Since we have now reached February, it seems safe to go back into the online world to read and write without risk of being drawn into either a review of last year or predictions for the next. February is the time when the world generally accepts that both history and the future exist other than in 12 month chunks.
This is something of a relief in the context of legal sector commentary. Like all areas of media in the modern world of instant, on-demand news consumption, the pace at which things can be said, written, posted, tweeted, re-tweeted and blogged considerably exceeds the pace of reality. Over time the former has reached such a lead over the latter that it’s almost lapped it. It feels like you could pull the plug out of the internet for two years and still the latest thing you have read about the supposed present is not even close to becoming reality. This state of affairs can only go on for so long before it reaches the point of either absurdity or nauseous repetitiveness, and everything we read becomes meaningless.
We are already there in some respects. It is all too easy for material to be widely, but mindlessly, repeated and regurgitated to the extent that its sheer prevalence somehow lends it credibility. There is no better example of this than a recent report which somehow contrived to equate the fees of City corporate lawyers with the serious issue of access to justice. Having been spun into a vicious circle of being reported for being reported, this ended up as a major story in the US entitled “Lawyers Earning 1,100 Pounds an Hour Put UK Justice at Risk” This headline does not show the UK justice system in a good light to those who don’t read beyond the headline, which self-evidently means most of those responsible for its propagation. Anyone taking the trouble to read further would not have found a modicum of reasoning to justify it and it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day, much less made it across the Atlantic.
Because of this sort of phenomenon, regular consumers of the vast swathes of legal market news and commentary can be forgiven for believing the future of law has now been clearly and irrevocably defined. Legal practices have either adopted the new model – as a technology-driven alternative business structure – or they are history. There’s a chance you may be able to cling on to survival, but only if you have set up or acquired your own AI laboratory. Otherwise, forget it.
Meanwhile, back in reality, the picture is very different. For all the well-versed and not insubstantial shifts in market dynamic, the pace of change on the ground is fairly steady and unexceptional. There is no doubt that the more successful alternative providers – many have failed – have taken a clearly discernible foothold in certain parts of the market, catalysing the changes in behaviour from increasingly enlightened and sophisticated buyers. But this in turn is prompting notable reaction from the more traditional law firms. This reaction does not manifest itself in the headline-grabbing labels often given to the structures and ideas of the self-styled innovative disruptors. It does so in the less easy to capture form of incremental change.
The fact is a large number of law firms are making significant improvements to the way they run their businesses. The partnership and billable hour model continues to be a millstone, but many are overcoming this by dramatically watering down time as a metric for success and increasingly incentivising behaviours which lead to positive impact on clients and longer term contributions to business success.
Process efficiency, technology, resourcing, career-development and client service evolution are all so much higher on the agenda than they were just a year or two ago. Outcomes are being looked at from the perspective of meaningful impact on client service delivery. Client relationships are being viewed strategically. Technology is being embraced and gaining rapidly-growing strategic significance. Business functions other than legal practice such as finance, sales, marketing and HR are becoming increasingly empowered and more expertise in these disciplines is being drawn in from other sectors. Corporate social responsibility and diversity are at last getting some serious attention (although here I will stop short of enthusing too much just yet). In short, the “traditional” legal sector is undergoing steady but significant transformation.
This is not to say there aren’t plenty of law firms out there who remain wedded to the old-school, short-term, self-centred, head-in-the-sand approach. But even they may be susceptible to positive influence, albeit unwittingly, through the well-worn tactic of blindly following what the others are doing. This time it might actually pay off.
We rarely see much written about this sort of progress as it gets drowned out on online channels by a futurist narrative awash with fads, clichés and labels. “Incremental change over the last year or two” just doesn’t cut it in an online world so intolerant of reality.
For those waiting for that “game-changer”, the game has been changing all the time. You may have been too distracted to notice.