Do clients prefer lawyers who are hedgehogs or foxes?

Ken Grady leads today with his intriguingly titled post: Do clients prefer lawyers who are hedgehogs or foxes? Refresh your memory about Archilochus, the Greek lyric poet (c. 680-c. 645 BC), famous for his poetry fragment: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing” – Πόλλ᾽ οἶδ᾽ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἕν μέγα – and immerse yourself in addressing this profound question.

The English philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, popularized that fragment by using it as inspiration for the title and the analysis in his famous book: “The Hedgehog and the Fox” (named in The Guardian as number 28 on the list of 100 best nonfiction books). Berlin divided the world of writers and thinkers into two groups. The hedgehogs have deep knowledge in one area and view the world through that narrow lens. As examples, Berlin cites Plato, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Proust. The foxes have shallower knowledge in many areas and draw on that wide perspective when viewing the world. Fox examples include Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Joyce.

Berlin’s book examines Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Leo Tolstoy) and his monumental work, War and Peace. He concludes that Tolstoy is conflicted, both a hedgehog and fox, causing him great pain. Berlin set the stage for many other analyses focused on whether it is best to go deep in one area or to know many areas in less depth.

The Lawyer As Hedgehog Or Fox

Red fox standing over curled hedgehog

The hedgehog and fox analysis should have meaning to lawyers practicing today. There was a time, perhaps 40 or more years ago, when lawyers perceived themselves as more foxes than hedgehogs. A lawyer might have been a corporate lawyer or a litigator, but within such broad categories the lawyer had a wide perspective on the world. Lawyers were called upon to provide the fox perspective to help guide clients.

When I started in litigation almost 40 years ago, it was common even in large law firms for litigators to handle cases in many domains. The partners with whom I worked handled securities, environmental, antitrust, intellectual property, and commercial cases. The emphasis was on litigation skills rather than domain knowledge (which all arrogant litigators knew they could acquire in the blink of an eye).

Today, those foxes have been replaced by hedgehogs. A litigator specializes in a domain and seldom strays. Clients want specialists (or, in the words of one reader, hyper-specialists). The same is true in other areas of law. What at one time was an employment lawyer today is a Fair Labor Standards Act lawyer. The corporate lawyer focuses on mergers and acquisitions, or licensing, or supply chain arrangements, not on general corporate law. I worked at a large law firm where we had a hedgehog tax partner. He had an incredible depth of expertise in his chosen area of tax law, but he was lost when asked to fit that knowledge into the context of the deal.

Clients have driven much of the fox-to-hedgehog conversion. At $100,000 an hour or whatever is the current going rate for a junior partner, clients want to place a phone call and get an answer. A fox lawyer cannot be up to speed on all the published material related to many fields. Since humans can only store and access a limited amount of information, firms opted to limit the domains of lawyers. As the flood of information grows, the temptation within firms to continue narrowing domains to fit the constraints of the human mind grows.

The NewLaw Conundrum

(I’ve used editorial prerogative and elided New and Law in the sub-heading to reflect the language of the NewLaw business model) 

If the challenge was simply finding a narrow enough domain, it could be solved quickly. Instead, along came the “NewLaw” thinkers demanding that lawyers know operational excellence domains. To substantive law, they added project management, process improvement, metrics, data analytics, and technology. They blended the hedgehog and fox and came up with a new term, the “T-shaped” lawyer (courtesy of Amani Smathers).

This chimera was expected to have deep substantive knowledge in a substantive law domain (the vertical bar of the “T”) and some knowledge of all the NewLaw areas (the horizontal bar of the “T”). The hedgehog and the fox became one.

Practicing lawyers rebelled. How does one have the time, the energy, and the bandwidth to be both the hedgehog and the fox? Oh, and by the way, the lawyer still must market his or her services.

This conundrum captures much of where we are today. Faced with overload, senior practicing lawyers have resisted the push for NewLaw. They aren’t moving forward or backward. Many hope this fad will pass. Others hope that their retirement date will come before the system radically changes or collapses. Lawyers prefer to remain the hedgehog, comfortable in their area of expertise.

