Where should you aim?

I have written a few times over the years about aim and focus. Targets continue to be an issue that bedevils traditional law firms. Lawyers are given targets for time recording. Partners are given targets for billing. Business services professionals are given targets for cost reduction (or, at least, budgeting). Worst of all, firms sometimes frame their strategies in terms of targets.

Blue skyAt the weekend, I started reading a long article on Tesla Motors and electric vehicles. It contains a huge amount of insight on the topic and, unsurprisingly, is very thought-provoking. Embedded in the middle of it are a couple of quotes from Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, and Elon Musk, the founder and CEO.

I asked [von Holzhausen] what it was like to come to Tesla after having spent years at more established car companies. He described the difference like this: “A company like GM is a finance-driven company who always has to live up to financial expectations. Here we look at it the other way around—the product is successful when it’s great, and the company becomes great because of that.” (This mirrored what Musk had told me earlier in the day: “The moment the person leading a company thinks numbers have value in themselves, the company’s done. The moment the CFO becomes CEO—it’s done. Game over.”) Von Holzhausen went on, saying, “Another difference is that at other companies, engineering comes first—a design package is prescribed on the designer and they’re told to make it beautiful. At Tesla, design and engineering are assigned equal value, and Elon keeps them opposed to each other.”

Tesla’s view (which I think is shared by Apple and some other highly successful businesses) is that clearly-defined purpose and great product will deliver great numbers. On the other hand, businesses that focus purely on the numbers run the risk of failing to demonstrate purpose and value in their markets, and of creating products that nobody wants. RIM, the Blackberry manufacturer, might be the best current example of this.

Demand is a complicating factor. Do you create something that people want or need? Many businesses survive despite being soulless and number-driven simply because what they create is perceived as essential. Some businesses may have clear purpose and great products, but fail because nobody really wants their product instead of someone else’s.

Very few firms provide a must-have service. Those that do (because of geography or specialism) can afford to be number-focussed. The rest, whose service has to look more attractive than everyone else’s, need to show the market why they are better. Concentrating on numbers won’t do that. Clear purpose and great service will. The bravest (of either type) will follow Tesla’s example and ignore the numbers altogether.

What if technology isn’t the answer?

Most of the current thinking about the future of law firms (and other legal activities) turns on the use of technology. Richard Susskind has been in the vanguard, and the accuracy of his predictions has drawn law firms and technology suppliers alike to the same conclusions — improvements in the practice of law and client service in the future will depend heavily on technology.

I agree. Any firm that isn’t making technology investments is drastically reducing its chances of survival.

Old and new techBut that only means that enhancing legal practice with technology has become the norm — table stakes. Clients and potential recruits will increasingly shun those firms without effective technology. (And by ‘technology’ I mean not just IT systems, but also the improved practices and processes that come from a more structured approach to legal practice. Technology is as much a mindset as it is a collection of algorithms and data.)

If technology investment is unavoidable, everyone will end up in the same place once the fuss has died down. Apart from minor adjustments in position between firms (differences in the rate of adoption, for example), the rising tide of technology will lift everyone to practically the same degree. The tools, systems and attitudes of technology have to be imported into traditional law firms, therefore they are available to everyone without preference. (The status of technology within the firm is a relevant issue here, but I want to leave that for another time.) If one firm sees something that another firm has, in many cases it is not difficult to acquire it.

That situation is great for suppliers (especially those, like HighQ, that have a product which becomes the default tool for a particular purpose) and for clients (who can start to rely on firms to improve their service through the use of technology), but it may be a problem for firms. If everything you can have is also available to everyone else, how can you stand out from the crowd?

A few firms will have the first-mover advantage, but this is probably minimal (given the stickiness of clients) and brief (given that few developments are truly bespoke).

In order to find something that truly differentiates them, firms need to ignore the commonplace of technology. By assuming that there is no technology solution, they become freer to consider possibilities that might be truly novel and useful to clients.

