Are lawyers are artisans? Should they be artisans? I asked myself that question after reading Why Pay $24,000 for a Kitchen Knife? (Wall Street Journal, 07 March 2020). It reminded me that it’s not just food that is artisanal. And it’s not just knives. The success of Etsy – “If it’s handcrafted, vintage, custom, or unique, it’s on Etsy” – illustrates the appeal of artisans.

Thinking about artisans and artisanal products, I wondered if and how large law firms could learn from them. What services or features could they add or change? What would artisanal law look like? I quickly realized my thinking was backwards. High-end lawyers and firms are artisans and have been for decades.

Google tells us that artisanal means “made in a traditional or non-mechanized way.” I’d add focus, specialization, rarity, and craft. That describes what many high-end lawyers do.

Many at this point would trumpet the need for efficiency, automation, and innovation. Not me. Just as consumers pay a premium for artisanal goods, clients with tough legal problems pay a premium for specialized lawyers. Lawyers were early adopters of the now-hot artisanal trend. Clients pay for their experience, judgment, and advice – for highly custom-crafted counsel.

Thinking of lawyers as artisans helps explain the recent and rapid rise of experience management systems. Just as consumers seek that just-so artisanal product, clients seek that just-so lawyer for their problem. Taste is subjective but legal experience and success can be proven. Lawyers, practices, and firms can demonstrate artisanal skill, that just-so-ness, by cataloging and presenting prior relevant work.

The implications here reminded me of a great, recent blog post about the importance of trust in lawyers, and how trust relates to experience. Dan Currell‘s piece at Legal Evolution (thanks to Prof. Bill Henderson), The Trust Revolution (book review) [22 December 2019] is an important read to understand experience, trust, and the limits of innovation. He writes:

[M]uch of the most valuable legal work is broken down into sufficiently tiny specialties that the market for any given competency is very small. Indeed, it’s hard to get reviews into all the nooks and crannies of the specialized legal market. 

In sum, I realized that my starting question – how can lawyers get on the artisanal bandwagon – was exactly wrong. The best lawyers, the high-end lawyers, the one who command the highest rates, have long been artisans. And here, lawyers beat the trend by decades.

The question for clients, of course, is what portion of their matters require artisans or, in Currell’s terms, a high degree of trust. Many client problems are business as usual, neither difficult nor rare. For these, a law factory approach – the opposite of artisanal – remaisn the most cost-effective solution. My blog posts about law factories suggest that, over time, clients will know where to draw line. I hope that’s right.