A few years ago, George Beaton published an influential eBook, NewLaw New Rules, a conversation about the future of the legal services industry, that pulled together comments and responses he received from numerous legal thought leaders and experts about his NewLaw-focused blog post.
The publication compared BigLaw, the traditional partnership-and-hourly-rates model, with NewLaw, an emerging model of new staffing, pricing, and legal service delivery firms. The concluding sentiment was that BigLaw was doomed to fail spectacularly in the near future, and the NewLaw concept would emerge from the ashes, forging a new, gilded age of legal service delivery.
The truth is, BigLaw has yet to collapse. Instead, the industry has entered a somewhat uneasy state in which BigLaw and NewLaw compete for the same work, and in some cases, even collaborate.
Perhaps this is just a transition period from old to new. Maybe it will settle into a sustainable collection of diverging legal service delivery models—each catering to a different type of client, segment, or industry. We may only truly understand the shifts currently underway once we can look back in hindsight.
Regardless of where your firm is now—BigLaw or SmallLaw, OldLaw or NewLaw—if you are still around in 2050, it’s likely you will be practicing SmartLaw.
What is SmartLaw?
Business structures, billing models, and client expectations are very different than they were even just a few years ago. Also, the way firms compete and who they compete with, the staff they employ or outsource, where they’re located, and the importance of business analytics and big data all are relatively new concerns in law.
When you add those new shifts to the rapid rate of technological change, delivery models for legal services are now evolving faster than ever to keep up—and the status quo is just not a workable option.
So, what is the key to success for firms today? SmartLaw, a concept that combines clients, culture, and the intelligent use of technology. Let’s take a closer look at the three pillars of SmartLaw:
Nearly every firm markets their rock-solid focus on clients, but in reality, most have a fragile relationship with clients at best. Conventional wisdom is that clients hire the lawyer, not the firm. This flawed thinking has led to a merry-go-round of high-profile rainmakers using their clients as leverage against their own firms to get a better deal for themselves. While this practice has been lucrative for individual lawyers, that hasn’t necessarily been the case for their firms and definitely not for their clients.
Firms that engage in the SmartLaw approach maintain positive relationships with their clients at every level, from partner to secretary to IT staff. SmartLaw firms are empathetic, agile, and responsive to clients’ needs, providing tools and resources for the client to easily manage, communicate, and collaborate with their outside counsel. When a high-profile partner leaves a SmartLaw firm, clients will have to seriously consider whether they go with the lawyer or stay with the firm, because the firm-client relationship is strong.
Traditionally, a named partner in the corner office dictated the firm’s culture. Everyone looked to him as the standard-bearer for the firm’s way of working, presenting themselves, and being a good lawyer. And most people in the firm were lawyers, secretaries, or paralegals, each of whom worked very closely with lawyers daily.
Today, firms are complex businesses with multiple departments and different mandates often competing for the same resources. Almost 50 percent of firm employees are unaffectionately referred to as “non-lawyers.” Those non-lawyers are intelligent, highly-educated, and serious business people who are responsible for “little” things like the firm’s brand, IT infrastructure, information management, and profitability. Some rarely work directly with lawyers at all. And most firm leaders still seek consensus among a senior group of “non-business people” to make important business decisions.
SmartLaw-guided firms have real business leadership that consults regularly and directly with business group heads and senior partners to make informed and intelligent business decisions. More importantly, SmartLaw leadership can define, articulate, and effectively communicate a vision for the firm, so that everyone shares in a singular purpose, confident that their work is valued.
When people discuss the “future,” technology seems to lead the conversation. While SmartLaw firms are identified by their intelligent and appropriate use of technology, they also recognize that technology is not the universal answer. Some problems are best solved by people or process improvements. SmartLaw encourages firms to automate what makes sense to automate, productize work that can be commoditized, and to collaborate between lawyers and technologists.
SmartLaw firms don’t build software in-house. They have a toolkit of platforms and technologies from which their legal engineers can create new products and services for clients and internal users. The culture of the SmartLaw firm encourages innovative experimentation, is tolerant of fast failure, and applies design thinking principles to deliver rapid prototypes and iteratively designed solutions.
SmartLaw: The future of law
The three key areas described above are not independent pillars holding up the SmartLaw firm. They overlap, intertwine, and work together.
Multipoint client relationships require intelligent technology and a supportive and open culture. A vision-driven culture should focus on clients' needs and use appropriate technology to exceed them. Intelligent use of technology directly supports an inclusive and client-focused culture.
Whether your firm is 20 people or 20,000, you bill by the hour or flat fees, prefer mahogany desks or glass cubicles, BigLaw, NewLaw, or something in-between, we believe the smarter move is to embrace SmartLaw.
What do YOU believe lawyers and law firms need to do to prepare for the future of legal services?