It is commonly suggested that there is no real difference between firms. It may appear that way from the outside, but every firm is unique. It has a unique collection of individuals within it. It has a unique collection of clients (each of whom is also unique). It has a unique history, and a unique place in the present. But very few firms make good use of their uniqueness (which is why they appear so similar to observers).

Every firm has the capability to stand out by making good use of the knowledge that is uniquely contained within it.

Everyone in the firm has a partial and unique insight into:

  • The firm itself;
  • The people within the firm;
  • Their relationships with each other, and outwith the firm;
  • The firm’s market;
  • Clients and their behaviour;
  • Clients’ markets;
  • Working practices (in all sorts of businesses);
  • The law;
  • Technology and other pervasive changes in the world;
  • And so on…

Gathering these insights from across the firm can only help the leadership team see new possibilities for action that is uniquely fitted to the firm.

This has to be done carefully. Some popular methods (such as brainstorming, amongst others) may be less effective than they appear to be because of factors such as:

By using techniques to foster openness, dissent and diversity, coupled with simple constraints and support for emergent ideas, firms can start to make sense of their unique position in the world and then act accordingly.

If your firm is interested in finding its own way, or at least in knowing more about what might be possible, you know the drill: get in touch.

Where to start with law firm knowledge development?

The history of knowledge management in law firms can be simply sketched:

  • Lawyers and publishers started with standard documents and forms, then moved on to more discursive materials — often managed by librarians;
  • The bigger firms employed dedicated knowledge professionals (PSLs) to create and maintain bespoke material, training and current awareness;
  • PSLs became more common, so firms began coordinating their activities
  • This coordination evolved into strategic support for the firm’s wider goals, and often extended to include information and research professionals and/or learning professionals;
  • Greater strategic focus led to increased diversity of activities between firms — encompassing technology-supported practice, client-facing activities and so on.

This account isn’t perfect, but it covers the main inflection points. However, it also contains the seeds of misdirection.

Chatsworth sundialWhilst there are firms that have reached the final stage, many are still approaching KM as a new activity. They may subscribe to the major services. They may also have some of their own internal knowledge material, drafted by practising lawyers. They might even have a nascent knowledge system of some kind. What should be their next step?

The natural thing to do would be to learn from what other firms have done. (A standard knowledge management tactic.)

How should that learning progress? One approach, which appears to have been suggested at today’s KM Legal conference, is to follow in the same steps as other firms. I am not at the conference, but following some of the tweets.

The advice to start with PSLs without coordination or a vision is risky. It feels right, just as the historic biological view that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” appeared to make sense. The better choice is to start from the current state of the more mature firms. By all means learn from the work already done by those firms, but there is no need to go through the same process to do so.

The most experienced firms have concluded that successful knowledge activities require coordination or governance, and a vision that is congruent with the firm’s strategy. In learning this lesson, they made mistakes and had successes. Firms coming afresh to this work should learn the same lesson without having to have the same sequence of experiences. Learning from other people’s experiences is a critical knowledge principle in itself.

Does it really matter? If only a small investment is possible, why not start with a PSL or two and see how they get on?

The problem with that approach is that without informed guidance as to what the firm needs and/or the experiences other firms have had, there is a real risk that the PSL has to bend to the will of the lawyers they work with. Without an organising force outside the practice group, PSLs will often be forced to support old-fashioned ways of working.

The vision may not need to be detailed. It would be enough for the firm’s leadership to be clear about the things that need to improve. Armed with simple goals like that, PSLs would be able help their practice groups develop in a coherent direction. They could help build a modern firm without having to go through the Enlightenment first.

(As an aside, one thing firms could do to emulate their more forward-thinking peers would be to drop the title ‘PSL’. It is essentially meaningless. Other versions, such as Practice Development Lawyer, Knowledge Development Lawyer, Training and Knowledge Lawyer, are much more helpful.)

