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What Law Firms and LPO Can Learn From Frank Lloyd Wright

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In the last few years writing this blog on Legal Outsourcing/LPO I have come back to the question of “change” in the business context. Whether it was the demise of Nokia (and maybe soon Blackberry) or the overnight near-extinction of Tom Tom by Google Maps on smartphones, on a very frequent basis businesses and business models get wiped out by events that are partially foreseeable, partially outwith their control, but always ignored until it is too late.

That is where I feel the Law Profession is on a number of fronts. I am not a believer in the “End of Law”, more of a “It’s law, Jim, but not as we knew it” advocate. But when I see the lethargic responses to LPO of most of the Amlaw 100 firms, I really do question their ability to avoid the landscape changes that would put them in the same category as Nokia/Tom Tom.

The trip to Tokyo really gave me the best parable I could imagine, courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As someone who has a bit more than a passing interest in architecture, one of the questions on my mind was why Frank Lloyd Wright left the US to work for a number of years in Japan.

FLW did this when he was 50 years old, at a time when many “normal workers” are thinking about retirement. He also did it slightly out of desperation. No one in the US was recognising his skills, so he had to do what Americans are great at doing i.e. following the work, wherever it is (though before the days of Uhaul).

His greatest achievement was the building of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (though he had other projects and a lasting legacy in the people he taught). As we know from recent years, Japan is very susceptible to earthquakes and in 1923 Tokyo was hit by a biggie.

Basically FLW took the good news the the hotel had survived due to his skills, used it to market his message and skills, but years later the truth came out and the hotel was demolished. [Read the cut'n'paste below from Wikipedia (backed up by other sources)]

When I read Catrin Griffiths very good article in The Lawyer yesterday the parallels with FLW’s reaction to the Tokyo earthquake seemed too good to miss. http://www.thelawyer.com/firms-can-ride-the-lpo-wave/1015050.article

Yes, law firms can say they will ride out the LPO (and other) earthquakes. Yes, they will survive. But have the foundations not been so rocked that they could be unrecognisable in 10-20 years?

The Imperial Hotel And The 1923 Great Tokyo Earthquake

The structure famously survived the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 (7.9 on the Moment magnitude scale (Mw)). A telegram from Baron Kihachiro Okura reported the following:

Hotel stands undamaged as a monument of your genius hundreds of homeless provided by perfectly maintained service congratulations[.] Congratulations[.]

Wright passed the telegram to journalists, helping to perpetuate a legend that the hotel was unaffected by the earthquake. In reality, the building had damage; the central section slumped, several floors bulged, and four pieces of stonework fell to the ground. The building’s main failing was its foundation. Wright had intended the hotel to float on the site’s alluvial mud “as a battleship floats on water”. This was accomplished by making it shallow, with broad footings. This was supposed to allow the building to float during an earthquake. However, the foundation was an inadequate support and did nothing to prevent the building from sinking into the mud to such an extent that it had to be demolished decades later.

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