Change is happening in law, but many firms are afraid of what this means for the future.
Law as an institution is built on the concept of rules, precedents, and legacy. Law firms as businesses have operated in a way that follows the patterns of law - rule-based, highly structured and slow to change.
However, this is contrary to how successful businesses in other industries are run, where it pays to be fast-moving, agile and adaptive to market conditions.
Why are law firms so reluctant to change? Isn’t it possible for law firms to run themselves in the same way as these other businesses do?
What are the risks to law firms that don’t make this change?
Fear is the blocker to innovation
The hierarchical structure of law firms has a large role to play in keeping law firms stagnant in terms of innovation.
Lawyers are the most influential decision makers in the way a firm is run as a business, in spite of the fact that in most cases their specialism is law, rather than business.
Often senior and managing partners sign off for all strategic business decisions.
The priority of partners are often vastly different from those of business leaders within law firms, and this conflict can lead to very slow decision making and resistance to change.
Adoption of new technology is a particular sticking point for law firms. The law firm hierarchy often dictates that senior decision-makers are the older members of the firm, and often have worked at the firm for many years working their way up to this position.
This creates a generational divide between senior decision makers and younger employees within the firm. Typically, because of this generation gap, senior lawyers tend to be averse to new processes and technologies, while less senior members of the firm tend to be more open to them.
This hesitancy on the part of the senior lawyers is largely based on a lack of understanding of the benefits of technology. For those individuals for whom digital technology is a relatively recent introduction to their lives, they may be unfamiliar with it and its benefits.
According to technologist Rohit Talwar: "The challenge for those not raised with a digital mindset is to learn how to evolve and compete in the new environment.”
This challenge is particularly stark within the legal industry, where it is those not raised with a digital mindset that are still very influential in decision making.
But in fact it’s the younger lawyers that are the future of firms, and it’s this generation of lawyers that are used to working with digital technology and see the benefit of it day to day.
The attitude that “it works like this, so why should we change?” risks leaving slow-adopting law firms in the dust behind the competition. The market and the needs of clients is changing faster than ever before - if firms can’t keep up and take action, it is hard to survive.
Innovation - new ways of working with new technology
Some firms are building advisory boards from younger members of the firm to advise the senior board to invest in new technology projects, educating them about the benefits of doing so to the business and to clients.
So what are these benefits?
The overarching benefit of digital technology is time saving. By implementing technology solutions that enable lawyers to save time on processes (reviewing contracts, sharing documents, communicating with colleagues), lawyers will have more time to focus on clients.
And clients' needs are changing. Legal futurist Richard Susskind explains that today’s clients "expect law firms to be business partners to them today, not just problem solvers."
Clients want this kind of consultative service whereby lawyers can identify issues that might become a problem in the future, and advise them of the course of action to take in order to mitigate these potential issues.
This way, law firms will be seen as a business partner, a long-term advisor that isn’t just picked and chosen when the client has a case that needs handling. This way, the firm is ahead of the problem.
Technology plays a huge role in this. For example, through content marketing or digital publishing tools, firms can communicate changes in the law that are relevant to their clients, and keep them one step ahead.
Transaction management solutions enable firms to build problem solving and automating tools for clients to alert them to contracts that need updating or reviewing.
Social collaboration platforms enable firms to share information, files and data more quickly and communicate more effectively with clients and vice versa.
Technology is the means to an end
It’s important to remember that technology isn’t the goal here. It’s the means to achieve a goal. The goal is providing better client service and becoming more efficient as a firm.
Clients are beginning to factor the technology solutions a firm uses into whether or not they choose to do business with that firm. It’s becoming more common for RFPs to ask about a firm’s choice of data room or collaboration solution or their content services.
As more and more firms adapt to client needs, those that let fear of technology (ultimately, fear of change) rule have a hard job to survive.
Firms have to lose their fear to survive
Decision-making lawyers and partners may continue to be dubious about the need for technology and innovation around legal client services. They are risk averse, and are reluctant to invest in systems that may fail.
From their perspective, the way they’ve been doing things for 10, 20, 30 years is perfectly sustainable - why fix what’s not broken?
And they’re right - their way of doing things isn’t broken, it works just fine. But that’s not the point. The point is, that what the old school of lawyers is selling isn’t what people want to buy anymore.
Clients don’t just want an answer to their legal question or a solution to their legal problem. They want a legal service, a business partner, and digital content and products to help them do their jobs better.
Senior partners need to understand this shift in the legal market. They need to take advantage of the younger lawyers and employees within the firm, who can implement, champion and educate others about digital technology and innovation.
It’s not going to be easy - change never is - but for law firms to survive this drastic shift, they are going to have to lose their fear.