If you or your firm is thinking about these issues, and would like some personalised guidance, please get in touch.

What ‘focus’ really means

I have written previously about the need for organisations (and individuals) to choose a focus. The idea also came up in a meeting I had this week. During that meeting, I recalled something Jony Ive said about Steve Jobs and his relentless pursuit of focus. It’s in this video.

What focus means is saying ‘no’ to something that — with every bone in your body — you think is a phenomenal idea, and you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it because you’re focusing on something else.

Ive mentions keeping some ‘sacrificial’ ideas that he could claim to have rejected, but Jobs knew that he had no passion for those — for him, focus demanded that one could only follow one passion.

This is a rare discipline, but it is worth pursuing. To do otherwise is to try riding two horses.

Testing… How can you be sure you aren’t doing the wrong thing?

I had a long walk today, accompanied by a number of podcasts. One of them was new to me (although it has been going for some years): The Infinite Monkey Cage. This episode was on the appropriation of quantum physics by various strands of pseudoscience. It was a really interesting discussion about the way scientific concepts are misinterpreted and what might motivate that.

At one point, one of the guests, Jeff Forshaw, made a really important point about the nature of scientific investigation that is often lost on non-scientists. Where does confidence in science come from, given that (by definition) research is providing answers to questions that have never been answered before. At 37′ 42″ in the podcast, he says:

My trust in other scientists comes from — and I often ask this when i am doing things like PhD exams — “so what did you do to demonstrate that this isn’t wrong? How much have you tried to break what you’ve done?” I trust the professional scientists who have spent a lot of time [doing this] (and I expect the answer to that to be “yeah, we tried everything: it just won’t be wrong”).

(I have slightly tidied up the transcript for clarity.)

This process of challenge is inherent to good science — it is built into the peer review that all research goes through before publication. Actively welcoming criticism is also part of scientific culture, as another guest, Ben Goldacre, pointed out at an earlier point in the discussion (34′ 55″ in the podcast):

You know, the Q&A after a work-in-progress seminar or a conference presentation is often a blood bath. But it’s all consensual. In general people don’t take it personally — its a consenting intellectual S&M activity — and we know that it’s good for our soul. We welcome it, and we want it because we know that’s how we will purify our ideas.

Lake District lintelThis made me think about decisions made in other contexts. In particular, how often do clients challenge the advice their lawyers give them in this way. I know that some will — and hard. Equally, I am sure that some are looking for reassurance that their preferred course of action is permissible and so are not inclined to push their lawyers to prove that what they are hearing is not wrong. Similarly, when firms make their own business decisions, can they always be sure that those decisions are pure and trustworthy?

One of the Cognitive Edge methods can be useful here. This is Ritual Dissent, which can be seen as a way of using Jeff Forshaw’s questions in the context of business decisions or choices — subjecting them to robust critique and testing so that the wider organisational community can comfortably trust them.

This technique, along with others derived from the same source, has the power to lead organisations to much better decision-making. Please get in touch if you are interested in knowing more about how your firm might benefit.

People, technology, location: where should law firms’ money go?

Experimental archaeology is a favourite way for TV documentaries to bring the past to life for the casual viewer. The BBC is currently showing a new series looking at the construction of a 13th century castle, together with various other related mediaeval activities. In last night’s episode, the team made a crossbow and its bolt using only techniques and materials available in the 1200s. In the commentary, they kept returning to the fact that a crossbow allowed armies to be effective with much less training (one presenter gleefully told how Richard I had been killed in 1199 by a crossbow fired by a mere boy).

Horse and cattle trough in SmithfieldBy concentrating on the saving on training that the crossbow brought, above the longbow, the programme missed an opportunity to make a wider point about the impact of technology on warfare — it changes the way money is spent.

