China syndrome

China is shaping the world we live in — along with India, Wal-Mart, Google, RSS, Wikipedia, wireless, and the World Wide Web 2.0. It’s not just manufacturing jobs moving to Asia, it’s white-collar professional work, too. And that’s just the start of it.

From what I can tell, we’re poised on the edge of great upheaval: economic, political, sociological, geopolitical, even climatic. The world in 2016 won’t be simply the world in 2006, aged ten years. It’s going to be a whole new construct, difficult for us to navigate and completely foreign to anyone who doesn’t remember, say, the chaos of the Second World War. The safety nets are being removed.

As Thomas Friedman argues persuasively in The World Is Flat, we’re looking at an economic and power shift away from North America and Western Europe and towards Asia — from Russia down through China and on into India. Services and skills previously believed to be safe from foreign competition are getting commoditized and relocated at an astounding rate.

Competition is now global, and that includes lawyers. The General Agreement on Trade in Services will eventually get around to dealing with legal services. When it does, then some of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world are going to draw a bead on our legal community. Anyone who thinks there won’t be a Clifford Chance or DLA Piper office in Canada within a decade or so is not paying attention.

The Internet continues to change everything. Information — accurate and otherwise — circulates around the globe at epidemic rates. We’re approaching the point where you can’t sell simple knowledge anymore — not unless it’s specifically tailored for a client’s individual use and comes bundled with wisdom and good judgment. And even then, it’ll be a crowded marketplace.

This isn’t meant to be fear-mongering — but it is meant to focus attention very sharply on the need for all Canadians, including lawyers, to be ready for anything. The best advice I’ve gleaned from the analysts watching these events unfold can be summarized by these priorities:

Innovate. Don’t wait for the competition to make the first move, because your competitors are legion and lightning-quick. Use technology.
Learn. Add new skills constantly. Increase your CLE intake, especially online and in podcast form.
Collaborate. Network like crazy. Get involved in joint ventures. Share ideas and efforts over the Net. The day of the lone wolf is ending.
Specialize. Non-lawyer providers of legal services are multiplying. Upgrade your offerings beyond their reach.
Stand out. Distinguish yourself through your services, your client relations, your delivery, your personal touch. And whatever you do, don’t compete on price.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the January/February 2006 issue of National magazine.