To learn more about corporate clients’ practices and perspectives—and about their own potential contributions and creativity—law students and lawyers might draw constructive counsel from two books on the 90-year history, and phenomenal success, of the privately-owned LEGO Group (from the Danish, leg godt, or “play well”). 

     Although neither work emphasizes legal issues, both draw on the company’s records and the recollections of executives including Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a former president and CEO (who spells his surname differently than did his grandfather, LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, and father, Godtfredt, the company’s second leader).

     Together, the books illustrate and illuminate the ways in which this global “household name”:

      ● responded to cultural and technological changes (including the rise of video games, personal computers, and the Web, and a dramatic decline in the age range over which children play with traditional toys);

     ● monitored public reports of the research of “child psychologists and pedagogy experts,” and conducted its own consumer surveys and play-testing;

     ● coped with leadership succession, engaged advisors, and recruited senior officers;

     ● coordinated the development, launches, and updates of products;

     ● periodically pruned duplicative and extraneous offerings and initiatives (including LEGO theme parks); and,

     ● continuously refined (and possibly redefined) its private values, and reformulated its public identity.

     Jens Andersen describes his lavishly-illustrated The LEGO Story (2021; translated, 2022) as not “a traditional business book, but rather a cultural history and biographical chronicle of three generations of the [founding] family.”  He also traces the company’s role in the development of (including, in the mid-1960s, the installation of an airport in) the small Danish town of Billund, where it was founded and where its headquarters remains.

     In the mid-2000s, a proposal to cut costs by outsourcing some of LEGO’s production would have radically reduced the ranks of employees, but Kristiansen  “insisted on keeping the most important part of the molding here in Billund.  That was sacred for me. . . . And in the long run, [the outsourcing proposal] turned out not to be much use,” because of third parties’ inability to perform.

     By contrast, Wharton School professor David Robertson’s Brick by Brick (2013), originally a case study for a projected book on “innovation management,” deploys more business jargon (e.g., creative destruction, blue-ocean markets, disruptive innovation, customer driven), and explicitly formulates what some of its intended readers might call “impactful learnings in the innovation space.”

    Although in 1947 the English company Kiddicraft patented its plastic “Self-Locking Building Bricks,” that patent extended only to England, France, and Switzerland.  LEGO began selling its own versions in Denmark the following year; in 1952, the company started to concentrate its marketing, previously distributed across “265 different wood and plastic products,” on its newly-named LEGO Bricks.

     As Andersen notes, in early 1958, LEGO invented and patented its revolutionary, and now-iconic, interlocking system of lugs and connecting tubes, as well as (to prevent competition) a variety of other connection methods.  However, Robertson reports that after its final patent expired in 1988, LEGO unsucessfully attempted to convince different countries’ courts that “the design of the LEGO brick was so ubiquitous, any other company’s production of it violated trademark law.”

    In the mid-1950s, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen envisioned not just the use of these blocks by adult hobbyists, engineers, and architects, but ultimately, as Andersen characterizes it, a LEGO-catalyzed “global shift not just in the way we build and construct but also the way we think and behave as human beings.”  He declared, “We aren’t a toy factory, we are a LEGO System company with a special purpose.”

     Central to the company’s operations since 1955, the “LEGO System in Play” (to the philosophy-minded, the Logos of LEGOs) is the ever-expanding catalog and always-interoperable nature of its building components. 

     Indeed, Bent Flyberg’s and Dan Gardner’s How Big Things Get Done (2023), includes “Build With LEGO” as one of its “Eleven Heuristics for Better Project Leadership.” 

     Flyberg and Gardner recommend engineering designs, such as some already used for “software, subways, hardware, hotels, office buildings, schools, factories, rockets, satellites, and app stores,” that are “profoundly modular, built with a basic building block.  They can scale up like crazy, getting better, faster, bigger, and cheaper as they do.”  Their chapter on this principle is titled, “What’s Your LEGO?”  (They might not, however, have offered the most original extended use of LEGO analogies.)

