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The law firm of the future

The law firm of the future


Innovations at law firms need to reflect the human element of legal businesses, writes Bob Murray.

As a trained psychologist and a scientist in behavioural neurogenetics, I tend to look at the future with a scientist’s eye.

The main drivers of disruption and change in professional service firms at the moment (as in any other industry) are obviously technology, which is making law more accessible and cheaper to clients, and regulatory change, which is allowing new entrants into an already overcrowded profession.

Many firms are trying to beat the disruption by racing to outdo each other in their technological proficiency and their expansion into non-traditional legal areas. This is a race to the bottom and I fear few will survive it.

But there’s another disrupter on the horizon that will prove even more difficult to control than technology and regulation, but that also offers a way out of the miasma that technology is creating. This is what I call human science: the convergence of a number of sciences such as neurogenetics, psychology, anthropology, biological psychiatry and neuroscience.

Those who understand it and are able to use this new knowledge will be the winners because it is showing us how to sell to people, how to influence and persuade them, how to market to them, how to lead and manage them effectively. It shows us how to run a business – any business – in line with human design specs.

At the moment, no law firm that I know of is seriously using the new knowledge. There are all kinds of management systems, BD and sales systems and persuasion techniques out there. None of them are particularly scientific (despite vigorous claims to the contrary). Human science is awkward because it requires giving up so many cherished assumptions and beliefs. Assumptions about how we work, about ‘work/life balance’, about motivation and remuneration, about ‘styles’ of leadership, ‘matrixed organisations’, and so forth.

There are a large number of widely held and cherished myths that the new science dispels. Here are just five of them:

1. A law firm is in the business of selling law. Human science tells us that no firm is in the business of selling law. What a concept! Humans are not genetically programmed to buy legal (or any other professional) service. We are all selling something quite different: relational support.

2. Human beings are persuaded by well-marshaled facts and reasoning and by the findings of ‘big data’. The new science tells us that no human being is persuaded by facts, reasoning, data (no matter how big) or information. That’s not how the decision-making process works. We are persuaded (subconsciously) by quite different things and quite different areas of the human system than traditionally thought – including emotion, habitual responses, genetics, and our own assumptions.

3. We follow leaders because they’re strong, correct in their decisions, or have a particular ‘style’ of leadership. We now know we follow them for quite different reasons. Reasons linked to our genetic drive for support and safety. In fact, unless we sense a crisis (as we do at present), humans don’t need or want leaders at all.

4. We are motivated by money or material reward. Research shows that in the long term we are motivated not by money or material rewards, because their influence is very short lived. Rather we are motivated by the desire for quite different, relationship-centred rewards.

5. Clients choose a lawyer on the basis of his or her experience and expertise. Research in human science shows that this isn’t so. Clients choose a lawyer on the basis of many non-rational factors including the perception that they share a lot in common with him or her.

What’s a managing partner to do? Human science tells us that there is another way to succeed besides through the blind pursuit of technological innovation. There’s a better way to organise your business, a better way to relate to your clients, a better way to sell and market your services, a better way to get the whole-hearted engagement of your legal and non-legal staff.

He or she should step back and ask five human-centric questions:

1. What is the business we’re really in? It’s not law, so what is it? How do we position our firm to take advantage of it?

2. What is the social purpose of having the business? If it’s just to make the partners money, in the new reality, you’ll fail. Few firms will be able to pay the huge sums of money presently offered to their equity partners and anyway, in the future, social purpose will be far more important.

3. How can I make the firm more of a tribe, a band? Humans are relationship-centred, not goal-centred. A firm is only a nexus of relationships, of promises. Research shows that we come to work largely to surround ourselves with supportive relationships.

4. How can I make clients want to be part of that tribe or band? Clients are attracted to firms whose people enjoy being together.

5. How can I get my people committed to the relationship with me and to each other? That is the real job of the leader.

When you start using human science to answer these questions, suddenly the whole issue of how you organise your firm becomes clearer. Not every managing partner will come up with the same solution, and that’s OK. So long as the answer is aligned with human design specs – our neurogenetics – it will work.

Bob Murray is the principal at consultancy Fortinberry Murray and co-author (with Dr Alicia Fortinberry) of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.

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