Prepare for 2013 with client help

Tough markets mean firms need to be more in tune with their clients and their needs in order to survive

The past year has been a fascinating one for anyone involved in the legal sector. It has reinforced my belief that if law firms are to prosper and grow in 2013, they need to look

out to the market and tune into how they can improve services for their clients.

Last year was probably the most challenging in terms of markets that I’ve seen in my 30-year legal career. The challenges included increasing pressure on client billings, falling revenues and therefore profits, and the inevitable restructurings that follow.

The past year also saw a wealth of consolidation in the legal market, which can turn firms’ eyes inwards at exactly the wrong time.

Plenty mergers have been discussed and a number across the market have already been successfully concluded.

Last year, we launched ACH Shoosmiths – a merger between Shoosmiths and mid-sized Edinburgh-based Archibald Campbell & Harley. The expansion of our business into new markets around the UK is, and always has been, driven by our clients’ needs and demands and Shoosmiths’ arrival in Scotland is no exception.

The key drivers for successful merger discussions are usually the need to branch out into new locations, expand into new specialisms and, of course, the need for internal investment. Internal investment has clearly been a driver in the creation of some of the initial alternative business structures (ABS) outside the consumer legal sector. As we know, there is an inherent danger in adapting an ethos to drive consolidation based largely on an internal perspective.

Many commercial and City law firms will view initial activity around ABS as evidence that this is only an issue for consumer-focused law firms.

In the long run, firms will be competing with new entrants in corporate, commercial, real estate and other business sectors. We can also be certain that these new entrants will originate from other sectors and markets outside the law where the client is already king.

Clients are changing the way they buy legal services and it is essential that we work with them to help them design and lay out new, improved supply paths. That means working with clients collaboratively to identify better working practices and processes to help them achieve their aims and help us to keep up with the changing market.

In the past 12 months, Shoo­smiths’ non-lawyer relationship managers have held more than 100 client listening sessions to get an accurate handle on the issues clients are facing. We find that this client dialogue and having open feedback forums with our clients also helps them – and us – to continually improve.

Looking forward, the top 100 firms in the UK need to focus on basing their decision-making on what their clients’ needs are, rather than what their internal goals are.

Whether these decisions relate to the restructuring of firms, client innovations, consolidation or mergers, all initiatives need to be client-focused and client-driven.