Mark Beesley on how the legal sector is ever changing
Hardly a day goes by without a headline about artificial intelligence shaking up the established order in the marketplace for legal services, or Big Four accountancy firms eyeing up opportunities in law, or the announcement of some other alternative business model for delivering legal services, challenging the status quo.
Today the pace of change in the legal profession is faster than ever before and any firm choosing to stand still will just fall behind. Not only this, but with new entrants to the legal market competition is intensifying - indeed it is coming from completely different and less predictable places than it did only 10 years ago. Firms and their managers are hungry for insights that will help them steer their businesses in this challenging environment and you will find reams of articles offering advice. But the vast majority of the discussion around the opportunities and threats that all this change brings is focussed entirely on how it affects the structure of legal businesses and what it means for the lawyers inside them. What seems to be passing unnoticed is how it completely changes the dynamic between lawyers and their support staff. Never has it been so important for everyone in the business to pull together in the same direction. When seas are choppy, it’s all hands on deck!
Do many people even remember the Unsung Heroes campaign of the early noughties by the Professional Marketing Forum? Calling out law firms for distinguishing between ‘fee-earners’ and ‘non-fee-earners’, (for which read ‘important’ and ‘less important’) it was designed to highlight the point that ... ahem... actually everybody in a law firm makes a contribution to the business and so ‘earns the fees’.
To give just one example, partners’ PAs will have direct relationships with clients, which means their efficiency and people skills in the secretarial role are key to the client’s experience - and whether those clients feel they are getting great service, or not. What’s more, surveys reveal time and time again that clients mostly feel ill-equipped to judge lawyers on their legal ability and instead judge them on service points: are the lawyers responsive to my needs? Do they return my calls promptly? Do I feel I’m a priority client on their roster, or am I only getting the second best of their attention? You can see how significant the PA’s role is in this context. And that’s before you get to the marketing teams who help their firms develop new work streams; the HR and training & development people who can improve how much firms can get out of their people; and so on and so forth. Why is it so hard to see these people are ‘earning fees’ for the firm as much as the lawyers they work with?
The Unsung Heroes campaign was lauded at the time as radical and insightful. It was hoped it would change law firm thinking forever, but the idea seems to have faded into the background and only few remember it at all. But today, the firms that are going to survive and thrive in this fast-changing, uber-competitive environment, will be precisely those who are able to bring the skills of ALL its people together, getting them all to pull in the same direction.
Gone are the days when most entering the legal profession saw Equity status as the only goal worth pursuing. That was a very different world, when we thought selling legal services was a profession, rather than a commercial legal enterprise, as we understand it today. Today lawyers starting out need to understand that a career in law won’t necessarily mean job security. You have to work hard to show your value. Technical excellence is a given and the professionals that stand out are those with a skill set above and beyond that: good people skills, adept at understanding change and how the law is to be applied in that new context. This also means that you don’t necessarily need to be a lawyer to do this and excel!
The prized assets in a modern legal business are: technical innovation; the ability to generate new work streams; the ability to develop people and provide creative ways of delivering the law in partnership with clients as part of their team; and the ability to understand how to promote a legal practice in this age of social media, instant decision making, and microscopic attention spans.
Lawyers are and will increasingly be working alongside other professionals, indeed even being managed by them. Gone also are the days when only the lawyers in a law firm could hope to get the top salaries. Today it may well be a computer programmer, a social media expert or a marketing professional that is creating the most value in the business and so it should follow (and does, at least sometimes) that these are the people who command the biggest salaries. This is just a sign of things to come and the new dynamic between the different strata of professionals in law we need to get used to.