His title, a quote from futurist Paul Saffo, is a cautionary tale for organizations whose markets are undergoing fundamental change which, right now, means virtually everyone.
Whether their behaviors suggest this or not, law firms inarguably are on a downward slope following a prolonged period of tremendous success. They have been to the mountain, and have resided there so long that there may be very few large-firm lawyers who can remember when they didn’t.
Smaller firms and solos, who tend to be much closer to the pointy end of the stick and, therefore, feel economic shifts more quickly and acutely, are far more aware of the cycles in their practices.
To varying degrees, both now recognize that the practice of law is changing and will continue to change dramatically. No one thinks that demand for legal service has peaked. On the contrary, modern business is far too complex and -regulated) for that. Legal issues are likely a growing part of business life. How those issues get addressed, though, and what form legal service will take is where the change is happening.
Law firms will go through what Kelly terms “devolution” while their clients and they figure out how things will be done going forward, after which there may well be another mountain of success. Here’s KK’s concise description of what’s in front of you:
The terror of devolution is that a firm must remain intact while it descends into the harsh deserts between the mountains of successes. It must continue to be more or less profitable while it devolves. You can’t jump from peak to peak. No matter how smart or how speedy an organization is, it can’t get to where it wants to go unless it muddles across an undesirable place one step at a time. Enduring a period of less than optimal fitness is doubly difficult when a very clear image of the new perfection is in plain sight.
“We tend to mistake a clear view of the future for a short distance.”
To scale a higher peak — a potentially great gain — often means crossing a valley of less fitness first. A clear view of the future should not be mistaken for a short distance.
On a smaller scale, individual attorneys now recognize the criticality of developing a defensible, differentiated personal market position as a path to earning a reliable book of business. Many may even have figured out what that should be and how they’ll go about it; they have a clear vision of the next success mountain. However, most lawyers have little experience actually doing that or reliable methods to apply, and devote relatively little time to it, so I’d argue that they’re unlikely to appreciate the challenges of the “valley of less fitness.”