Bridging the gap

January 9, 2010

The “bridge” as metaphor has become a familiar part of the communicator’s lexicon. We are forever “building bridges” between interest groups and factions and when we note that this is often more difficult than hoped for, it will almost certainly be a “bridge too far”. The literal simplicity of the concept and its metaphorical appropriateness are genuinely comfortable side by side and the reader doesn’t have to work very hard to see what the author wants to say.

Just sometimes however this familiarity means we slide over it all too easily, barely pausing to contemplate what is actually being described. I am probably guilty of this as well; I can certainly hear myself saying to groups of lawyers, by way of example, that it is down to them now to build bridges across the profession to ensure that clients see real value while also protecting the fine ethical and conduct traditions of a great profession. Nice words perhaps, but I also know that there is a world of difference between writing a well turned sentence for a speech or an article and practically managing a team or business through a period of scrutiny and major change.

So, I would like to work a little harder in this article to describe what I’mean and not just rely on a metaphor to camouflage the fact that I have failed to give specific examples of what I’mean. What then is the “bridge” I believe has to be built and what do I really want lawyers to do?

First let me describe the issue as I see it from a UK perspective.

In the boom years of the eighties and nineties lawyers did very well. Work was plentiful, clients were successful and there was a general acceptance that good lawyering would be expensive. Although law firms talked up the fact the market was becoming very competitive, in reality clients did not exploit this and they were not very efficient in the way they selected or managed law firms; in addition most law firms invoiced their clients by one mechanism or another on a time charged basis – a basis that actually rewards inefficiency.

Now, however, the position has changed dramatically. Work is not as plentiful, clients are not as successful and clients also know that every supplier, every adviser and every consultant must be able to describe value for money or risk not being selected. Clients are becoming more efficient and furthermore there is also real (and new) competition in the market from new types of legal services provider and from a number of global players who can commoditise the product and offer price certainty.

In many senses this is mostly good and certainly about time; but not everything about what is new is good; in the same way that not everything about what is old is bad. The challenge for law firms and for lawyers in in-house teams is now probably the most fundamental challenge the profession has faced for decades – how to shape legal services in this century that delivers something appropriate and affordable for clients, but that does not diminish core professional values.

So, having set out the issue, this is where I would like to introduce, I hope legitimately, a “bridge” metaphor; a bridge with many columns relying on a mutually supporting contribution from both sides of the legal profession, in-house and law firm.

It would be very easy to look at the role of the in-house lawyer and say that primarily they should be forcing down the price of external legal services to their employers while providing through their own resources an expert service of value to their employers as well. In my view however this is misguided. Driving down costs is a legitimate pursuit, but not as an end in itself; at some point we must value quality as well. Neither is it appropriate to imagine that an in-house team can deliver a comprehensive service just through its own resources.

The challenge is huge – law firms and in-house teams working together to deliver a comprehensive service that is appropriately expert, efficiently designed and thoughtfully communicated to ensure value is seen and quality appreciated. This cannot be achieved simply by driving down the price or by insourcing more. Nor, I suggest, can it be achieved by chasing some sort of fashionable elixir for new service providers; they will have much to offer, but not as a comprehensive solution.

No, what is needed is a detailed and open re-examination of what it means to be a lawyer and, in doing so, what legal services should look like going forward. It will be about building a new bridge – a bridge with columns characterised by:

  • Mutually supportive relationships that are based on transparency and trust. Both sides must work at this, probably communicating better than they have ever communicated before.
  • Work practices that are designed to drive efficiency for the benefit of clients. Can costs be reduced, but profitability preserved? Can risk be shared? Can innovation be rewarded?
  • A total lack of arrogance or complacency. The profession faces genuine threat and the old ways will not return.
  • A willingness to challenge all assumptions on all sides and to act on constructive criticism. In-house teams have much to learn and must be open to change as well; law firms have a role to play as mentor as well as service provider to help everyone’succeed.
  • A genuine desire by all to collaborate and to value their different strengths.

These columns must be as relevant to the in-house team as they are to the law firm. For many this will be a cultural shift that will be too much; for most however it is accelerating the already established direction of travel. The bridge is a powerful metaphor to describe the transition our profession must make, but do not let the familiarity of the message disguise the enormity of the tasks ahead. The threats are huge and success is far from assured.

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