When I was doing my research degree, I was regularly distracted by the many other interesting books in the library. Amongst those, I kept coming back to Robert Merton’s On the Shoulders of Giants. As the publisher’s blurb puts it:
Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.
Although I remember little of the detail of the book, its themes (the collective nature of intellectual progress and the forms that imitation takes during that progress) still resonate. As the New York Times put it:
The book really does address itself to the problem of priority, and to the related questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, the social conditioning of science. It forces you to think hard about the notion of progress, and about why there should ever be anything new under the sun. Its very perversity is meant to illustrate the role played by contingency and accident (to say nothing of obstinacy and incompetence) in the history of ideas.
The modern equivalent of Newton’s aphorism is the quote popularised by Steve Jobs:
Good artists copy; great artists steal.
This isn’t intended as a licence to plagiarise. The allusion to theft, I think, is a reference to audacity. Taking an idea and transforming it into something bold is what Jobs (prompted by Picasso) had in mind. Interestingly, an investigation of the genesis of the phrase suggests that it was originally phrased very differently.
Imitation is an accepted part of progress. But how do we decide who to imitate? I think that is where great artists distinguish themselves. Their audacity isn’t just marked by the result of their copying, but also shows in what they choose to copy.
A long time ago, I railed against the tendency of law firms to compare themselves to each other. Little has changed in the intervening six years. And yet there are so many great things to imitate.
This post was prompted by a brief look at the website of a Scottish architectural practice, Page\Park. There are many similarities between law and architecture. Both apply expertise and experience to a client brief in order to create something. And yet few law firms look to architectural practices for ideas about how they might work. There are a couple of things that Page\Park do that are worthy of consideration for imitation. (I have no idea whether they are novel to that practice or common in the architectural world.)
It is unusual, and perhaps egocentric, for a firm’s website to describe the business model it has chosen. When that model (a) is different from the norm and (b) has benefits for the client, such egocentricity can be forgiven. Page\Park is an employee owned business, which is presented as a good thing for clients:
In so many fields of life the paramount role of the team, with each contribution being vital, has challenged traditional hierarchical models of management and, in our view, ownership. If society demands that each of us take responsibility for our roles, then surely ownership should respond likewise. So now, when you speak to anyone in Page\Park, you are speaking to someone with a share in the future of the practice, a belief in its values and a commitment to them.
More than that, the firm goes on to describe in detail how it works. This might be a step too far for a law firm, but it makes sense for an architectural practice. Their clients need to be able to see architecture in action, and where better to show it than in careful consideration of the way the firm is structured and how people work.
Time will tell if our model is the right one. However like a good building, if designed well it will flex and adapt to changing circumstance without compromising the architectural concept. That is to bring architecture back together, built on the understanding of the parts as a representation of all who contribute.
How many firms have thought carefully (and continuously) about their structure and activities. How many would be comfortable demonstrating and justifying their choices in the way that Page\Park does, to reassure their clients that they know how to make good commercial and legal decisions?
Learning and Knowledge
What first piqued my interest in Page\Park was the section on the site labelled ‘Thinking’ and the clear statement of intent there:
Creative yet careful thinking is at the heart of the approach of the studio. In the course of professional practice it is important to carve space to reflect and evolve ideas.
Our early Monday morning meetings are a vehicle for that exploration where ideas and approaches are presented and debated.
These themes are encouraged to grow into subjects for seminars where we extend a wider invitation to others to come, share and shape the discussion.
Here’s something that law firms could imitate. The new regulatory approach to learning (continuing competence) is an opportunity for firms to think imaginatively about the way they support the development of their lawyers and clients. The key elements of Page\Park’s approach offer an interesting starting point.
- A focus on ideas. Rather than going straight into the detail (new developments in cladding materials, or the latest case on limitations of liability), looking at more general themes gives people the intellectual tools to deal with detail on their own terms.
- Specified time for reflection. Many law firms have regular know-how or training sessions. These are usually arranged by practice group or sector, and are scattered through the week. As a result, they are easily avoided. In setting aside time early in the week for the whole practice, Page\Park sends a clear message about the significance of this activity. Reflection becomes part of ‘the way we work around here’ rather than being something that people might try to squeeze into a crowded work-week.
- A direction of travel. Although ‘ideas’ and ‘reflection’ appear a bit wishy-washy, the firm suggests a much harder-edged set of outcomes. Whilst the starting point might be open-ended (this week’s was about ‘Good’), the intention is that ideas are refined and discussed further in a seminar involving external contributors (such as one on learning spaces in schools). Ultimately, that discussion is distilled into a briefing that is useful for clients and fellow professionals (on office/working culture, for example). The cycle repeats itself as the briefing becomes the foundation for a future Monday morning discussion.
The simplicity of this process allows it to become a habit. Once the habit is embedded, the culture of learning and development of ideas becomes an integral part of the firm’s practice.
Again, how many law firms have thought this carefully about how to develop knowledge, expertise and insight across the firm? As long as they look only at the way other firms do things (or the way things have been done in the past) they won’t be able to make meaningful progress.
So, great artists steal and great scientists stand on the shoulders of others. In doing so, they choose carefully who to steal from and whose shoulders to mount. They don’t just adopt like-minded models. They seek out influences that others ignore. Great law firms do the same. They look beyond the law for inspiration.