This TED talk is fascinating. It looks at the maths of biological, economic and social growth. It shows some basic underlying principles of how Cities and companies grow, suggesting that growth is related to both innovation and the search for economies of scale. It’s worth watching for general edification but also with half an eye on the growth of law firms and the sustainability of current ways of doing legal business. The basic message: all companies grow and then die. Growth is spectacular, then it plateaus and then the company implodes. New models, based on innovation replace them: they build themselves around social networks (not in the facebookian sense but in the Google sense of creative empires). [Network analysis has not been much attempted in law firms (though see Emmanuel Lazega’s work for very interesting attempts in the area): it may be time to attempt some more.]
Big Law feels like it has been with us a long time but historically this is not really so. In the UK big law firms were only permitted once the cap on partners was removed in the late 60s. The current plateau may only be temporary: globalisation may provide room for further growth or be the engine of innovation and destructive challenge that this talk predicts. It may be that big law is somehow different, more resilient, protected by its links with the state and political power, but the basic maths of growth outlined by Geoffrey West provides food for thought.