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Signs of the Times

Posted in New Normal

When you spend a lot of time looking at the world through the lens of developments in the legal profession, sometimes the ironies of happenstance can slap you right square in the face.  Take, for example, page B3 of the November 14, 2013 Wall Street Journal.

Apparently coincidentally, two articles sit side-by-side above the fold. One, entitled “New Paths Sought for Young Lawyers,” talks about the attempts of a New York City Bar Association task force to address the challenges caused by fundamental shifts in the legal profession that have led to thousands of new lawyers entering the market when jobs in big firms are in short supply.

New York City Bar President Carey Dunne points out that, “well-paid jobs at big law firms are shrinking as clients push back on price and lower-cost alternatives, such as legal outsourcing firms, take on work that law firms once performed.”  He concludes that “connecting the issue of supply and demand is the most critical issue. Looking for other ways to practice law successfully is something people ought to be focusing on more.” Amen, Brother.

Adjacent to this article calling on lawyers to break away from traditional patterns of thought and practice is another article entitled “Final Opus for Pleyel Pianos.” It seems that Pleyel, for 200 years a manufacturer of pianos of uncommon craftsmanship (and extraordinary price), has gone belly-up, a victim of the successful invasion of high-quality but lower-cost Japanese and Chinese products.

Speaking of supply and demand, Pleyel, once the official piano supplier of Frederic Chopin, “tried the high end route,” says the WSJ. It decided to go up-market, cut back its annual production of top end pianos from 2000 to 20 a year, while pushing the price point through the roof (think €200,000). This dodgy strategy of choking off supply ran headlong into the tightened purse strings of even wealthy consumers during the global recession. Eventually Pleyel announced that it was laying off all the craftsmen and ceasing production at their fabled Paris workshop. In an attempt to forestall impending doom — and outlast the recession — it focused on selling pianos from its stock of already finished instruments.

Citing “a person familiar with the situation,” the WSJ  noted that “Pleyel’s business model was slow to adapt. High overhead costs combined with irregular orders made the company’s situation challenging.”

Sound Familiar?

Yow! Does this strategy of denial, resisting change, and too-little-too-late remind anyone of  today’s rapidly morphing legal landscape?  Does the piano manufacturing tsunami of Japan and China remind anyone of the current bloom of alternative and far less costly legal service delivery methods, including Axiom, offshoring, legal process outsourcing, “smart” technology platforms, and other harbingers of an utterly new order? And finally, does confining sales to already-finished pianos — a strategy that has no future — resemble those law firms who try to maintain profits per partner by hiring laterals rather than investing in training and developing young lawyers?

Pleyels are indeed exquisite instruments, the absolute zenith of quality, beauty, craftsmanship and applied experience. Yet by attempting to sell into a market that no longer exists, Pleyel’s demise calls to mind the protestations of today’s legal Luddites who contend that each legal matter should be treated as unique and each lawyer should strive to be a unique exemplar of steadfastly traditional service delivery methods and attitudes.

So, there you have it, an object lesson taught in the juxtaposition of two articles, one about innovation and the other about ossification.  Actually, there are two object lessons here.  The first is that in business, legal and otherwise, you can’t buck change with reactive strategies.  The second is more blunt, more brutal and altogether inevitable: Innovate or die.


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