Ocean liner or speedboat? I know which one I would rather turn

By Peter George|23 May 2019

You don’t need me to tell you that law firms need to adapt the way they deliver their services and do so quickly – so let’s take that as a given, writes Peter George.

I’m here to advocate for the small law firm being the most equipped for that change.

Big law firms have talent at scale. They have money to invest. And they have powerful brands and market capital. It’s a heady cocktail for market presence. But quick, real change – that’s another matter.

Once change comes into play (especially at the speed it needs to be implemented), the ocean liner that is BigLaw starts to look cumbersome and less effective, while the speedboats of SmallLaw zoom ahead. Why?

Agility

You may have come across Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation. In it, he crystallises three factors that determine capability to act. The first is resources, the second is processes (patterns of communication and action) and the third is values (standards by which decisions are made).

BigLaw has resources in spades but comes unstuck when you look at the other two factors influencing action. It’s necessary for processes and values to be pretty rigid in order to operate at scale. However this rigidity becomes a hindrance, rather than a help, when change is on the agenda.

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Fixed routines are difficult to change; entrenched values are a challenge to disrupt, and with so many decision-makers, approval and consensus is slow.

In contrast, small firms are inherently more agile. People adopt multiple roles. They are more proximate to the action and closer to their colleagues (all of them). Communication is less structured and more immediate. And with fewer people involved, it’s easier to take the time and attention needed to bring everyone along for the journey. Risks can be dealt with, but red tape is removed.

Change and innovation in SmallLaw is still hard. It can still be ‘two steps forward; one step back’.

But SmallLaw’s inherent agility in processes and values makes it easier to have an impact across the whole firm, rather than in pockets of the practice. In short, it’s easier to turn the whole ship.

Resources no benefit

We know that big law firms have resources in spades. The thing is, when it comes to change and innovation, resources rarely equate to results. In fact, the reverse is often true – scarcity drives creativity. In 2015, researchers at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the University of Illinois conducted six experiments to test the effects on creativity of having more versus having less.

As Ravi Mehta, a member of the research team at the University of Illinois explained: “As the Western world becomes more affluent, I wanted to know how a sense of abundance affects creativity, because it's creativity that moves society forward. New inventions and innovations – they all come from creativity. So how does an abundance mindset affect creativity? What we found is that abundant resources may have a negative effect on creativity. When you have fewer resources, you use them more creatively.”

So scarcity, not abundance, promotes creativity, invention and innovation.

SmallLaw’s constraints are our strength. We don’t need research to tell us what we already know: that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. SmallLaw should embrace these constraints as a springboard to creativity.

Marginal gains

Large-scale, expensive initiatives attract headlines and accolades. They are tempting to pursue, especially with a big budget available. They’re exciting and, somehow, at least initially, the large investment and public fanfare validates the choice of BigLaw to pursue this path. Occasionally, these initiatives are revolutionary. But many become too cumbersome and complex to be effective and fizzle out or fail to achieve anywhere near the level of ROI that justifies the investment made.

You see, most change doesn’t arrive as a revolution. It emerges as the result of many small, incremental modifications. SmallLaw is so much better at this approach because our limited means force us to be.

In 2003, Dave Brailsford joined the British cycling team as its new performance director. The team – which had been mediocre at best for the previous century – set its sights on a higher level of performance. Brailsford implemented an approach called ‘The Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ which broke down every contributing aspect to riding a bike. Once individual aspects had been identified, he aimed to improve each element by just 1 per cent, the idea being that the cumulative effect of such marginal gains would be significant.

It worked. Just five years after Brailsford joined, the British team won 60 per cent of cycling gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. And at the 2012 London Olympics, British cyclists set nine Olympic records and seven world records. Small improvements accumulated into remarkable results.

The things that really make the difference – the things that create lasting change – are usually small, incremental, unglamorous and low-cost: the very description of SmallLaw!

Small firms: you already have the tools you need to address the challenges of a changing market.

Your very nature encourages agility, creativity and incremental change. You are the speedboat to BigLaw’s ocean liner. So, SmallLaw, embrace your constraints, for they will be the very engine of your success.

Peter George is a managing partner at CIE Legal.

Ocean liner or speedboat? I know which one I would rather turn
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