The global financial crisis was loaded with endless possibilities, writes Angela Priestley, but has the Australian legal profession missed the boat?
By now, many businesses have come to recognise the lessons available in the age-old mantra that one "should never waste a recession".
A recession, after all, is the perfect opportunity to have a long hard look at what went wrong with a business or industry and why.
It was a point recently raised by John Chisholm, a former managing partner and principal of Chisholm Consulting, who noted that while many businesses are now realising that such a mantra makes sense in today's economic climate, not all law firms are heeding the call.
Of course in Australia, there was no recession to waste. Without the technical reasoning to apply the term "recession" to our economic predicament, we instead had to come up with an acronym - the GFC - a term that even members of the recently visiting delegation of the Law Society of England and Wales told Lawyers Weekly that they hadn't heard before reaching Australia.
The problem was that without a technical recession, we may have softened the blow of just how bad things got for the legal profession. Even though it was no easy ride in Australia: plenty of lawyers lost their jobs, some legal businesses failed, lawyers faced salary freezes, graduates found the world of opportunities they once thought possible vanish.
But did things get bad enough to really suggest that the profession had been permanently scarred, that the lessons of a slowdown in legal work would be strong enough to change the profession long into the future?
Not necessarily. In Australia, there have always been numerous lawyers, consultants and industry thought leaders promoting innovation in the legal profession - on everything from the demise of the billable hour, to new and improved business models for retaining staff, getting more "non lawyers" involved in the legal business and basically breaking the strains of tradition so engrained in law.
For some lawyers, these individuals promoting change can seem a little wacky, simply standing on the outers of the profession as they deliver their sermons on innovation while the "real" law firms continue to spin their profits and lap up industry demand for their services.
And in many ways, even despite a GFC, these people do still stand on the fringe of the broader profession.
But the situation appears fundamentally different in the United States where it's the largest law firms who are, more than ever, talking up the need for change, new ideas and innovation in the legal profession.
At the Georgetown University conference Law firm evolution: Brave new world or business as usual last month in Washington DC, some of the largest law firms in the world discussed a new world order of legal services.
According to Chisholm, just the involvement of such firms showed just how much change the legal profession is facing, noting that "theoretically, they [global law firms] could be classed in the conservative risk averse bracket, but now they are the ones all saying that there is a need for change!"
Blogger and Canadian thought leader Jordan Furlng, described the mood at the event as delivering some "discomforting" but inspiring and challenging messages. "It was also refreshing to hear at least some of them acknowledge that the old model is passing away and the adaptation to a new model will be difficult but necessary," he said.
The situation is similar in the United Kingdom where Magic Circle firm Eversheds recently applied their own sense of imagination on what the future of the legal profession might look like by sponsoring an event exploring new ideas, alternative billing mechanisms, outsourcing and process improvements in law. They even had Trevor Faure, Global General Counsel for Ernst and Young Global, talking up the need for clients and law firms to build better mutually beneficial relationships.
Without a technical recession to call our own, has the Australian legal profession lost such opportunities for change? We can only wait and see - or, alternatively, create some change ourselves.
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