If your army depends on archers wielding longbows, you need to invest heavily in training (and in the peripheral expenses to maintain archers in training). However, a longbow was probably slightly cheaper to produce than a crossbow, which needed components wrought from iron (not a cheap resource by comparison with wood at the time). So, as crossbows become more widely used, it is likely that the budget for archers would shift from supporting training to the new technology.

This is part of a pattern over hundreds of years. The wars of the twentieth century were probably the last in which the size of an army or navy played a part in determining the outcome (directly or indirectly). Modern warfare is waged with small numbers of people and huge amounts of costly technology. (Sadly, the impact on humanity is just as devastating — possibly more so, as civilians become harder to distinguish from combatants.)

Longbows and crossbows are still capable of causing death and serious injury. Nothing has made them less deadly, but their power is meaningless in the context of modern warfare.

Law firms are in a similar position today.

For the past few centuries, the primary cost for a firm has been lawyers and their training and upkeep. In more recent times, larger firms have also spent large sums on acquiring and maintaining high-quality offices in expensive business locations. As salaries and rents increase, clients have ultimately had to bear the cost in higher fees.

Technologies that are now readily available (or in development) are starting to eat away at the traditional model. They cost more than the basic IT tools already in use (typically email and document processing and management). It is a reasonable assumption that a firm of the future will spend a much higher proportion of its budget on technology than it did in the past, and a lower proportion on people (some of their functions being done automatically) and offices (as people work much more flexibly, using mobile devices and in non-firm locations).

So it is interesting to read in the Legal Support Network’s Legal IT Landscapes 2015 report that the top 100 UK firms are not investing hugely on their IT:

Our results show that top 100 firms spend on average 4.1% of revenue on IT (there were some that spent 8-10%, so you can imagine the other numbers). Though this metric isn’t one I’d use alone, and it puts law firms squarely alongside other professional services businesses (according to Gartner), many would say that legal businesses should be spending more, to innovate and build competitiveness. Let me put that 4.1% figure in context, too: education, media and entertainment, and banking and financial services all spend more – banking’s spend on IT as a percentage of revenue is 6.3%.

The top 100 firms are facing competition from a range of new entrants. Some are offering technology directly to legal consumers. Some have created businesses based on a different model — different in terms of office use, people employed, and technology developed. They are almost certainly all spending significantly more than 4.1% of revenue on technology — some may surpass 10%.

The future of law will involve more technology. There is no doubt about that. Some artisan law firms will continue to exist, but the bulk of legal work will be done in businesses founded on technology platforms that go beyond word processing and email. Interestingly, many firms are working alongside the new entrants in the development of new ways of working. As Simon Wardley points out in a post describing the commoditisation of part of the entertainment media, doing so betrays a completely inadequate strategy.

Such a deliberate move by a commissioning company – the chess equivalent of Fool’s mate – should never work but it does, in industry after industry. Yes, I am saying that companies often support the commoditisation of an underlying component or constraint without realising this will reduce barriers of entry into their field and ultimately commoditise them. Companies seem to act thinking of the short term with no understanding of the impacts to themselves.

Most of the problem appears to be that companies cannot see the environment (i.e. they have no map) and aren’t used to any actual form of strategic play. To be honest, this is like stealing candy from a baby except the candy is worth millions or billions. What is really frightening, is it takes a couple of hours to map out and work out such a play. There is no way on earth you should be able to get away with this and I’m afraid it gets worse.

So, incumbent law firms should be investing more in technology, but they should also do so more strategically — armed with a really good understanding of the terrain they are fighting on. If they don’t, they become as useful as the water-trough pictured at the top of this post — fit only for decoration.

Strategy step 0: understanding where you are

One of the areas where knowledge is undervalued in law firms (and probably in other organisations as well) is the creation of strategic plans. This has always seemed odd to me, but I suspect that the pressure to respond to changing markets in the same way as other firms is a very strong one. (Especially as it sometimes appears that there is little differentiation between firms — something that I believe less and less the more firms I see at work.)

