Time to re-set the legal profession?

As one GC recently put it to me, “the re-set button has been pressed on the legal profession”. Whilst the button has certainly been pressed, the machine has not yet rebooted.

If one needed to look for evidence of the re-set, that was provided by Mark Harris, CEO and Founder of Axiom who received a Special Achievement Award at the as always excellent FT Innovative Lawyers awards held in London recently.  If anyone had suggested ten years ago that in 2013 a US start-up would be winning legal awards ahead of, and more importantly winning work from, the Magic and Silver Circles they would have been laughed out of the Square Mile.

If one needed to look for evidence that the machine has not yet rebooted, then it’s worth taking a closer look at a few of this year’s FT award entries.  Whilst many were truly innovative and congratulations must deservedly go to the winners, a handful  strike me as business-as-usual, not innovation.  For example, “providing cutting-edge competition advice”, having “a one-day brainstorm session” and “international expansion”.  Entries like this demonstrate that whilst the words “legal profession” and “innovation” are not quite paradoxical terms, they do not always fit comfortably into the same sentence.

Whilst many leading thinkers and practitioners have long talked about the systemic changes the market has seen over the last ten years, if firms continue to submit business-as-usual entries for the UK’s leading legal innovation awards, it surely illustrates just how far the profession has yet to travel on its innovation journey.

It’s too easy to lay the blame solely at the door of the legal service providers.  But (with few exceptions) any firm which thinks it can continue to rely on a model which is simply the continued provision of traditional legal services will at some point suffer a rude awakening. The market’s new ‘disruptor brands’ such as Axiom and Lawyers On Demand (LOD) are here to stay and as clients are awakening to the positives that innovative flexible legal resourcing may bring to their teams and organisations, many leading firms are reassessing their client offerings and adapting to these new services either by entering the market or seeing the business case for working with those alternative service providers on certain projects.

Ultimately though the providers will not reshape the landscape themselves, clients will play the instrumental role in ensuring that supply meets demand. Whilst clients understandably demand “more for less”, the most innovative General Counsels are also open minded in terms of how they are willing to work with their legal service providers.  More for less with no change to service provision just simply will not work.  More for less with structural service change will.

Over the last seven years, LOD has seen that many clients are already alive to this with client demand leading to major disruption in the market place.  LOD was an early stage service which was conceived to meet that early disruptive demand and we are now facing the challenge ourselves of seeing who wants to disrupt the disruptors. Whether launched as a standalone service, or with the backing of an international law firm, there is an ever increasing queue of alternative legal service providers ready and willing to play.  LOD’s secondment model remains an innovation success story, but we know that we won’t “win” unless we continue to evolve our service offerings and pricing structures in line with market demand and increased competition.

“Put yourself in the client’s shoes” is a constant LOD mantra and service development is a daily theme in our office. Whilst services like LOD are leading global law firms to reassess their models’ and not ‘rest on their laurels’, competition from other flexible legal resourcing services means we at LOD are constantly evaluating our offering to ensure we continue to fulfill client demand.

I’d like to think as the FT awards evolve that the bar will be set even higher and that we won’t see even a handful of “business as usual” entries and instead will continue to see people and practices push the boundaries of innovation in future years.  But to prevent that from happening, the profession (both supply-side and client-side) needs to think about what it wants the future to look like.  As Harris put it on the night, “Bigger is not better, better is better”.  Indeed, but what is better?  That’s a question which both law firms, alternative providers and in-house lawyers need to answer – because if they don’t, someone is going to answer it for them in which case they will lose far more than the chance of winning an award.  Change does not happen by talking about innovation, it comes through creative thinking, brave steps and hard work.

Once the machine does finally reboot, the game could be up for those who don’t play better.  But the good news is that those who embrace change, however uncomfortable that might feel at times, have the potential to be game-changers.  I see plenty of opportunity ahead.

The wrong question

I attended a seminar last week which had 3 GCs on the panel.  The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions.

A member of the audience from private practice noted that many junior lawyers move from private practice to in-house roles and asked the following question:

Could we be doing more in private practice to prepare our junior lawyers for this transition?

This was not necessarily a bad question.  But it was the wrong question.  The right question was:

Could we be doing more in private practice to prepare our junior lawyers to provide commercially focused advice to clients at an earlier stage in their career.

Whilst in-housers are of course more than happy to reap the benefits of the investment made by law firms in their junior out-housers before hiring them, it is not the job of law firms to make sure their lawyers are ready for in-house roles.

But it is the job of law firms to make sure their junior lawyers are trained to provide advice that the client can quickly digest and act upon.   This should not be a skill restricted to more senior lawyers.

I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as a stupid question in business.  But there is often a better question that, if asked, will lead to greater insight.