Reading McDonald’s Seeks Its Fast-Food Soul in the New York Times this weekend got me thinking about Big Law and the legal market.

What could fast food possibly have to do with Big Law? Maybe nothing. But many markets try to learn from other industries. And perhaps lawyers can learn from McDonald’s struggle to meet changing consumer tastes and new competitors.

So first, about the lawyer exceptionalism part of the title. Lawyers I have met for the past 25 years have, for the most part, maintained that law is special, that lawyers and firms cannot learn from other markets. They may not have said it out loud or quite this way, but they clearly thought so. If they turn out to be right, more power to them.

But what if I’m right? What if other markets do hold lessons?

A while back Toby Brown and I started a dialog here and at 3 Geeks and a Blog about Law Factory (my law factory posts here). I started my discussion by looking at how major hotel companies such as Hilton and Marriott have multiple brands that offer different combinations of features and prices to appeal to different market segments. I still think that is a useful framework for thinking about legal services. So is looking at other industries…

McDonald’s has been much in the news lately for its sliding same-store sales. Read the article referenced in the opening for detail. The top line story is that consumers want fresher, more customized food and many are eschewing Big Macs for Chipolte fresh.

In the last couple of years, many discussions of the legal market have focused on “disruption”, inspired by the tech sector. The McDonald’s story illustrates that change can happen pretty quickly, even in old line industries. This is not the only recent change in long-standing consumer behavior. My recent presentation on change management included a slide that illustrated the 10 year shift in coffee tastes:


The shift in consumer behavior seems to come as a surprise to many. But perhaps such changes are more common than we think.

Tech and fast food are only two of many industries seeing secular changes. Consider the automotive sector. Short-term, as car makers replace steel with aluminum, some suppliers will lose, others will gain. Longer term, driver-less cars promise even more change. Or consider how the furniture industry has changed. As a college graduate years ago, I had few options to buy inexpensive, readily available furniture. Ikea, Crate & Barrel, Mitchell Gold and many other players have changed what it means to buy furniture.

Now, you ask, how does this ramble relate to Big Law. What if a segment – perhaps a large number – of Am Law 200 firms are the fast food of Big Law? (Exclude the white shoe NYC firms and a few others that are clearly the high-end restaurants.) Will their clients seek fresh new choices, ones with the equivalent of faster order times and simpler menus? And if they do, will those firms be faced with a string down years? Without public ownership, unlike McDonald’s, Big Law is not as well-equipped to handle sustained downturns.)

I do not claim a strong theory here. Rather, I intend only to prompt thinking about the large law firm market. And to question the idea that lawyers and law business and exceptional.

So, if we can learn from McDonald’s and fast food or other industries, what lessons should we take away?