Law Firms: Change as a Challenge, or an Opportunity?

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International Lawyers Network

Four years ago, we joined with HighQ in looking at the question, “What do you believe lawyers and law firms need to do to prepare for the future of legal services?”

Considering how much has happened even in the past six months, and looking at the way the legal industry adapted to being fully remote in many countries in 1-2 weeks, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look back at what some of the leading experts in the industry had to say in 2016, and put that into today’s context.

In reading what many of us thought in 2016, the overriding sense is less that firms have been preparing for change and more that COVID has forced firms to have to be innovative and creative because they have no other choice. The old adage that when something is painful enough, THEN we will make changes, is just as true for law firms as it is for each of us.

But is change a challenge…or an opportunity?

I think we already know the answer to that.

So although COVID has been painful for the way in which we work (to be clear, I’m not trying to make light of a terrible pandemic, but in this case, I’m discussing it in relation to the legal industry, and how we work), it can also be the catalyst to drive us to make some of the changes that will really be positive in the industry moving forward.

What are the opportunities that industry leaders saw in 2016?

Collaborative working environment

Ron Friedmann said lawyers “will deliver better quality output by tapping marketing professionals, IT professionals, accountants, consultants, and other domain experts.”

Working remotely has equaled the playing field in many ways – firms have learned just how essential their IT professionals are, for one, as they’ve worked to make remote working as seamless as possible, and lawyers have come to appreciate that the ability to ignore their office technology in order to work on client matters means that it’s working seamlessly…and they have someone to thank for that. Equally, marketing professionals have learned how to highlight their own efforts more effectively now that they’re not as visible in the office, and that many accountants aren’t able to be remote shows how essential they are. A firm doesn’t operate without all of these pieces working seamlessly together. We know that if these things aren’t currently happening, that we have to do better to ensure that they are.

Michelle Mahoney agreed in a separate chapter, saying that “innovation is a team sport, and everyone has a role to play.” We are organizations that are made up of people, and we can, and should, capitalize on that. When is the last time you brought together members of your firm or organization to discuss where they see the firm in 5 or 10 years? (Though, as some have joked, who would have guessed in 2015 that we would be HERE?) Or to problem-solve a challenge that you’re facing together? Yes, strategic and operational decisions need to be made and undertaken by those in the positions to do so, but it doesn’t mean you can’t bring together your people to collaborate and source some of the legwork to get at what really matters. Not only will it help you to identify what your organization is really about and what matters to its people, but it will also help them to feel invested in the process and behind the decisions that you’re engaging in.

Better service delivery

Friedmann goes on to say that client’s expectations of their lawyers have changed too, and that being smart is just table stakes (I know this isn’t news to anyone). “The new mindset must recognize that, in most cases, 90% of matters, clients will assume that most any lawyer they pick will come up with the right answer. Clients want empathy and better service delivery. Empathy means a true understanding of pressures on the client.”

Like never before, I do think we have seen this during the pandemic, because it feels like empathy was at an all time high. I shared many jokes with my lawyers (and others) that it was probably the first time that you would ask someone “how are you?” when you greeted them, and mean it. We were all calling our clients to find out how they were – not for billing purposes, or to see whether they had new work, but genuinely to inquire after their well-being.

Here, we have an opportunity for this type of empathy to continue – when lawyers really listen to their clients, take the time to understand their concerns and the anxieties and pressures surrounding their businesses, it will enable them not only to better serve them as their lawyers and business partners (effectively), but also to identify issues on the horizon that may crop up. The stress of COVID has also given each of us a window into how our clients react when they are the most stressed about their businesses, their health, and the future, and how that impacts our working relationships with them – this is valuable information for the future, and our future relationships with them. Do they back away? Need more hand-holding? Require more updates? Whether we ever face a crisis like this again, you will now have the tools to better understand how to lead with empathy in a way that better connects you with your clients. V. Mary Abraham talked about this in her contribution, saying “Speaking ‘client’ means the ability to hear what your client is telling you and to interpret those words from the perspective of that client rather than merely from the perspective of that client’s outside counsel. This empathetic knowledge goes way beyond Google Translate (if, in fact, Google Translate could handle it!) to a deep understanding of the needs and aspirations behind the words. This is a language you learn best by being the client or by walking in the client’s shoes for many miles.”

