May 23, 2013

The Dickensian World of Modern Law Practice

Lawyers aren’t exactly the most tech-minded of people. Tech-averse if you ask me. But in the booming world of social media and e-commerce, can lawyers really continue to ignore the insatiable and irresistible advance of technology?

For my mind it’s an unequivocal no. In the paragraphs below I recount a funny anecdote which encapsulates in a few lines the tech-predicament in which the world of law is now stuck. It raises some interesting insights and questions.

[The article below was originally published on Elephant Creative]

Even though we’re living in the days of a tech revolution, it wouldn’t be silly to suggest that Charles Dickens would feel perfectly at home in many of today’s law firms. That’s paraphrasing what Mitch Kowalski had to say on the matter of modern law practice during a presentation entitled Reimagining Legal Services in the 21 Century.

For whatever reason it may be, lawyers and managing partners possess a shared mentality that so long as they get the case load sorted and work hard, the rest will sort itself out. But this isn’t the case.

Processes and process innovation is key.

Bringing in business and cultivating a healthy bottom line is what really matters in today’s down economy. Cash flow leads earnings and as we’ve seen, where partners are under-performing law firms are cutting the dead weight. So the message for many partners is: bring in business or face the boot.

Professor Rita McGrath writing in the Harvard Business Review hammered out the imperative that law firms must have a broad-view strategy and business development plan. As she bluntly put it: “firms can’t simply muddle along anymore.”

Reading in between the lines of her blog we could literally see Rita McGrath pulling her hair out as she lamented on her experience of talking strategy to law firms. Rita reiterated the sense of distaste that the lawyers held for non-legal related skills such as strategy, business development, marketing, business process innovation and other process improvements.

This was a number of years ago, but her genuine drive for reform has been vindicated as the Dickensian business model has unravelled in recent years.

Rita explained that she had predicted that much of the lower-end but profitable work would be outsourced or automated. She had also said that clients would be ready to challenge the traditional conventions and go elsewhere for better deals.

Rita also used the example of the failure of Dewey & LeBoeuf, Law’s Lehman Brothers, as a graphic example of why avoiding business development is so dangerous.

It’s pretty much impossible to get a good read on the direction of the legal industry and the broader industry. But as we’ve heard before, law firms will not be returning to the halcyon days of the boom years.

The changes are structural, not cyclical. That means that law firms need to adopt new thinking and new processes. Lawyers can no longer be law-only technocrats. They need to be able to talk, do and bring in new business.

Ultimately it seems, lawyers need to leave the world of Charles Dickens.

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