Map of the Siege of Toulon, led by Napoleon Bonaparte

Why is knowledge important for strategy? A number of reasons. I found these particularly well explained by William Duggan in his book Strategic Intuition. He described Napoleon Bonaparte’s success (the first in his military career) in the siege of Toulon as resulting from a combination of factors: tools and resources, knowledge of previous actions, openness to different solutions; and insight.

In 1793, the port of Toulon was held by the British navy in the name of the French royalist forces. Napoleon was an artillery captain in the revolutionary army. He formulated a plan to put pressure on the British forces by attacking forts on either side of the harbour. The first attempt at executing the plan failed due to the poor leadership of the general in charge. A later, better coordinated, attempt was successful. The British withdrew their forces in fear of being cut off from the rest of the navy.

The tools and resources Napoleon used were available to all — light cannon and contour maps. What he brought was an understanding of historic battles — the sieges of Boston and Yorktown in the American Revolutionary War, and the siege of Orléans in 1429. At both Boston and Yorktown, British forces on land were threatened with being cut off from their navies at sea and gave up the fight or surrendered. At Orléans, Joan of Arc’s forces routed the English army by attacking smaller forts rather than the large well-defended town itself. Napoleon’s insight was to see that rather than attacking Toulon (the obvious target, but a recipe only for a prolonged siege of attrition), his forces could use the high ground (discovered with contour maps, and accessible to light cannon) to take two key forts protecting the harbour. This strategy combined elements of all three historic actions in a way that was unique to the situation at Toulon.

Duggan is interested in the intuitive leap that Napoleon makes — he calls it strategic intuition. Successful strategic intuition depends on drawing together previously uncombined elements. Duggan recommends a similar approach to business strategy. In reality, what I see of many strategic efforts appears to depend more heavily on mere intuition — gut feel — without a real understanding of key factors affecting the organisation.

Firms often focus very closely on their own capacity and capability — what can we do now, and what could we do in the future — without thinking deeply about territory and logistics — external forces that need to be understood or managed. Ultimately, of course, Napoleon’s failure to consider logistics properly led to his greatest strategic failure — the march on Moscow in 1812. The  most fundamental failure, though, is not getting to grips with the territory.

My earlier posts in the legal ecosystem series were aimed at helping law firms get to groups with what is happening around them — helping them ask (and work towards answering) the right questions. Richard Susskind’s work has a similar aim — especially his characterisation of legal services transitioning from bespoke to standardised to systematised to packaged to commoditised.

I recently came across a more thorough way of mapping activities to help organisations understand how the land lies before making their strategic choices. The value chain mapping model was created by Simon Wardley, whilst working in the technology sector. Most of his examples arise out of this sector, but there is no reason why the mapping technique should not work elsewhere. He explains it well in this video of a conference presentation.

There is also a site that brings together many of Wardley’s writings on maps, including guidance on how to create maps for your own organisation.

I am still getting to grips with how the mapping might best be used for law firms, but the basic concept is fairly easily understood. It comprises three main activities.

The first thing is to describe the value chain, starting with user needs (client needs in law firm terms) and then identifying every subsequent need. Wardley uses a cup of tea value chain as an easily-understood example. (The diagrams that follow are taken from and link back to Simon Wardley’s blog.)

NeedThis simple diagram shows how a person’s need for a cup of tea depends on a chain of other needs, some more readily acquired than others.

However, even a complex set of such diagrams, describing a host of business needs, is incomplete because it is fixed at a moment in time. In reality, things change. Making a cup of tea in a domestic kitchen now is a much easier task than it might have been 200 years ago because of the reliable ubiquity of electricity, piped fresh water, supermarkets selling vast arrays of different types of tea and so on. Without those things, making tea was a more labour-intensive process.

