Lawyers: architects or bricklayers?

Yesterday lunchtime I managed to get out of the office for a walk at lunchtime. As I did so, I pondered a question that has been at the back of my mind for some time. It is my impression that innovation in law firms tends to occur most in the delivery of legal services, client care or in some peripheral law firm activity (marketing, finance, IT, etc). It is fairly rare that we see real innovation in the law itself coming out of law firms. (Some evidence for this impression is provided by the annual Financial Times survey of innovation in law firms.)

As I pondered and wandered, I admired the characteristic brickwork of Manchester’s historic cotton warehouses. Cruelly, I wondered whether many lawyers were simply bricklayers — putting the right blocks together in a particular way to achieve the desired result: an agreement or set of agreements to achieve the commercial aims of their clients. Extending the analogy further, there are significant similarities between the creation of a new building and the conclusion of a corporate or commercial transaction.

At the outset there is a client and the client has a need. No legal work is done without an external driver. Similarly few if any buildings are created purely speculatively. The client’s need (for a building to fit a particular purpose or for a new acquisition) is usually arrived at entirely without interference by professional specialists. However, once the need has crystallised, the professionals are needed to make the need a reality: an architect in the case of a building, a lawyer in the case of the transaction. At this stage, the client’s need might permit innovation (in building design or in legal structure). However, it is almost impossible for that innovation to create an opportunity for a new type of client need.

An example of the kind of innovation I mean is the development of steel-framed structures. Once the potential of that kind of building was realised by clients, the development of densely-built cities like New York and Chicago became possible. I can’t think of a legal innovation with an equivalent impact on the scenery of business, work, trade or commerce. (That is not to say that there isn’t one — it is late and my mind is tired.)

So at least one lawyer seeing to the client’s needs is an architect — creating the best structure to deliver what the client wants, dealing with other professionals (including regulators), managing key specialists (including hod-carrying lawyers), and ensuring that the client is kept happy. Innovation in all of those areas is possible, but it must be secondary to the need to deliver what the client needs as effectively as possible. In many situations (probably the vast majority), that effectiveness is probably most likely to come from doing the usual job. Similarly, many architects might want to be innovative, but ultimately the client wants something from the pattern-book, so that is what they get.

If my analogy is correct, it must have implications for our KM efforts. There is scope for KM to support innovation, but bricklaying lawyers need a different kind of innovation than the key architects. And innovations created by the architects might never relate to technical legal issues. How do we support them without knowing where the opportunities are?

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