On February 4, 2014, Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary. Its market penetration is fairly astonishing. Facebook has 1.25 billion users worldwide. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll (link), Facebook is used by 57% of all American adults who use the internet and by 73% of all such users aged 12-17. Further, of the 43% of adult Americans who do not use Facebook (or as we call it in my house, “the Facebook”), half of them live in a house with someone who does, and half of that group will look at photos or posts on that account. And the most astonishing fact of all is that Facebook has done this without changing even one iota.
Ok, that last “fact” is painfully false. I personally resisted Facebook for the first 5 years of its existence. It was not until I went to a high school reunion that I was convinced that I was missing something. Even over the course of those 5 years, however, Facebook has evolved significantly and is poised to announce a record quarter to go along with its anniversary.
The story of Facebook seems to have as much twisting as it does success, but it is an excellent example of the “myth” of the brass ring. The term “grabbing the brass ring” is thought to be a reference to 19th century carousels, where the outside group of riders was afforded the chance to grab a prize, a brass ring, from a moveable arm that would require the rider to reach out and grab it. (The product liability lawyer in me shudders at the thought of encouraging inexperienced riders to shift their weight in the direction of the centrifugal force of the carousel, but I digress.) This then became a colloquialism for striving for the prize or working towards ultimate success.
Mark Zuckerberg is, on paper, one of the richest people in the world, and the richest person under 30 years old in history; all this despite lawsuits, competitors, privacy concerns, and a blockbuster movie that portrayed him in a less than positive light. As of January 31, it was reported that Mr. Zuckerberg’s net worth was almost $30 billion (at least to the extent that being off by $300 million can be considered “almost”.)
I don’t think there is anyone in the world that would not call that successful. Yet he presses on. Hasn’t he gotten that brass ring yet? It’s a matter of definition, I suppose. And the tale is one that plays out on significantly smaller scales all over the country, and it is playing out in our industry right now.
Facebook has continually evolved to expand its offerings to its users. And at least in the last couple years, it has evolved to concentrate on….here comes that dreaded “P” word….profit. Back in 2004, the social media space was dominated by Friendster and MySpace. Friendster fell prey to not being able to generate enough income to keep up technologically with its own growth. Users jumped to MySpace, and then jumped to Facebook. And still Zuckerberg and Facebook pressed on.
So where is this elusive brass ring? The fact is that people who are passionate about what they do continually change their goals, and so the brass ring evolves with them. The old anecdote goes that the surest way to destroy the racing prowess of a greyhound is to let it catch the rabbit, even once. Believing that you have reached your goal is the most certain way of allowing yourself to become passive.
For our industry, the “standard” way of doing things is under assault. Some clients are pressing for more value. Sometimes, that value stems from developing alternative ways to charge for legal services. Sometimes it is simply adding more perquisites to the relationship (e.g. a free seminar to the client). All too often, clients drop into the “standard” response to economic influences: rate pressure. From other directions, LPOs and “non-standard” law firms are increasingly earning market share away from traditional law firms, particularly those that are not evolving as quickly as the times.
There are those in the industry who believe they have grabbed the brass ring. The economic response to increased cost that has served them for the last two decades is still being employed: increase the rate and/or increase the number of hours worked. The other standard economic response, increase leverage by laying off employees, is also still being trotted out consistently. What we don’t see a lot of is change.
This blog has talked about many concepts that are not foreign to the business industry, but are far from ubiquitous in the legal industry. Concepts of kaizen (or continuous change), delivery of value, and alternative pricing have all been discussed at some length, and there is certainly more to tell. But the key point is this. If you believe you’ve reached that brass ring, you’ve set the bar too low. If you think you’re close to it, you should re-evaluate. Embracing not just the dedication to process, but also the process of change, will save this industry. And make no mistake, the legal industry in 20 years will not look like this one. The only question is who will be driving the ship, and who will be holding onto their tarnished prize.