Will Law Firms be Left Behind?
Don’t look now, but the times they are a-changin’ in every services field. Some industries step on the gas, while others keep a heavy foot on the brakes. Tech has the power to shrink distances and expand communications. New platforms are changing how we work, collaborate with our teams, and connect with our clients.
In the economy at large, where you accomplish your work is becoming less and less important. Forrester Research says that about 29% of the global workforce can be defined as “anytime and anywhere information workers.” These are employees who use multiple devices and work from multiple locations. In a study from Deloitte, about three-quarters of all millennials say a “work-from-home” or “work remotely” policy is important and 69% say coming in to a physical office on a regular basis is unnecessary. Now, contrast that with a typical law firm. Standard operating procedure is to have a static, expensive office with high overhead and lots of support staff. Everyone commutes long hours to come together in a central location to work long days. Often, you might come to the same office just to interface via devices anyway (even in the same room!). To which, we pose the obvious question: Why?
PRODUCTIVITY & VALUE FOR CLIENTS
Why not disrupt the model to keep your clients satisfied?
The traditional model is weighed down with massive overhead. There’s little incentive for efficiency or automation when it’s precisely with deeper teams and longer hours the firm will bill more, cover the overhead and eke out a profit. That math isn’t lost on clients.
Seeing their hourly rates climb, some clients are on the lookout for a more responsive relationship. They don’t want to foot the bill for organizational layers when it’s a core team—even a single attorney—doing their work. As the process becomes more digital, the high-rent, impressive office space in the center of town serves less and less functional purpose. Clients look favorably on innovative firms who offer lower overhead and greater transparency.
JOB SATISFACTION, BALANCE AND CONTROL
Why not disrupt the model for yourself, the hard-working lawyer?
The industry has a reputation for constant pressure, lack of control, and significant burn out. In the trenches, it can feel like the goal line is always moving. Someone else sets your billable target. Someone else sets your client’s rates. You can end up feeling caught between company higher-ups and your client’s best interests. We’ve all been there.
Then there’s the question of who controls your time. The old model says to do everything on site and meet everyone in person. Your face in the office is material evidence that you’re working. As in billable. As in profitable. Coming in early and staying late—and having people see you do it—are proxies for drive and commitment. Maybe that’s why when conventional law firms implement flex time (and they have), no one actually uses it. Here is what the American Bar Association recently reported in the Journal:
“26 of the 28 participating law firms had formal flexibility policies. But despite this fact, the survey found many attorneys may perceive flexible work options to be detrimental to their long-term career advancement, with only 1 percent of equity partners and 5 percent of associates utilizing such programs.”
We’re collectively caught in the trap of keeping up appearances. It’s not about being responsible workers and ensuring client work is done on time. It’s about matching the way things have been in the past. With these ghost rules at play, it takes a pioneering firm to step outside the lines.
A handful of innovative law firms are bucking the trend. One such firm, Exemplar, abandoned the billable hours model for fixed billing in an effort to build relationships and create a better working environment for its people. Says founder and CEO Christopher Marston, “Changing this profession for lawyers who are categorically miserable is my calling.” Power on, Chris.
MORE AUTOMATION OR MORE ASSOCIATES?
Why not work smarter not harder?
Another shift to watch is the balance between task automation and staffing more associates. Every firm has to find its sweet spot—it will never be all one or all the other. But, we see the pivot point moving as better and more purpose-built software becomes available to law firms. The Atlantic reported on this start-up some time ago that is still going strong today:
“Lex Machina can speedily mine and analyze litigation data that would take an army of associates months to go through. Suddenly, several associates aren’t billing. And if they aren’t billing, the firm could do without them.”
Humans, while great at abstract thinking and value judgements, maybe aren’t the best for mining data or highly repetitive tasks quality software could perform. The software company Ironclad’s Jason Boehmig puts it this way: “At one end of the spectrum, where lawyers are doing everything, is wrong, but the other end of the spectrum, replacing them entirely with software, is also wrong.” It’s about striking that right balance, and better and more efficient software is moving the needle.
REMOTE, NOT ISOLATED
Working on the cloud, one attorney can operate more self-sufficiently, and can manage his or her core team remotely just as well as if everyone was huddled together rifling through physical files and sharing boxes of P.F.Chang’s. For innovative law firms who go full monty on the virtual office model, there can be trade-offs. Yes, the economics make sense, and it can give firms like Practus and others a significant advantage on those carrying more overhead. But having a sense of team and experiencing community is important, too.
Fully virtual firms have to be intentional and find innovative ways to connect people on a personal level—to make up for the lack of daily proximity. Here at Practus, we leverage Microsoft Teams as a tool for connecting our attorneys on client work, company news, and just touching base on the daily.
Recently, the ABA recognized Keith Lee as one of its 2019 Legal Rebels. Lee pioneered a lawyer-specific virtual community for online conversations and connectedness. Slack (a platform similar to Microsoft Teams) is the engine behind Lee’s LawyerSmack. Says Keith Lee, “This gives you a virtual watercooler… You can see hundreds of other lawyers who are similarly situated to you, talking about their day and the stuff they’re working on.”
www.LawyerSmack.com (You’ll need to show your bona fides to get in.)
Technology is disrupting the economic models of law firms. And technology is enabling real changes in the day to day life of providing value to clients. The shift to new models can be a game-changer for talented people who want more control over their lives or who might be at risk of burnout from the pressures of conventional work environments. When you have more control, in a world of new tools, technology and innovation, you will rise—or fall—based on what you do with your control. It’s in your hands.
If that sounds appealing, reach out. We’d love to hear from you.
Practus is an innovative law firm that is disrupting the outdated ways of practicing law. By leveraging mobile technology, cloud-based solutions, and an agile infrastructure to deliver legal services, Practus is pioneering a more visionary approach to the way attorneys practice law.