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Accelerate to differentiate

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The effective use of cutting-edge technology will be a key differentiator between law firms who weather business impact of COVID-19 unscathed and those who do not.

“Most lawyers engage with a wide variety of technology in their working lives but poor tech skills can slow lawyers down in completing their chargeable work which presents a competitive challenge to the law firm and pressure to write off time or offer discounts”, says Kirsten Maslen, Director of Market Development, Thomson Reuters.

A lack of focus on developing these tech skills “also means they could be missing out on insights that are increasingly only available through these tools. For example, tools that enable them to extract insights from data that spending hours wading through documents is difficult to get to and not cost efficient for them to do”.

Technology drives much of a lawyer’s skills training necessary to ensure their practice remains productive and profitable.

Legal professionals need an increasingly broad depth of training and business development skills to maximise their fee-earning potential. It is a challenge: they have billable targets to achieve but to meet them, they need dedicated time for productive non-billable work such as effective client management, current awareness and billing.

Sound investment 

It is crucial for firms to understand the value of investing time in internal training and upskilling of fee earners. This starts with robust skills training in technology which underpins most other areas of the business of law. As Clive Thomas, Managing Partner at South Wales solicitors Watkins & Gunn says, tech skills will be “hugely important going forwards” and points out that we are behind the curve as a sector.

Neil Lloyd, Managing Director at West Midlands law firm, FBC Manby Bowdler LLP, says the firms’ fee earners understand that to charge for their time, they must add value to clients. For example, he says the firm will continue to train staff in pricing techniques. “Price is what our clients pay”, Lloyd says. “Value is what we deliver and needs to be clearly understood by all.”

Lloyd adds: “Upskilling all of our team is as important as ever because I suspect competition for work will increase as like-sized competitors increase their marketing, and larger competitors reduce their prices to capture clients to cover their fixed cost base.”

Paul Jonson, Senior Partner at Pannone Corporate, says this is “an absolutely key responsibility of the management team”, particularly with the current pressure on law firms. He adds: “Clients will remember the support and engagement, or lack of it, that they received from their law firms during this time”.

Alisa Willows, Managing Partner at Wolferstans, says that as the firm rolls out more tech solutions, automating parts of the process, “it is key to keep the client at the heart of digital”. Are we providing solutions to problems that clients actually had?  Do we understand the value of those solutions as we move away from billable hours?” The firm’s intention is, she says, that time in the office will be focused on teams and training to provide the support needed to understand this and develop the skills required.

Multi-disciplines

Should the necessity for upskill training filter through to recruitment and staff structures, possibly reverting to multi-disciplinary lawyers? Clive Thomas comments: “A multi-disciplinary lawyer, who possesses a wide range of skills that can contribute to the process of innovating processes as well as simply delivering advice, would be an ideal hire as we come out of the pandemic.” But as to whether they exist yet, he says the profession needs “legal educators to collaborate with law firms to understand the needs of a rapidly evolving sector”.

Yet FBC Manby Bowdler already had agile teams, says Lloyd. The firm now has 24 teams across multi disciplines which have been sat for two to three years, placed “strategically in its buildings to ensure we maximise the collaboration / client service”.

“That way”, explains Lloyd, “we have seen far more client referrals from one type of matter to another”.

Ashtons Legal CEO Edward O’Rourke says firms are already evolving and the proportion of non-legally qualified staff to legally qualified ones is increasing at his firm on an annual basis.  “The real challenge is to maintain this investment in what more traditionalists may term ‘fee burning’ resources at a time when margins are being eroded”, O’Rourke warns.

Willows says productivity demands that teams understand the importance of process improvement and the full capability of what the data and software can do for them.

Is this too much of a tall order for small to mid-sized firms? “In a firm like ours, dealing largely with private individuals and as a high street practice”, says Willows. “They need to get back to the day job of supporting their clients and team members whilst we drive those improvements centrally, with their early input, to ensure processes are standardised across the firm where possible.”

It’s not, she says, a recruitment issue—but a training and development one which was in play before the current challenges.

For more information on innovative legal technology, please click here.

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