Lawyers, for whatever psychological reason you want to ascribe them, don’t like being first. Most legal marketers know this to be true. How often have we been asked by the final decision maker, prior to making that final decision, “who else is doing this?”

In every market, whether geographic or practice-centric, there is a firm that your firm looks to for leadership. In L.A., it is Latham or Gibson Dunn. In New York, it is Cravath or Skadden.

What many of us, particularly our friends over at the Association of Corporate Counsel, via their Value Challenge, are talking about these days is how the current business model of law is broken. Yet few firms, and fewer firm leaders, are willing to step up and try something new. Orrick’s Ralph Baxter, sums the problem up well here:

Going forward, he said the current system was clearly “not sustainable” because it depends on being able to charge clients and work associates more and more. Firms’ inability to do so in the crisis economy they will face next year will force them to make major changes, he predicted.

“The market was set up assuming that every associate coming out of law school wanted to work 3,000 hours a year so he could make partner and work 3,000 hours a year for the next 20 years,” said Mr. Baxter. “Clearly, that’s not reality.”

Yet, the headlines I keep reading don’t talk about ingenuity and forward thinking. It’s more of the same game of follow the leader, or the domino effect we saw after the White & Case layoffs.

Why do firms continue to follow, and not lead?

I’ve written here about how the current economic crisis is setting the stage for a new type of law firm to emerge. The law firm that is aligned with the business models of their clients. The law firm that is actually training and developing the future leaders of the legal industry, not burning out the youngest and brightest the law schools can churn out. The law firm that is willing to take a chance, to take a risk.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, “There she goes again, getting all Pollyanish on us.” Turns out people, I’m not alone.

I was listening to a Law Firm Marketing and Web 2.0 podcast with Jay Jaffe earlier today. Towards the end he talked about how social media is the most exciting thing that has happened to law firm PR in last 10 years. I couldn’t agree more. However, I think Web 2.0 is much bigger than just PR.

Although social media will not cure cancer or the common cold, it will provide the opportunities for the new law firms to emerge. It will be the arena where the new leaders will identify, develop and build their tribes.

We are already experiencing how social media and social networking are allowing lawyers and clients to easily meet and connect. And the rules are changing every day.

The era of the institutional client, who was handed down, without thought or concern, from senior partner to junior partner, year after year, is dead. Clients are no longer constrained by the “top” firm in their marketplace. Clients can easily go out and explore their options.

The question I have is: who will be there to greet your clients when they arrive?