Reflections from a parallel universe

With the publication of Jack Newton‘s terrific new book The Client-Centered Law Firm: How to Succeed in an Experience-Driven World (glowingly reviewed by Bob Ambrogi at Above The Law), I thought I’d share with you an excerpt from the book’s foreword, which Jack graciously invited me to write. Then go order and read a copy of The Client-Centered Law Firm for some great insights into where the legal marketplace is going and what lawyers can do to keep pace with it.

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I’ve recently returned from a trip to a parallel universe, where an alternative timeline of history has unfolded. It was a fascinating place, and I want to share with you some of what I saw there.

  • I saw the enormously profitable entertainment giant Blockbuster, which watched the internet develop and understood its potential as a movie distribution engine. Blockbuster used its vast collection of films and its data about customers’ buying habits to become the world’s leading source of movies online, and now even produces its own films. “We’re not in the business of renting videocassettes,” Blockbuster’s leaders told themselves. “We’re in the business of helping people enjoy the movie they want to see tonight.”
  • I saw the great photography multinational Kodak, whose researchers were among the first to develop the technology behind digital cameras — but rather than dismissing their researchers’ work, Kodak’s leaders saw an opportunity to develop an entirely new line of products. The company eventually invented digital photo technology that it now licenses to Microsoft’s popular “mPhone” at an enormous profit. “We’re not in the business of selling film,” Kodak’s leaders realized. “We’re in the business of helping people take pictures.”
  • And I saw the most powerful and valuable company in the world: Sears, the global online shopping colossus. Leveraging its long history as a source of convenient purchasing — from its catalogues to its distribution centres — Sears understood that the internet was the most convenient possible way for people to shop, and it invested heavily and successfully in the technology to make it happen. “We’re not in the business of running department stores,” Sears’s leaders said. “We’re in the business of helping people easily get the products and services they need.”

In our own universe, of course, things didn’t turn out quite this way. These longstanding market incumbents missed the opportunity presented by new technology to rethink just what business they were really in, and to re-design their companies in ways that could enable them to use this technology for greater growth and higher profits.

But this alternative timeline reminds us that established market leaders need not inevitably lose out to upstarts and challengers from the outside. Not only is it possible for incumbents to reap the rewards of technological changes, it is incumbents who are best positioned to do so. They already have the market dominance, the financial reserves, the brand power, and the proven track record of success. All they need is to be willing to think a little differently about themselves and about their customers’ actual needs.

This is exactly where the legal profession finds itself as we open the third decade of the 21st century. It is now beyond all doubt that technology has changed and will continue to change the conditions under which legal services are bought and sold. There is no going back to the way things used to be. And we shouldn’t want to go back, because we can now serve our clients better and faster and less expensively and with a higher degree of quality than we could before. We’re at the dawn of a golden age of legal services.

Lawyers can lead the way into that new age — if we are willing, if we have the courage and the foresight, to understand that technology and change and upheaval are not threats, they’re opportunities. Opportunities for us to give more help and better advice to more people and more businesses, faster and more effectively and more profitably than in the past. Opportunities to work fewer hours, connect more deeply with clients, run better legal businesses, and lead happier personal lives.

Are you in the business of billing hours? Are you in the business of filling out forms and signing documents and attending meetings? Are you in the business of measuring out your life in six-minute increments?

If you are the lawyer I think you are, then the answer is no. You are in the business of helping people solve problems, of putting lives back on track, of helping businesses grow and prosper. But it’s possible that your own law business has started to chase and measure and reward the wrong things — that it has forgotten its intended purpose, what and who it’s actually for. Because the purpose of your law business is your clients.

It’s time for the legal profession to develop client-centred law practices. It’s time for us to rethink and redesign our law businesses. It’s time for you to write your own alternative history.


  1. Simon Tupman

    Succinctly put. I will be ordering my copy. Thanks for posting Jordan.

  2. Julian Summerhayes

    Thanks for sharing, Jordan.

    Do you think the book adds anything more to what we already know about law firms?


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