Law firm managing partners, however, are, for the most part, trying to bring their firms into alignment with client expectations. At this point, a reference to Sisyphus and rolling a boulder uphill would seem appropriate. Managing partners want chimeras, or at least enough of them to satisfy clients.

A Legal Industry Multi-Headed Chimera

Many believe that artificial intelligence will save us from the hedgehog, fox, chimera problem. AI will be the portal through which we augment the human mind. Instead of a lawyer narrowing his or her domain to stay within the bounds of what they can remember, they will rely on AI to access the relevant information. The lawyer’s job will be to interpret and apply that information to the situation at hand.

If AI fulfills this promise, then lawyers may be able to do what clients ask. The lawyer will rely on AI to augment the lawyer’s knowledge of a domain (the hedgehog). Some lawyers will also have knowledge of how to efficiently handle the client’s matter, while increasing quality and reducing cost (the fox). Other lawyers may choose to use the horizontal bar of the “T” to bring strategic analysis to the client (again, the fox). Combine these lawyers with the growing cadre of professionals skilled in other areas of legal services, and firms, law companies, or both can field powerful teams focused on solving client problems.

Clients want hedgehogs, foxes, and chimera. Hedgehogs are useful because of their deep knowledge of areas of law. This is more than knowing the regulations and cases. It is knowing how all the pieces fit together in a domain. Foxes also are useful, because they have perspective. They can see the forest and how the trees fit together. Chimera are useful because they can bring together hedgehogs and foxes into very effective teams.

It would be a mistake to assume that all lawyers must become foxes or chimera, just as it was a mistake to believe that hedgehog lawyers alone would satisfy client demands. Our complex world demands and justifies diversity.

Author of Do clients prefer lawyers who are hedgehogs or foxes?

Ken is an author on innovation, leadership, and on the future of people, processes, and technology in the legal industry. He is an Adjunct Professor and Research Fellow at Michigan State University College of Law; and on the Advisory Boards for MDR Lab and LARI, Ltd. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.

Do clients prefer lawyers who are hedgehogs or foxes? first appeared on Ken’s blog, The Algorithmic Society on May 15, 2018.



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Kenneth A. Grady

Hmm, where to start. First, becoming a chimera (a T-shaped lawyer) does not involve becoming an expert in all areas. The lawyer is an expert (hedgehog) in his or her domain, and becomes sufficiently knowledgeable about other areas to practice efficiently (not the current model). You may be the exception, but most lawyers are unfamiliar with project management, process improvement, metrics, analytics, and other “NewLaw” areas to employ them in their practices. What you don’t know, you can’t offer your client. My direct experience is that clients (not all, granted, but that is a separate post) greatly prefer lawyers who can lead more efficient teams. In fact, that is what I preferred as a client. As to paying by the hour, that comment alone marks the discussion as decidedly “OldLaw.” If a client prefers billing by the hour, then by definition they are not looking for efficiency, quality, timeliness, or productivity. They are content to grossly overpay (about 75% by most studies). Your second point shows that you missed the chimera/T-shaped lawyer point — not an expert in all areas, but knowledgeable enough to know when to use them and how they work (think CEO — not an expert in… Read more »

Mark Lewis
Mark Lewis

31 May Thanks Ken. So much in there that, for now, will limit myself to just one point, my (4). I absolutely get why a GC should be – and usually of course – is a fox and why CEOs want and likely need their GCs to be foxes. My question was quite deliberately aimed at private practice: is there any room for legal foxes in private practice? Mark 30 May Maybe as an English-qualified lawyer I’ve been a hedgehog for too long (though now into chimera). I am struggling to see why clients do or should want practising lawyers to become a blended hedgehog and fox (your “chimera”) when it comes to “NewLaw”. My direct experience as a partner in a law firm that is known for NewLaw is this. (1) Clients certainly do not expect their lawyers, be they foxes or (more likely) hedgehogs, to be NewLaw chimera.Why should they? How would practising lawyers (as you say, usually more hedgehog than fox) have become expert in new-fangled legal processes and technologies? More to the point, why would a client pay their lawyer to be a chimera, especially by the hour? (2) Instead, law firms and legal departments that practise… Read more »