we must be willing to escape many of the paradigms that have shaped the practice of law for centuries, and which can prevent us from seeing new realities. As futurist Joel Barker has said, "The role of leadership is to find, recognize, and secure the future."

Most of what is touted as "innovation" in the legal profession is little more than adjustments to the status quo. These quick fixes might work well for a while, but they usually do not respond to the basic changes in client expectations and the nature of the competition, which are shaping the future.

In an era of shifting paradigms and growing intolerance by clients of fake innovation in law firms, it is natural to look for and cling to so-called "best practices" or academic models for strategic planning. Although there is much to be learned from the business world outside the legal profession, as well as the academic perspectives, each law firm is a unique system. These intellectual frameworks can be very useful and sometimes lead to important insights; but the most effective responses to the challenges of the future usually are the ones that honestly and squarely address the economics, professional culture, and competitive context of each law firm.

Norman Clark


Click here to learn more about how Walker Clark can help your law firm anticipate and respond to paradigm shifts to build sustainable profitability and competitive advantages for the 2020s and beyond.