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A New Frame of Reference: Reflections on the Legal Industry from the Amazon River

Posted in Law firm practices, New Normal, Outside Counsel

It’s strange to find myself ruminating on the changes in the legal profession as I travel on the Amazon River in Brazil, 20 miles upriver from the city of Manaus.  What could the global legal marketplace possibly have in common with one of the world’s largest and most complex watersheds?

A couple of similarities swim into view:

  • The collision of diverse “ecosystems” precludes a comfortable and unchanging status quo.
  • The most successful species of flora, fauna are the ones that adapt fastest to the changing conditions.
  • After a huge storm sweeps through and floods the place, things never go back to the way they were.

Here on the Amazon, the unprecedented river floods of 2009 forced riverside homeowners to lift their houses significantly to higher stilts, to move their fields to higher ground.  This year, it looks like rainy season river levels will be even higher than 2009, and taller stilts just won’t suffice.  So, what are we suddenly seeing? Floating houses. The point: It’s never enough just to wait for current high water to recede. Agility is the name of the game.

Similarly, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) overwhelmed traditional economic norms and reshaped the face of the legal profession as well. Today, lawyers talk about law’s  “New Normal” as if the GFC simply floated law firms and their clients from one kind of stable “ecosystem” to another – from an environment  where the law firms shaped the rules of engagement to another where clients are reshaping the fundamental nature of the client-law firm relationship.  But even after all the players think they have adjusted to its changed landscape, the “New Normal,” will not be a static equilibrium, a set of taller stilts.  The so-called “New Normal” actually is a gateway to a process of continuing and often startling changes.

The Amazon teaches that change never stops. And, that’s my point as I sit here on a boat looking across the 2 mile expanse of the Amazon River just about where it merges with the giant Rio Negro.  I am struck by how totally different this place and this moment is from my conventional work life and work day.  To an exceptional degree, we lawyers get our heads into our game and keep them there.  We operate in a synthetic world totally of our own making and generally behave as if it is the “real” world, the only world.

Even those of us advocating for greater innovation and still faster change in the legal profession often find ourselves trying to change our perspectives and actions from inside the box.  That may permit small, incremental changes where we all nibble around the edges of innovation, but this convention-based perspective so narrows our focus that it all but eliminates the ability to entertain large and dramatic paradigm shifts.  As noted legal consultant George Beaton so aptly puts it: “Where you are defines where you will remain, unless you do something dramatic.”

A Wharton professor recently suggested to me that the difference between strategic and tactical thinking is this: with strategic thinking you envision a desired end-state out there on the horizon and drag that vision back to the present.  With tactical thinking, you start where you are at the moment and try to push a goal out toward the horizon.  There’s a place for both.  But, lawyers, whether they admit it or not, are far more prone to reactive steps based on the present than on re-imagining their craft, its purposes and outcomes.

  • Larry Bridgesmith

    Very strategic thought and great insights on the transformative nature of complex adaptive systems. As our global economy is an ecosystem, so too are all the subsystems within it such as the legal services industry. No subsystem can hold back the fundamental changes dictated by the supersystem in which it must survive. In change management we often teach that changes in complex adaptive systems occur in one of two ways: they can be nudged and they can be blown up. Nudging takes an eternity, but is sometimes the only approach that works. Blowing things up leaves many casualties and requires the remaking of a new order. When nudging moves too slowly, the supersystem might flush the resistant systems out to sea. As you say, we can do both. However, knowing how slow is too slow and speeding the process of change will be the mark of those that thrive in a new environment others wish would simply revert back to the old order. In legal services today, the latter is not an option. Thanks Pam for providing a very apt analogy.