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Resilience

Resilience theory has become a dominant framework across many disciplines, from engineering to ecology. Resilience is formally defined as “The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks, and therefore identity, that is, the capacity to change in order to maintain the same identity” (Folke et al. 2010). In the theoretical model, “engineering” resilience refers to building in hard barriers to disturbances, such as a concrete seawall to fight off big storms, whereas “ecological” resilience refers to methods that bend more but bounce back, such as enhancing coastal wetlands to take the brunt of the storm.

Ten years after the Great Recession swept through the economy like a big storm, we can ask, how resilient was the legal services industry and how resilient is it today?  This gets us deeper into what goes into resilience. There are five attributes, with some trade-offs at play:

  • Reliability: The parts of the system have to perform as expected, and the system has to perform if a part fails
  • Efficiency: The system should minimize waste and perform as expected even in times of resource scarcity
  • Scalability: The system can perform as expected even as its scale increases or decreases
  • Modularity: The system can rearrange and replace its parts to respond to disturbance
  • Evolvability: The system can make changes necessary to perform as expected over long time frames

Engineering resilience is often associated with boosting reliability and efficiency, whereas ecological resilience is often more about working on scalability, modularity, and evolvability. You can quickly see where some of the trade-offs could complicate matters. For example, to build scalable and modular features in a system may require redundancy of parts, which may not always promote efficiency. Optimal efficiency would build in just the right amount of redundancy to keep the system resilient, but knowing how much that is can be a challenge.

Looking back on it, I’d say the legal services industry was pretty resilient to the Great Recession. So-called Big Law is back on the rise when measured by revenues and profits, albeit still less so than before the recession. And the emergence of significant new forms of legal services providers, such as United Lex and Integreon, and an array of new technology solutions suggests that the legal services industry is building modularity and scalability in order to evolve. And there are other positive signs, such as increasing employment and increasing law school applicants. Bottom line: contrary to all the “death of lawyers” rhetoric at the beginning of this decade, it didn’t happen—the industry was resilient. Yes, it has changed, but change to some degree is a hallmark of evolvability, an essential ingredient of resilience.  The question is whether it has maintained the same identity, and I would say for them most part, it has.

But how resilient is it still? What if another recession even half as bad as 2008 hit the economy in two years? The concern may be that the legal services industry, and Big Law in particular, has been so driven by the efficiency goal that it has dispensed with too much redundancy to take another head on blow like that. A concrete seawall may provide more immediate protection than a coastal wetland, but when it blows out, it’s ugly. In short, keep an eye on continuing to build scalability, modularity, and evolvability too.


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