Being proactive

Jordan Furlong had talked about the tendency to view the 2008-2009 crisis as something that we got through, and were then able to return to “normal.” He cautioned firms against this, and instead suggested that they be so reactive that they were almost proactive. I would agree with him, and my assumption is that those firms were likely the ones who were able to move the most quickly when they were forced to go remote.

As Furlong said, “Instil not just a sense of urgency among your equity owners and employees, but also an ethic of continuous responsiveness. Help your people understand that this isn’t a one-time crisis, but an ongoing process of market adjustment that requires fluid, real-time reaction. Don’t just wait to see what other firms are doing so you can copy them. Be the firm others try to copy – and do it so well that they don’t stand a chance.” (Prophetic words for today.)

Early on in the pandemic, it seemed that we all had that sense of continuous responsiveness – at least in terms of client requests. And part of that was due to desperation, because we were all unsure of what the future held, and wanted to make sure our businesses would continue to be there moving forward. At the point we are at now, the desperation may have faded a bit, but the opportunity for continuous responsiveness is still very real – but it extends past a simple responsiveness to clients (which should be the case anyway). It’s about thinking strategically about how to be adding value in a way that is meaningful. How to be efficient and effective while we are still limited in our travel and our ability to connect in person. How to have agile teams and processes that will deliver better services. Proactivity in our responsiveness doesn’t end with picking up the phone as the client is calling – it is looking at the way your firm or practice operates as a whole, and ensuring that you’re delivering on your offerings in the best way possible to your clients.

Client-centricity

This leans a little bit into the idea of better service delivery, but I do believe we’ve seen the client centered for law firms in a way that we haven’t in the past (at least, I hope we have). Consider webinars as one example – when the pandemic first hit, SO many firms were offering webinars, and many of them held them at what were traditionally well-attended times – lunchtime. They quickly learned that there were many clients at home with small children, or children being home-schooled, who also needed to have lunch at that time and a webinar wasn’t convenient. So for those clients that continued to be interested in webinars, they held them, but pivoted to a different time. Or they provided a digest of relevant information instead. Some clients pushed back and said that they preferred a personal call with the information that was directly relevant to them, so lawyers began providing that. There were some firms still sending blast emails out with long COVID digests, but it seemed that the majority were listening to the client requests, and immediately adapting.

As Ari Kaplan pointed out in 2016, “While the future of legal services is certain to prominently feature technology, it is critical for professionals to recognize that in order to maintain their value in an evolving environment, they will need to find ways to distinguish themselves from the very tools they use to succeed.” So, we may all have access to Zoom (and what a lifesaver it’s been!), but it’s not the tool that’s distinguishing you from your competitors – it’s the way you center your client. Knowing what he or she needs, when they need it, and how – that’s the difference-maker.

These are the opportunities – some of them firms are already taking, and need to sustain in order to see continued success. What else will be required? As some industry experts said in 2016, firms will also need open-mindedness and truly committed leadership. Dr. George Beaton said “Law firm partnerships are well known for being amongst the most conservative and hard-to-change organisational forms.” But in 2020, when faced with the reality of COVID, law firms picked up their practices and brought them home – some with days’ notice, and others within a week to two weeks. One of these most conservative industries did that, globally. So I believe that true, sustainable change is possible, and that we can expect great things to come out of the legal industry over the next ten years.

As for me, what did I say four years ago would be necessary for the law firm of the future? Flexibility. More specifically:

If there’s anything that we learned from the economic downturn of 2008, it’s that those firms that are most successful today are those that are flexible and responsive, and able to collaborate with their clients as business partners. That’s not just true for today, but will be true for tomorrow too.

Flexibility translates to being open to market shifts, advances in technology, and adapting your partnership/business model to the needs of clients and the marketplace.

To prepare for that, firms and lawyers will have to stay on the cutting edge of industry trends – they may not need to adapt to them immediately, but they’ll have to be aware of what they are, and engaged in the discussions around them.

To make the most of these, three things will be essential:

  • Having strong strategic goals and plans in place that drive the firm and its lawyers, and are evaluated and modified on a regular and ongoing basis to quickly respond to changes in the marketplace.
  • Engaging with industry thought leaders, both within the legal industry itself, and within their own specialty industries.
  • Instituting a strong client feedback loop that allows for open communication with their clients to ensure that their needs are being met, and that the firm is adapting and growing with them.

The more flexible and adaptive firms can be, the more prepared they will be for whatever the future holds – whether that’s big changes, or small ones.

This is just as true in 2020, as it was in 2016. Let’s see what the next four years bring us.

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