It is said that what doesn’t kill us provides a learning experience; but deciding what we learn in our professional lives is not always easy to discern. The pace of change is not uniform and this provides a constant conundrum – on the one hand we read of seemingly significant developments like the Legal Services Act in the UK, like the trend to off-shoring, like legal process outsourcing etc…but on the other hand I know that when I wake up tomorrow morning my world will not feel particularly different; the sky will still be grey, the wind will be chilly, my office will be the same size, my spam filter will be full again and the report I promised last week will still be unfinished!
So, as we dust ourselves down and thank our lucky stars that we are still trading, we will ponder the opportunities for progress, for growth and for profit; however do we also ponder how we should be adapting to a new normal of technologically driven client-centric, service-orientated and value-based legal services?
The answer is probably “no we are not” …at least, at best, I suspect the answer is “well, only if we really have to”.
And this isn’t because we do not buy the intellectual argument…it isn’t because we do not believe the world is changing; it is partly because frankly we are daunted by change and partly because we do not know the direction of change that suits us. In these circumstances our natural inclination is not to follow blindly what might be a fad or a dead end, but to stand sceptically still.
My father told me recently, in a heated discussion about climate change…that if it got hotter, he would take off his hat and if it got colder, he would put it on again. I’m not sure that the Copenhagen Treaty negotiators started from first principles such as these, but in one sense at least my father’s response is not unreasonable…most of us can only change when we experience a reason to change.
So I am not going to write now (especially now after the last eighteen months) about imperatives or compelling cases; nor am I going to criticise those who believe that their world today is tough enough just now without some Herbert chirping from the safe haven of the boundary’s edge that it would be better to play more expansive shots against the demon fast bowler.
My conclusion is that we should not concern ourselves with the apocalyptic, the way forward is more mundane. The way forward is in what we do best.
Can you answer this question honestly? When we are at our very best, what does that look like?
…Because the answer to this question is, in my opinion, the way forward.
Clients are sceptics too…they do not want new-fangled anything and phrases such as “off-shore”, “out-source”, “commoditised” etc do not intrinsically carry a resonance of quality and value. I firmly believe that what clients want can be described in a very few words: a relationship they trust, with people they respect, where commitments are kept and where value is clear.
To do this you will not necessarily need a JV partner in Asia, or a virtual office in Silicon Valley, or to manage everything by hard-drive embedded process or “apps” on your phone; but it will always need good people, committed to their work, supportive of their business and above all passionate about their clients’ interests.
I have not suddenly turned up the volume on my Luddite tendencies; frankly the world is changing fast and in many respects it is a very good thing too; there is a pressing need to bring risk and transparency to pricing; there is a need to develop multi-disciplinary practices that support client interests, law firms have to leverage know-how better and make their work more accessible…etc, etc, etc. Whether you agree with me or not however does not have to be cause for heated debate…for now none of us are right or wrong on such matters…
By analogy I did not make a conscious decision to resist or to adopt High Definition television or super fast broadband or my children’s social networking or the person free checkout at the supermarket or online banking…Each of these things has been absorbed at a time that was right for me, gently, without drama…Some things have taken longer to come to terms with, others not, but the point is that I did not have a philosophical debate about each matter…and progress/change in legal services will be the same for most of us as well…
Ten years ago most businesses would not transact on-line; now clients worry if we do not. We have not got to worry about the next ten years, we have just to live through them and take each aspect of change in our stride.
Of course for the legal services entrepreneurs, for those who want to create new worlds and those who wish to be very different sooner rather than later, there is opportunity for them too…and they will be the catalyst for many things we adopt later on. We have not got to be against them, we have just to realise that as they invent and improve on we have to offer now, then in turn we will have choices to make as a result as well.
Shops do not sell black and white television sets any more; but shops still sell televisions. What should never happen is that we ban everything but the sale of black and white televisions to protect the manufacturers and retailers of those sets…So it is that legal services will be different in the years to come, but there will still be legal services.
In the meantime, blessed are the dealmakers, the practitioners and the do-ers of today; for now is your time…you are the wealth creators, the employers and the investors of today…and thanks to your efforts today there will be a future for legal services tomorrow that provides new, different and (hopefully) many better opportunities for us all.