     As times, tastes, and technologies changed, LEGO’s product lines evolved.

     Four years after the company introduced its Building Figures in 1978, it began to market smaller versions known as Minifigures (or, minifigs); Andersen notes that more than nine billion have been sold.  Like their “LEGO Friends” descendants (2012), these figures were developed largely as an attempt, based on the company’s market research, to enhance the appeal of their System to girls.  (The second of “The Ten Most Important Lego Principles” presented by the company in 1963, is “For girls, for boys.”  Other principles include, “Unlimited play possibilities,” “Enthusiasm at all ages,” “Play all year round,” and “More LEGO, greater play value.”)

     Although not among those ten principles, the company’s longtime policy of not producing warfare-related toys was challenged, if not actually violated, by LEGO’s best-selling pirate-themed figures (1989). Andersen quotes the company’s internal magazine: “[W]e certainly do not want to encourage violence and aggressive play, [but] pirates—as well as cannons, rifles, and cutlasses—are perhaps a borderline case.”

     Ten years later, the company launched extremely popular products tied to the release of The Phantom Menace, the fourth of the Star Wars movies.  Kristiansen recalled that he approved the licensing agreement for this and subsequent installments in the franchise because the series “is a modern adventure story that takes place in a fantasy world, and it’s about the eternal battle between good and evil.  It’s not remotely unhealthy for children to be thinking about that and playing games about it.” 

     Yet Robertson notes that the company had carefully surveyed U.S. parents, who “overwhelmingly backed the idea” of the Star Wars products, as well as German parents, “who at that time were the company’s largest and by far its most conservative market,” but who were similarly enthusiastic.

    The “fantasy world” defense would not be available for the contemporary but short-lived Jack Stone figure (2001), which, Robertson indicates, was larger and more muscular than the existing minifigs, as well as “darker and edgier, with a fast-paced story line that has him piloting Res-Q Copters and foiling bank robbers.”  One LEGO executive attributed the toy’s creation to pressure from the American market, which “was becoming dominated by Walmart, Kmart, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Target. . . . We were told that if we didn’t do this stuff, we would lose shelf space.”

    As Andersen observes, LEGO products would come to include Harry Potter-themed items, as well as the company’s own “muscle-bound, warlike LEGO BIONICLE” action figures, and “the. . . macho fighting machines LEGO Exo-Force, which were inspired by the violent classic The Terminator.”  (According to Robertson’s in-depth chapter on Bionicle, that line was marketed only after “the development team had launched two earlier products. . . and learned through real-world experience what worked and what didn’t.”)

     Such toys, which were often accompanied by company-structured and –supplied backstories, arguably diminished, on both the corporate and consumer levels, the values that Kristiansen had in 1988 proclaimed to executives as the core of his “LEGO Vision”: “creativity, imagination, enthusiasm, spontaneity, and curiosity.” 

      However, those values were certainly integral to the enormous success of 1998’s high-priced Mindstorms series, which married the company’s traditional plastic construction elements to motors, infrared sensors, and computers.  (Andersen notes that “40 percent of the buyers and users were fathers and other adult men who played with LEGO in their childhood. . . .”) 

     According to Robertson, after the proprietary source code of Mindstorms source was leaked on the Internet, and an independent programmner released a superior but open-source version, LEGO overruled its lawyers’ plans to pursue the hackers with cease-and-desist orders.  Instead, the company “sought to catalyze the burgeoning community’s creativity by adding a ‘right to hack’ to the Mindstorms software license and creating a Mindstorms website with its own discussion forum. . . .”

     (Similarly dismissed, Robertson notes, was a LEGO lawyer’s requirement, in a Request for Proposals document for third-party developers, that a massively multiplayer online (MMO) LEGO video game would work perfectly when it was released.  In fact, the company and its ultimately-chosen developer would, “[i]n the months and years to come, . . . . ceaselessly struggle to smack back bugs and achieve a rough equilibrium between less than perfect and better than merely done.”  That project was terminated fifteen months after the game went online.)

