Richard Susskind on Social Media, Legal Marketing and “Irrational Rejectionism”

As originally published in the National Law Journal on September 01, 2011

I had the chance to interview Richard Susskind, author of the bestseller, The End of Lawyers (Oxford Press 2008). I asked him about his perceptions of social media, marketing for law firms and the future of the legal industry.

Susskind is one of our leading futurists, keeping busy as a lecturer and consultant on information technology to large law firms and legal departments. Since 1998, he has served as adviser to a series of chief justices of England and Wales. He teaches at Oxford University and writes for The Times of London.

When Susskind began sharing his ideas 30 years ago, he felt like a “voice in the wilderness,” he said. Things have changed a lot in the last few years, but “it’s very hard to walk into a room full of millionaires and tell them they’ve got their business model wrong.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this sentiment. During a meeting at a white-shoe law firm earlier this year, a frustrated marketing expert complained that the lawyers were making too much money to be interested in changing the way they did things.

“Do firms really need to change?” I asked Susskind.

He explained that a trait common to large firms is “irrational rejectionism — perhaps because it is far easier to reject new ideas than give them a chance.

“So, how do I convince them to start listening to their clients?” I asked.

“That’s your problem right there — you are making an assumption that law firms care what their clients want,” Susskind said. “Firms are less interested in achieving competitive advantage than in avoiding competitive disadvantage. They are far more worried about what their competitors are doing then what the correct strategy is for them.”

This approach doesn’t make any sense, yet we see it all the time — firms that don’t blog or tweet or participate in social media because their competitors don’t seem to be doing so. Where does this come from? All strategy is based on the questions we ask. Law firms persist in asking the wrong questions: How can we maintain the status quo? How can we keep up with Firm A? What is Firm A doing well that we aren’t doing yet? How does Firm A blog? How does Firm A tweet?

Susskind observed: “Most senior lawyers are waiting for Twitter to take off. With over 200 Million users, maybe it’s time to start paying attention.”

Lawyers must face the basic truth that social media matter, yet so many lawyers are still waiting on the sidelines. Will they start to wake up and realize the world is changing around them? The economy is not what it once was, and the mindset that will bring success in the future is not the same as the mindset that brought success in the past.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” Susskind said.

We saw this example in Steve Jobs, who just stepped down as the chief executive officer of Apple Inc. after building it into the richest company in the world. How did he come up with the iPad? It had nothing to do with existing demand, competition or focus groups — he had a vision of the future and with it he created one of the most successful products of all time.

It’s time for lawyers to start acting a little bit more like Jobs and a lot less like their competitors. This concept may not resonate with you or your firm, but it will resonate with a few of the outlier firms — and these outliers will design the law firms of the future.

You can learn more about Richard Susskind at www.susskind.com or follow him on Twitter @richardsusskind.

Comments

6 Responses to “Richard Susskind on Social Media, Legal Marketing and “Irrational Rejectionism””

  1. Adrian

    Thanks for sharing your interview with Richard.

    I can understand the sentiment about the Millionaires Club but the reality in the UK is that the vast majority of firms are not in that bracket but, even then, they still fear change by virtue of having no logical alternative.

    Social media is a game-changer but, more than that, it requires firms to examine their whole business model. No one wants to shake everything to destruction when up until recently it has provided a fairly comfortable living. I think the firms that thrive (and possibly survive) will be the ones that are prepared to be truly radical and not hold on to outmoded methods of production. Lawyers have to get used to much quicker thinking. They are used to taking their time but the new world order requires much more of the “Ready, Fire, Aim” mindset.

    I think we will start to see pockets of excellence but not nearly as much as I would like. Consumers (not clients) will drive the agenda more and more, and firms can’t afford to sit on the fence forever.

    I am certainly seeing glimpses of more radical thinking but very often the moribund management practices ameliorate the actual decision to such a point that it leaves the firm a few inches further forward, and not a few miles ahead.

    I am in it for the long haul and am really excited by the opportunities ahead, particularly around Brand You and how social media can harness a lawyer’s persona in the market.

    regards

    Julian

    • You hear some in law firms and in legal marketing in particular saying, “enough with social media already,” but the truth is we have only started to scratch the surface. This idea of lawyers having their own online persona is generally only understood by a small percentage of lawyers in every firm.

      As for the lawyers not parked in the millionaires club, I think that’s where you will see the innovation. They have nothing to lose, and in the classic innovator’s dilemma it is always the smaller firms with a higher tolerance for risk that find the new breakthroughs.

      Thanks for your comment Julian.

  2. Ted Brooks says:

    Good observations, Adrian. Mr. Susskind certainly isn’t out to to win any popularity contests, but his points are accurate. I posted an article today, addressing the old saying, “He Who Is His Own Lawyer Has a Fool for a Client.”

    In this economy, law firms that resist change will have a difficult time surviving. In addition, alternative fee arrangements should be explored, in addition to moving on from the “jack of all trades” viewpoint.

    Here’s the link: http://trial-technology.blogspot.com/2011/09/he-who-is-his-own-lawyer-has-fool-for.html

    • Good points Ted. Whether you are talking about alternative fee arrangements, legal project management or digital marketing- the question going forward won’t be “if” but “how.” All of these advances will become indispensable.

  3. legaltruth says:

    Great article. It is quite sad that clients have to push the lawyers to change, whether businesses or consumers. Lawyers should know their clients and anticipate their needs.

    What people can do to progress the industry is to look at the new legal service companies that are entering the market and try them out. Legalzoom, Rocketlawyer, Axiom, Clearspire, CPA, Pangea3, etc. These business entities seems to have a much better understanding the services their clients/customers need. They are run in a more corporate manner, so they are nimbler and better able to adjust to market condition. They are also much cheaper (>50%), but offer quality exceeding the price.

    As legal entrants go up the value chain and steal the market share of the established legal services providers we will see great changes in the industry. Most of those changes coming from the new entrants. The incumbents will try to change as a matter of survival but in time I expect many to fail. Most legal futurists are over optimistic, the current legal model most readily adopted is fragile, built mainly on profit sharing, shared branding, and overhead sharing. The solo and small firms need to worry about Legalzoom and Rocketlawyer. Biglaw needs to worry about Axiom, Clearspire, CPA Global, Pangea3, and any other company entering the lower end of the market with a technological core to their business.

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