At the end of May, 20 leading managing partners gathered at 1 Lombard Street in the City of London, with the future of law playing a key part of the conversation. LexisNexis, which ran the debate with The Lawyer, coincidentally has as its tagline, “The Future of Law. Since 1818”, with the landscape drastically changing over those 200 years. The pace of change in just the last few years has caught some law firms off guard; a recent survey conducted by The Lawyer showed firms lacking a full-time innovation head are on track to be surpassed by the majority who have appointed one. Firms should be terrified about being left behind.
The debate was an active one. Innovation and how to keep up with the corporate sphere generally played an important role in a scenario put forward for discussion by LexisNexis’ director of legal markets Andy Sparkes and market development director Mark Smith: what would a future-facing firm look like?
The view apparent from the discussions around the room is that firms should be more progressive in our thinking. That means being innovative but also accepting that the law firm of the future should not be just run by lawyers at the senior management level but also by software specialists, finance or marketing experts. It’s the corporate model that brings a diverse approach to the operation of what is ultimately a service business. An over-riding feeling among those gathered that law firms would need to “Uber-ise” or take note from on-demand services like taxi-hail apps and takeaway services like Deliveroo.
That means the opposite of the binary approach of lawyers working like battery hens in their offices. ‘We need new folk, new thinking,’ said one managing partner. ‘With the speed at which technology is hitting us, you can’t have the normal type of myopic lawyer sitting in a dusty, book-lined room in pipe and slippers considering what the client needs.’
‘The other test and pressure is that law firms aren’t providing legal advice in the way they used to. Now it’s much more business-focused and driven by the board. Clients are asking ‘where do we want to go and how are we going to get there?’’
Most participants recognised that their firms aimed to provide a business solution than just legal advice nowadays. In turn, this has implications for how lawyers are trained. As one managing partner noted, ‘We have for too long overlooked the training new lawyers coming through will need. It’s not just about legal advice, it’s also about service delivery.’
Comment: Mark Smith, Large Law market development director, LexisNexis
Back in 2016 LexisNexis commissioned Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge to look at resistance to change in law firms. One of the findings was that lawyers often find it challenging to interpret the implications of changes in the external environment – best characterised as “the changes don’t affect what I do”.
The Managing Partner dinner offered participants the opportunity to address this challenge by viewing market changes from a different perspective. This new frame of reference changed the nature of the debate, and participants turned their minds outward to consider how the winning strategies and business models from disruptive, tech-enabled businesses in other sectors could apply in the legal sector.
While technology was a central focus of the discussion, it was far from the only factor discussed in depth. The skills and capabilities of lawyers required to compete in the rapidly changing landscape was an area of hot debate. How far should lawyers go in broadening and deepening their commercial skills, away from their traditional areas of expertise? What did this mean for career paths and the type of talent required in law firms today and tomorrow? There were no easy answers and looking at issues from the client perspective only intensified the debate. Pricing models were under scrutiny with participants honing in on what mattered to the client and what they would be prepared to pay for.
Unsurprisingly, opinions varied as to the scale of disruption ahead. Some sold the rapid changes in the profession in the last five years, along with the adoption of new technologies, as evidence that firms were now beginning to move at the pace required by clients. Others looked outwards and cited disruption in previously stable industries caused by new business models (such as Uber and Deliveroo) as evidence that far greater change would be on the profession sooner rather than later.
In the time available, participants did not have time to fully explore the implications for their firms or address potential barriers to change. However, the discussion provided ample evidence that the debate has moved rapidly on from “do successful law firms need to change?” to “how rapid and radical does the change need to be?”. In the three years since the change resistance research, the belief “the changes don’t affect what I do” appears to have rapidly eroded.