I recently asked a lawyer whether his firm was pursuing a relatively new idea and his response was, “how many other large law firms are doing that?” My reply was “why is that a relevant question?” He was taken aback and offered no answer. 

The setting was a social event, the lawyer involved in his firm’s communication efforts, and the question was “has your firm considered a blog?” I have previously posted about firm-branded blogs, so will not cover that territory again. The interesting issue here is how firms think about change and new ideas.

Large law firm technology managers who suggest new initiatives frequently face the question “how many other firms are doing that.” Most businesses evaluate a proposal based on benefits, costs, feasibility, and risk. The analysis includes what competitors are doing but that’s not the starting point. In three years of strategy consulting at Bain & Company, I do not recall a client or consultant ever starting with that question.

In well-functioning markets, that is the wrong question. When customers have ample choice and switch suppliers to achieve lower cost or higher benefits, producers constantly look for ways to gain share by doing a better job pleasing customers. So producers eagerly assess new ideas that might provide a competitive advantage. When suppliers fail to embrace the new, they suffer (consider, for example, Digital Equipment or Detroit car-makers).

In the legal market, however, it’s hard to identify instances where the market has penalized firms for being late adopters. Firms may lose a client or two if they lag, but this does not lead to folding. The only explanation I can offer for why firms can repeatedly start with the wrong question is that their customers are simply not demanding enough.

Maybe I’m completely wrong… I’d love to hear from anyone who has a better explanation, either why this question is the right place to begin thinking about change or why law firms can keep asking if it’s wrong.