The legal profession is being profoundly challenged on a number of fronts and its survival depends on how well it rises to meet these challenges, writes Nicole Billett.
One of the biggest challenges is that business clients in particular are no longer prepared to accept charges for legal advice without those charges being tied to outcomes.
Traditionally, legal services were viewed by businesses as a necessary expense. Today, businesses expect value add and if they can’t see how the advice helps them make more money or arrive at a solution quicker, they will shop around and seek online solutions. They might even try to do it themselves.
Technology has been a great enabler in this. Consumers are more educated today because they have access to more information, and armed with information, they can easily equip themselves with possible solutions.
This is a Dr Google-type approach – the phenomena whereby people self-diagnose via the internet which, as many a medical professional will tell you, is fraught with danger. In the case of the legal profession, a business owner can, for example, discover they need a shareholder agreement and download one off the internet. The risk is that it’s not going to adequately protect their interests.
Many business owners are very aware of this and they do want legal advice on their own situation. The research they do and the discoveries they make are, therefore, just a starting point, but (and this is a big one) they are no longer prepared to just take a lawyer’s word as gospel.
This is dramatically affecting the profitability of law firms of all shapes and sizes. To remain profitable means introducing technology to take low-value, process-driven activities out of the costing equation so that lawyers are freed up to do what they’re great at – providing real technical, legal expertise that helps clients resolve their legal issues.
The second biggest challenge facing the legal profession is the cultural change being demanded by the new generation of lawyers. These practitioners want more out of life than a 100-hour work week. They want a great job where they can provide expert advice, but they also want flexibility. They want to be stimulated on a number of levels. They want a life.
We are also seeing a more entrepreneurial generation across all industries, looking to be rewarded in more meaningful ways. They want skin in the game. For a long time, people saw their only options in the legal space were to be employed and work until they were a husk or until they could go out and hang out their own shingle. That’s a hard graft either way.
This new generation of lawyers is looking more broadly at their skill sets and this is giving rise to the ‘combination lawyer’ – someone who not only has a law background but who also has some other skill, for example industrial design, management or coding.
These disciplines make them think differently. They are combining their knowledge of the law and their understanding of business with these other skills and that is translating into a really interesting work environment. They are not just sitting at a desk drafting all day, they may be doing something like writing code for a contracting piece of software. So it will be important for practices to provide a place for the new breed of lawyers to be the best version of themselves, and reward and support them for that, and surely the client is going to win out of that.
What does the brave new world of legal advice look like for law firms, lawyers and clients? I believe the new generation of lawyers and better-informed consumers both want openness around communication, and they want that communication to happen quickly. demanding processes such as having a shared folder in the cloud that both parties can access and edit and ask why something cannot happen.
It’s that level of integration and collaboration that will help make legal advice better, more efficient and more cost-effective. Because ultimately, the lawyer’s job is to make what the client wants legally happen. It’s not to get in the way or to put more barriers in place or to impede it.
Again, technology is the great enabler and the law profession should be embracing it. Conveyancing is a premium example. New Zealand has had electronic conveyancing for more than 10 years and several states in Australia are slowly introducing it.
But the fact is, the new generation of both lawyers and clients are already transacting online 24/7. If the legal profession is prepared to give up a bit of control in favour of a much more fluid, more efficient, more client-friendly way of doing business, the service provided will be more affordable and add more value in a way that is meaningful to the client.
I will go even further to say that unless the legal profession moves its systems and processes to accommodate the way the next generation of lawyers and clients want to communicate, consult, work and transact, it will lose them.
Nicole Billett is the CEO and managing director of Teddington Legal.