So what Wardley does is to align each of those needs against an axis marking the typical evolution of products or services (similar to Susskind’s model): from genesis to custom-built to product to commodity to ubiquity.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 09.40.43

The different components of the value chain can then be placed at the right (current) point of their evolution. That then allows the organisation to look at how each of those components may develop and plan accordingly.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.08.36The end result may look a bit like this map which describes a major infrastructure project. The location of each of the components allows the project owner to decide how best to acquire or develop that component. The most evolved can be bought off the shelf, and those that are novel can be developed internally.

This kind of unbundling or componentisation is something that a number of law firms are doing for client work, although rarely to this level of abstraction. I am still reflecting on how well it might adapt to other aspects of a firm’s activities (I have a lingering uncertainty about the placement of risk factors and regulated activities, for example), but my current thinking is that this would be a very powerful tool to help firms with the very first step of developing any aspect of their strategies — working out the lie of the land.

Understanding the legal ecosystem

Having signed off my last blog post suggesting that a better understanding of the environment within which organisations work is a necessary precondition to   better management, I am planning a series of posts that will look more closely at the legal ecosystem of which law firms are a part.

Stone balancing, Loch Ossian

It is important to recognise that the connections between different components of the system (lawyers (at all stages of their careers), firms, alternative providers (in any form), clients, suppliers, and so on) affect the ecosystem as well as being part of the context against which any single component operates. One reason for trying to describe what is going on is that some of the commentary in this area focuses too closely on the actions of one set of actors without considering their impact on others and (more importantly) vice versa. The commentary also often tells a different story from what is actually happening. Jeremy Hopkins’s recent post on Public Access to the Bar provides a lucid example of the latter, showing that information about barristers attending courses to qualify for Public Access has been blown up into assertions about 50% of the Bar moving into work that has traditionally been the preserve of solicitors. Jeremy has a different view:

Where I’d suggest the debate has got a little hysterical, is the widely reported perception that the increase in Public Access authorisations represents a wholesale strategic re-positioning of barristers’ business plans with a view to a major onslaught on solicitors’ territory. More likely, it is a sensible investment of relatively small amounts of time & money to put oneself in the frame, without obligation, for possible opportunities while meeting mandatory CPD requirements.

Rather than dealing in hypotheticals, then, a proper assessment of the legal environment needs to focus on what is actually happening. That also means that one can only describe the current situation.

It is worth being clear about the limits of my inquiry. This is a partial overview (in both senses of the word). I can only write about what I know — there may be other factors invisible to me that affect how specific firms or practice areas will develop. Also, I am only concerned (for now) with legal practice in England and Wales — and primarily commercial legal practice. Nonetheless, I hope a general overview will provide a useful starting point for firms and lawyers to think carefully about their own more detailed ecosystem, how it may change, and what they might do to influence or mitigate those changes.

So what are the relevant components of the legal landscape? I have grouped them into three rough categories: clients, people, and context. (This grouping is purely for convenience, and allows me to have a nice Venn diagram here. It is not a normative statement.)


I want to explore each of these in more detail in later posts, but here is a quick summary of how they interact.

In classic Coasean terms, the firm exists to do work efficiently. Clients sit on one side of this equation, and the people within the firm on the other. ‘People’ includes those directly employed in doing the work requested by clients as well as those providing services to the firm (this is an increasingly permeable distinction, and I will look at it in more detail in the relevant post).

The firm needs to balance supply (people and other resources) and demand (client instructions). This isn’t a simple thing to do, because of all the other things that firms have to content with — the context within which they operate. That context includes the material that lawyers have to work with (the law), professional regulation, technological and other change, and the pressures of the market.

Managing the firm, and planning for its future, requires law firm leaders to understand the complex interactions in each of these areas, as well as across the boundaries. For example, changes in the regulatory sphere might prompt a client to change the nature of their in-house legal team, resulting in less work (or work of a different kind) flowing to the firm. Likewise, third party suppliers of legal information or technology to firms and clients can affect the way each relates to the other by changing their commercial terms or the products and services themselves.

