I was distractedly watching a wild life documentary while checking my Twitter feed a few days back when I suddenly found myself completely captivated. This was about Elks and Wolves, not my typical subjects of predilection.
More precisely, the documentary was centered around the unexpected results of the re-introduction of wolves in some parts of the North American great prairies.
Elks learned to run...again.
In the last half century, wolves have been hunted out of most of the great North American prairies, leaving plenty of space for generations of Elks to roam undisturbed, pace leisurely around river banks where fresh water and young soft plants were plentiful. Elks thrived and their numbers grew hugely.
Then about 20 years ago, something seriously bad for elks happened: conservationists decided to re-introduce wolves to these prairies.
Initially, it didn't go too well for the elks. Turns out they had grown "lazy" or at least unaware that they had predators and not too sure how to act around these hungry predators.
But then a few fantastic things happened. 1st, they learned to not just lazily stick around the water holes but rather go drink and then retreat to the safety of higher grasses of the prairies.
Turns out that being chased by wolves and avoiding being on their menu actually requires a bit of running around so the herds generally became healthier (who would have guessed that even elks don't like exercising).
Since they didn't continuously eat reeds and trampled the river banks, the vegetation around these areas grew stronger again with two results: first animals such as beavers and other rodents also re-appeared. Second, erosion slowed down and water also ran slower so fauna and other smaller animals also came back. Biodiversity improved tremendously.
The result is that after a fairly long period of adaptation (2 generations of elks), the elk population is now larger and healthier than it has ever been and the wolves population is also much larger.
The first part of the analogy with legal is pretty straightforward: "Big Law" are elks.
But who are the wolves?
While I have a huge amount of respect for New Law, this new generation of service providers (leaner, more focused, more inclined to use technology and flexible pricing models) I do not believe they could really be the wolves that will make the elks run for the higher grass.
In terms of the larger corporate clients and larger mandates, the picture at a macro level, I think the re-introduction of large accounting firms in the legal landscape is the bigger threat to law firms.
Accounting firms are now ran like real businesses, with fairly easy transparent management structure, established business Development strategies (e.g. Account Management) and most importantly, key relationships with function close to Legal in the C-suite (Finance, Audit, Regulatory etc.)
We are just in the early stages of wolves being introduced in the great prairies and so far, it seems that law firms in general have not really noticed the re-introduction of their competitors in their ecosystem.
They seem more worried about their "New Law" siblings than the real wolves lurking in the shadows, planning their next meal.
I would now want to take my (not completely accurate) zoological analogy further and re-classify New Law as a leaner, more effective, more agile type of elk, maybe an antelope?
Antelopes are now roaming the same prairies as elks but they are not truly a threat to elks, both can co-exist. Sure, they graze the same grass, drink at the same pond (compete for mandates) but antelopes will not suddenly jump on elks and go for their throats.
But wolves will.
The benefits of Diversity
The legal ecosystem is evolving and a full range of legal services providers can co-exist.
Sure, a few elks will get gobbled down and a few wolves will be trampled by elks but over time, the market will find its balance.
Until a new species appears or the wolves population increases to the point of not being sustainable anymore.