By Eric Kilby (Flickr: Speeding By) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The International Bar Association has announced a conference on "Building the Law Firm of the Future," to be held in November 2017 in London.

It sounds interesting.

But I wonder if they have the topic backwards.

I am not one of those who are touting the impending death of the traditional law firm (in some cases, I suspect, only to drum up business for themselves as saviours or undertakers). My practical observations as I have advised law firms over the past 21 years convince me the law firm remains an evolving business institution that has shown considerable imagination, creativity, and resilience in response to the changing needs and expectations of its clients.

However, no one can deny that the business of practicing law will probably be much more difficult 10 years from now than it is even today; and law firms will have to continue to evolve. Not all will be able to do so.

The ever faster pace of change has blurred the perceptions of law firm owners, leaders, and managers -- much like trying to study a high-speed train passing close by at 300 kph.

Members of the Walker Clark team have long been helping law firms to watch the "speeding train" -- and even get on board. In 2000, for example, Lisa Walker Johnson and I pioneered the use of Future Search®  in the legal profession. This is an intellectually rigorous planning methodology for law firms that need to define common ground about their future -- 10 or 15 years from now, not just the next fiscal year -- and execute reliable plans to achieve their goals. (Click here to learn more about whether a Future Search is right for your organization. We do not recommend it for everyone.)

As we have helped law firms "look over their strategic horizons" and identify the changes that they will have to make, we have validated several important points that typical "law firm of the future" discussions usually overlook:

  • First of all, the future is already here. The forces that will shape your professional future are already present in today's legal markets. The problem is that many law firms can't see them.
  • Even the most successful law firms often can't see these forces because they do not understand the force and effect of paradigms in the practice of law. Our profession is a forest of paradigms, and most of us can spend a whole career in the practice of law without ever noticing them. As a result, most lawyers never realize that many of these paradigms, such as traditional concepts of law firm partnerships and irretrievable price sensitivity, have shifted -- not until they feel the seismic tremors of declining financial performance.
  • Just thinking about the future is not enough. Law firms must start moving now toward the future that they want. "Wait and see" might seem prudent in the face of bewildering change. Maybe it is better, we want to think, to wait until everything gets sorted out, until some of the dust settles. That might appeal to the risk-adverse orientation that most lawyers take when advising their clients; but it inevitably leaves a law firm with fewer options and a higher risk for bad decisions and ineffective responses.
  • In addition to investing time and intellectual energy in trying to anticipate and understand the future, there is an equally important need for law firm leaders and planners to understand what they need to do in order actually to get to whatever "law firm of the future" that they want. 

These are not vague academic theories. My colleagues and I -- and our clients, with a little help from us -- detect them at work in every law firm as, invisible to others, they quietly shape each firm's future and fate.


Norman Clark