Most of this is not unique to law firms, but there are some special features of legal work or the legal market that I want to draw out over the next few posts. The first of those will look at the part clients play in the legal ecosystem.

Law firms, memory and history

Today is 1 May, the first day of a new year for most UK-based law firms (financially, at least). All our clocks have rolled back to zero and there should be a clear way forward into the unknown of the coming year. With that in mind, I have been thinking about history.


A couple of years ago, I spent some time talking about the use of history within organisations with Julie Reynolds. We first connected following a conference session at KMUK in 2010, in which a colleague of hers described a knowledge transfer project involving Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. I referred to this in a previous blog post, but the links I provided there are dead or dying (Posterous is about to be closed, for one thing).

The work with the Hunterian Museum (along with other museums)  focused on the ways in which objects in the museum’s collection (some quite unusual) could be used to support different kinds of conversations within businesses. This is how I summarised it in 2010:

What [they] have done as part of the Knowledge Transfer Project is to develop a set of modules aimed at developing business skills, using exhibits from the museum. Some of these are quite intriguing (to say the least). They showed us images of two exhibits they use on the ‘building confidence’ module: a set of dentures made for Winston Churchill (designed to maintain his slight speech impediment so that no-one would notice the change) and “a painted silver prosthetic nose, mounted on a spectacle frame, from the mid-1800s. The nose was worn by a woman who had lost her own as a result of syphilis.” (Quoted from a Hunterian volunteers’ newsletter, in which there is also a picture of the nose.) She later presented it to her physician stating that she had remarried and that her new husband preferred her without it. It is easy to see how these items could spark a valuable learning conversation about confidence in a business or personal context.

Following her involvement in this project, Julie started a course in Manchester and we met a few times to discuss how her experience in curation might be used in a commercial context. She had previously worked for other businesses to help them connect with their own histories through archives and collections of artefacts. During these conversations, I quickly realised that law firms rarely refer publicly to their histories. Very few provide an ‘origin story’ on their websites and I suspect even fewer use archivists or similar professionals to preserve key documents for future use. (If you know better, please let me know in the comments or by email.) Julie had some great ideas of ways in which we might use the firm’s back-story to support some types of business development activity, but we weren’t ready for them. (The picture at the top of this post shows the imaginative container in which Julie presented her proposed ideas.)  I was disappointed that we couldn’t make it work, but I still wonder why firms have a problem with history.

After reflection, I think there are a number of different issues. The immediate one is that referring to the past doesn’t appear to help in winning work for the future (beyond highlighting juicy recent deals that might resonate with clients). When seeking legal advice, clients might be interested in the depth of experience within the team who will do the work. That probably doesn’t translate into an interest in the longevity of the firm or its antecedents. History, on this analysis, is a distraction. Another factor is that law firms are very fluid businesses. They have practically no existence separate from the people constituting them at any given moment. That means that history might be considered irrelevant, if not misleading. Finally (and back to the starting point of this post), the annual financial cycle is so strong that firms might actually sense 1 May as the beginning of current history, and so anything before that date is pre-history. (I think this last factor is actually diminishing for a number of reasons.)

But what is the impact of the anti-historical attitude amongst firms? The most significant for me is that without organisational memory, the firm has to fall back on personal recollection by distracted individuals. The result is probably even worse than anything produced by Jane Austen’s “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” This is sometimes manifest in the way that change is resisted. The classic lines, “That’s not how we do things here” or “We did that before and it didn’t work” can be heard in all sorts of organisations. But without a documented history there is no way to deal with them. A historical account can be used to disprove such statements, or to show why things that were true in the past no longer apply. If there is no historical account such a rebuttal is not possible, and so resistance succeeds. At a practical level, that is why documented after-action reviews can be so powerful.

In the end, it’s a paradox. Law firms need to look to the future and update themselves to meet new economic, regulatory, client or technological challenges, but many of them will fail to do so because they prefer to pretend that they have no past.