The future of the legal profession has been the subject of debate since Shakespeare’s Dick the Butcher declared that to improve society “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.
Professor Richard Susskind, the renowned professional services futurist, has now followed up 400 years later with his seminal work The End of Lawyers? Thankfully it is posed as a question.
The legal profession is often seen as one of the most hidebound by tradition, but the disruptive revolution that has inverted the business models of music, transport and communications is also forcing law firms to adopt pioneering practices to find new ways to deliver for their clients.
We stand at a moment in history when these technologies enable lawyers to conceive of the world differently, and find new ways to create and deliver consumer value.
If they don’t, then Deloitte’s recently published report that the legal profession will lose 39 per cent of jobs over the next 20 years, with 100,000 jobs going to automation, may well come true.
Should lawyers be worried?
Like most aspects of human society, professional services firms around the world are facing dramatic change and upheaval caused by technology.
With the possibilities of cognitive intelligence evolving rapidly, it may not be long until professional services will have a technology core, which is profoundly disruptive.
There are also other powerful market forces, accelerated by the global financial crisis, such as commoditisation, unbundling of legal services and globalisation of law firms.
Within this framework there is, however, one constant. It is the job of lawyers to serve their clients and the community within a well understood ethical framework. Our first duty is always to the administration of justice.
This is the truth that should underpin all strategic choices for lawyers and is the route to long-term success and sustainability. The imperative of being customer centric has been well understood by the mercantile class since before the words of Dick the Butcher, and it is now a principle that professional services must grapple with in a world of highly informed and connected consumers.
For example, law firms have a choice of global enterprise with on-the-ground bricks and mortar around the world (think Deloitte) versus premium independent (think Slaughter & May). The choice of which structure to adopt must carry with it a clear client value proposition.
Corrs Chambers Westgarth has chosen to be independent because of a belief that it is in the best interests of clients that their law firm stand independently on the global stage, with access to best of breed services, regardless of international allegiance. It also allows us to participate in dynamic and fluid global networks and to remain nimble and adaptive.
In fact our aim is to be the most globally connected law firm based in Australia.
After all, connectedness is the source of power and influence in the 21st century.
There is also some benefit for an organisation in being innovative for innovation’s sake, if that is the culture that it seeks to create. But the exciting reality is that you can only drive true and lasting innovation by determining an ambition that is so bold that traditional ways of doing things will not get you there.
There is, however, a proviso: innovation is not sustaining as a source of competitive advantage unless it solves a customer need or problem.
Our firm’s Orbit business responds to client need for high-quality legal resources to be available on demand to work within the client organisation or on special projects.
The flexible workplace is a global trend, as we continue to see growth of the “gig economy”, where temporary positions are common and organisations contract with independent workers.
Domestically, the Grattan Institute recently found that a third of Australian workers are not in traditional employment and that number is expected to rise.
Likewise we have developed “apps” directed toward creating value for our clients. In the case of a workplace incident, we have developed the award-winning “Crisis Covered” app that allows a client to access a lawyer from the scene of an incident 24/7, and to be helped in real time in what is usually a distressing and often confusing environment immediately after an accident.
Technology is also changing our way of working in respect of document control and management. Gone are the days of lawyers carrying bundles of paper across courtrooms. These days we are increasingly reliant on the electronic brief and in our case at Corrs, we have become the first Australian law firm to capitalise on cloud-based computing services, using Amazon Web Services to streamline our document management.
The legal profession and our way of working is evolving, but the one consistent element is to ensure that we provide our clients and the community with a strong ethic of service. Far from being worrying, this is liberating and surely something to be excited about.
This article was first published in The Australian on 27 May 2016.