     Not only did LEGO allow customers’ criticisms of its Mindstorms accessories to remain accessible in the company’s official online forums, but it released “a free, downloadable software development kit” to help hobbyists create their own Mindstorms applications.  Writing in 2013, Robertson describes Mindstorms as “the best-selling single product in the company’s history.”  He examines in detail the ways in which the company selected, engaged, encouraged, and managed online enthusiasts to help develop (or, “cocreate”) the Mindstorms line.

     Moreover, as Robertson discusses, the costly but cutting-edge “Darwin” project, proposed in 1994 by a non-employee who simply walked into LEGO’s headquarters and asked to speak to its leader, “let fans imagine and create their own LEGO kits using virtual 3-D bricks.  They could then upload their dream models to the website of LEGO Factory, and LEGO workers would assemble the physical sets and ship them to their citizen designers.  If other fans liked the designs, they, too, could order the bespoke sets. . . .”

     References and analogies to actual LEGO products recur throughout Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, about the efforts of a group of young programmers, immediately after they leave Microsoft, to start up their own software company.  The protagonist describes their Darwin-esque product as “a virtual construction box—a bottomless box of 3D Lego-type bricks that run on IBM or Mac platforms with CD-ROM drives.” 

     As in a LEGO leader’s vision four decades earlier, the fictional product is presented as “a powerful real-world modeling tool usable by scientists, animators, contractors, and architects.” One of his colleagues observes that LEGO is “a language in itself.” 

     Over the course of their coding (and amidst their constant stream of techno-sociological insights and speculations), the main characters become more mature, self-aware, individualized and interdependent.

     In fact, beyond their discussions of mostly management (and, less frequently, legal) issues, Andersen’s and Robertson’s books provide building blocks for creativity (including re-creation and recreation), on the personal, professional, consumer, coder, corporate, and community levels. 

     Robertson notes early on that Godtfred Kirk Christiansen “limited the range of different shapes and colors of bricks that LEGO produced[, and] personally vetted every proposal for a new LEGO element.”  Decades later, to decrease manufacturing costs, the company restricted the number of special components that its designers could create for use in only one kit.  An executive told Robertson, “Innovation flourishes when the space available for it is limited.  Less is more.”

     The same executive concluded: “[Y]ou don’t think yourself into a new way of acting, you act yourself into a new way of thinking. . . . When you act your way into a new habit, the habit becomes your opinion about how you should do things, and that opinion becomes your character as a person or as an organization.”

     Another insider informed the author that developers of LEGO products maintained “a fantastic library with all these binders, and in each binder there’s 101 opportunities that never became anything. . . . Even if the idea doesn’t work, there are still some worthwhile nuggets in there.  So we’ll park it, and someday the idea might reappear in some strange new form.”

     Perhaps the material most relevant to and resonant with lawyers, who must constantly (and likely without having received formal training in management) balance competing considerations for their clients, is a 1986 poster of “The 11 Paradoxes of Management.”  

     Written by Per Sorensen, a LEGO director who for twenty years was “in charge of personnel, organization, training, and working conditions, among other things,” the list, reproduced in Andersen’s book, includes “To plan your working-day carefully—and to be flexible [in] your planning” and “To be visionary—and to keep both feet firmly on the ground.”) 

     In his 2015 book, Team of Teams, retired General Stanley A. McChrystal, the former (2003-2008) Commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, strikingly compared his leadership role to that of a nurturing and facilitating gardener, rather than a micromanaging chessmaster.

    Andersen reports that Sorensen, asked on the occasion of his retirement what he would like to be remembered for, similarly answered:
     “Just write that for a number of years I helped to make sure things didn’t get formalized, that it wasn’t too much of a symphony orchestra with a conductor and sheet music and not enough of a jam session with ensemble playing and space for improvisations.  This is how we preserved the LEGO culture, or the LEGO spirit, if you will.”

     You don’t have to be a lawyer, or even a 1L, to be an AFOL—or to find some thought-provoking “takeaways” in these multifaceted accounts of LEGO.