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Law firms

At law firms—the future of work is now

Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

For law firms, the experience of navigating COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of change and will continue to significantly impact operations, organisational culture, and the way lawyers work, says Emma Dowden, Chief Operating Officer at Burges Salmon.

Moored by tradition and ethics, the legal industry historically has been slower to change than other business sectors. However, law firms were abruptly forced to rewrite their operational strategy and squeeze decades of change into a single year, Dowden says. They were driven by the need, overnight, to work remotely via computer screens and Cloud apps, to abandon travel and face-to-face engagement, and to accommodate the impact of the pandemic on associates’ lives.

What firms are doing now as the COVID-19 crisis enters its second year, Dowden says, is tantamount to applying lessons learned in war—or its public health equivalent—to peacetime. “The really big question is ‘What is the future of work?’”, Dowden notes.

Law firms have demonstrated they can adapt quickly, adopt new processes and technologies, and work as productively at home as they do in the office—and the reinvention continues. “People have shown they can work from anywhere”, Dowden says. “The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no going back.”

Going forward, Dowden expects the trends that were underway before the pandemic struck to continue challenging and transforming the industry at an accelerated pace. These include client empowerment, technology adoption, law firm consolidations, new players entering the legal services sector, and value-based pricing.

The disruption also is fundamentally impacting the corporations that law firms serve, and they need to keep, notes Dowden. “The pace of innovation is accelerating.”

Meanwhile, as routine legal tasks increasingly are automated and clients apply pressure on costs, Dowden expects lawyers to focus intently on their greatest asset and source of value: the ability to provide knowledge, perspective, and mission-critical guidance.

New business models are emerging

Ian Jeffery is the epitome of a large law firm leader actively reshaping the future. After 15 years as managing partner and CEO of Lewis Silkin, he has transitioned to a new role developing service lines and business ventures that build on successful ventures undertaken during his time at the firm’s helm.

“Setting a strategy and business plan for a professional services firm has always called for answers to some challenging questions”, Jeffery notes. “What services for which clients and where? How to differentiate the offering? Why should the best talent join and remain? Where to locate operations and what platforms to deliver through?”

“At the start of 2020 those questions remained fundamental, although the choice in possible answers was expanding. By the end of 2020, though, the fundamental questions had shifted and the range of answers had grown exponentially,” Jeffery says.

“One fundamental shift is around the scope and identity of any firm. Regulation allows more innovative business models than many suppose, and clients may be more willing to buy ancillary services from trusted legal experts in their domains.”

Jeffery continues, “compounding that is the greater range of practice operating models which we now see are possible, even desirable. With the amazing achievements of all firms in going virtual for 2020, confidence and appetite are high to do much better than the historic default approaches to premises, technology, business development and talent management.”

“The biggest challenge now? Asking the most pertinent business model questions of ourselves and engaging the best team to find the answers.”

Partnership, technology and cross-border expertise

The report State of the UK Legal Market, published by the Thomson Reuters Institute in the spring of 2021, illuminates the opportunities and challenges on the horizon for law firms. Among the findings:

  • Corporate clients value law firms that invest in creating long-term, trusted relationships and a deep understanding of their business operations. Nearly half of the companies surveyed for the report said the primary way for a firm to deliver more value is to commit to a longer-term partnership.
  • Due to Brexit, demand for cross-border legal guidance has increased since 2017. In 2020, 42 percent of UK corporate legal spending focused on international work—significantly higher than the global average of 35 percent. Today, four out of five UK-based corporate clients are actively looking for international legal support.
  • Corporate law departments, under continued budgetary pressures, are seeking firms with innovative, technology-driven legal services that provide greater flexibility and value. Firms are increasingly adopting such models in response to client demand, competition from non-law firm providers of legal services including the Big Four accounting firms, and the desire to maintain the flexible working arrangements embraced during the pandemic.
  • A staggering 86 percent of lawyers said they want to retain options such as remote working and flexible workdays, and many would consider leaving their firm if they aren’t offered.
  • These dynamics are causing law firms to invest more in technology and knowledge-sharing platforms. Three-quarters of senior UK partners believe their firms should invest more in technology—whilst 89 percent of corporate legal departments want the law firms they employ to pursue more innovative uses of technology.

Download your full copy of State of the UK Legal Market 2021.

A focus on law firm culture

Law firms, Dowden says, are focusing on their teams’ desire for new working models—including the opportunity to continue working from home at least part of the time. This will require leaders to determine what type of hybrid model works best for their firm; supports a healthy, cohesive culture; and re-establishes relationships that suffered from the lack of face-to-face engagement in the office and with clients.

This transition will be more difficult and have greater implications for younger lawyers and managers, Dowden notes, because their relationships and networks are less developed and they risk missing out on training and mentoring when they work remotely.

Clare Beresford, CEO of global legal recruiting firm Lawrence Simons Search, says firms need also need to assess whether their Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Did DEI programs languish while employees were sequestered and firms focused on managing through the pandemic? To what degree was the firm’s female workforce disproportionately burdened by heightened child care, home-schooling, and other family demands—and what are the ramifications?

As law firms are remade for a post-pandemic future, Dowden notes, they are exploring which work practices should be retained and which should be abandoned. For example, how much time will lawyers be in the office and when will they work remotely? What type of setting is best for each type of work they do? When is it necessary to meet face-to-face or travel and what are the implications for client relationships and operational efficiency? What processes should be automated? How can firms maintain and strengthen healthy cultures to ensure they serve staff and clients?

The legal industry has the opportunity to significantly change the way it works, notes Dowden. “It’s a really exciting time, but it requires active thought now,” Dowden says. “It’s incumbent on all of us to move forward in a meaningful way.”

When in doubt about how to do that, she advises, firms should ground their operational decisions in their principles and values. “You know what the right thing is,” she says. “Do right by your clients and your colleagues. You’ll know that you’re doing the right thing 99.9 percent of the time.”

Download your copy of State of the UK Legal Market 2021.

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