In every major industry, the well-being of companies depends in part on resources that nobody owns (sometimes called a “commons.”) While it may never come up in their quarterly earnings reports, Nike needs a culture of athleticism to sell shoes and the fishing industry needs healthy lakes and streams. When that underlying “infrastructure” is threatened, smart companies get to work. Just look at the way tech companies have staked out positions on immigration and Internet freedoms.
We predict that in 2023, law firms will enjoy a more robust and dynamic relationship with their own “commons” — the system of law and policy itself.
For an easy illustration of why, look at intellectual property law. For IP firms to be viable, major companies must continue to see the development of new technologies as a viable long-term path to growth. That didn’t happen by accident — hundreds of years of legal and cultural work created a system where a good idea can make a person rich. That firmament is currently fractured by a broken patent system, poor international protection of intellectual property, and (in some industries) a stifled culture of innovation. If these gaps in the system were healed, more innovative companies would flourish, and IP firms would flourish with them. The big brains at those firms could surely devise solutions to the problem and go to bat for them. Yet today’s firms are relatively nonchalant about the problems facing society’s innovation pipeline. We predict that the lawyers of tomorrow will be actively engaged in solving such problems in many different fields.
To find their voice, firms should look at the way leaders in other fields relate to their industries. Listen to an interview with an executive at a top tech company or consumer-facing brand, and you’re likely to hear some opinions about the market in which they play. Apple thinks tablets don’t need memory cards. Amazon thinks you’ll soon be able to buy labor online the same way you buy goods. Wal-mart thinks they’re a competitor to your grocery store and the NFL thinks its next big market is women.
A cynical attorney might remark that all these companies are doing is softening up the market for their next big product launch. Yes, counselor — and you can too. We think the legal leaders of the future will spend much more time having these kinds of conversations than debating who’s likely to make the AmLaw100.
But taking a stand on the role of law in society isn’t just about moving product. Fundamentally, it’s about the relationship of the legal profession to justice.
Here’s why. If you look at the system of law and policy as the “commons” of the industry in which today’s law firms play, its most striking feature is lack of access. A marketer might call it a disengaged consumer base. Most people feel as if they can’t afford a lawyer, and even those who can will do whatever they can to avoid paying for one. Demand for legal services as they currently exist is begrudging at best.
Yet demand for justice in our society is greater than it has ever been. In a society where you can use the Internet to buy airplane tickets as well as organize a revolution, people are expecting more out of the systems that supposedly serve them. Fixing this lack of access to justice isn’t just a problem for politicians and do-gooders; it will be a huge opportunity for providers of legal services. Firms that can genuinely expand everyday access to justice will have a huge new built-in client base that knows who to call when they have a more expensive problem.
These are just a few of the opportunities firms will open up by more critically engaging with the role law plays in society. We predict that the firms of 2023 will regularly ask themselves, “In what kind of world would we like to practice?” The answer to that question could reshape every aspect of how the firm behaves, from its brand to its bottom line. What’s more, the firm of the future will also develop the creative capacities not just to articulate their view of the world, but to make it real.