COVID-19

What will the business of law look like in a post COVID-19 world?

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uncertainty’:

The state of not being definitely known or perfectly clear; doubtfulness or vagueness.

Oxford English Dictionary

As we start to talk about the path/way out of COVID-19 lockdown, a number of pre-eminent thinkers in legal consulting have begun discussing what shape and form this might look like for our industry.

Notable among these have included:

  • Richard Susskind + Mark Cohen debating the future of the legal industry as excellently reported by Ron Friedmann on his Prism Legal blog
  • Patrick Lamb discussing ‘The Next Normal: Is There a Roadmap That Gets Us There?’
  • The team on the LawVision Insights Blog giving their views on ‘The Legal Profession in a “Post-COVID” World’, and
  • the excellent and very comprehensive series of blogs by Jordan Furlong under the themed title of ‘Pandemic’.

Then again, as Patrick Dransfield said in Asia Law Portal (Who knows what the future will hold?’) – nobody really knows what the future holds.

But isn’t that why we, as business developers, are hired? To try and give some insights to our partners on how the industry might look?

With that in in mind, for what it is worth , here are my two cents on some of things we may look forward to over the next 18 months:

  • The industry will remain fundamentally the same – as it was pre COVID-19 pandemic days unless there are structural changes to the business model. And, as I understand it, the trust partnership business model that is currently used in most common law jurisdictions makes the talk of change easier than the reality of change (in that nobody today would likely start a new law firm under a partnership trust structure).
  • Technology and working from home will play role – it goes without saying that both technology and working from home will play a part in the future, but how big that role will be in an industry built on presentism still remains to be seen.
  • Uncertainty will feature heavily –  we are flying blind here and most of us have no experience to drawn on. Even those of us who have been through this several times have now come to accept this time is different.
  • Consolidation will likely feature prominently – with The Law Society Gazette (England and Wales) reporting in the past week that ‘71% of high street firms face collapse‘ I would foresee a similar scenario playing out here in Australia. Only I doubt it will apply to high street firms, who should do well out of the expected growth in wills & estates and family law matters, as much as it will likely apply to the middle market where there still remain far too many firms representing far too few clients.
  • There will be an increase in lateral hiring – for the reasons above.
  • Cashflow/credit facilities will help – Warren Buffet is reported to have said that “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Well, the tide has never been lower and we will see in the coming days who still has the ear of their banker. Arguably those with big trust accounts and/or on the panel of one or more Big4 bank panels will benefit.
  • How much office space do law firms really need? – it will be interesting to see if rent footprint decreases. Rental space – and whether to remove parts of the business to less expensive rental footprints (see Herbert Smith Freehills to Macquarie Park and McCabe Curwoods to Chatswood for example) – has been an issue for some time and one of the big take outs from this may well be a lot more Hot-desking!
  • The Big4 see opportunity – as EY reported this week, the Big4 are not going away. If anything, as this chart shows, they’ll be upscaling their charge

Screen Shot 2020-05-03 at 8.37.41 pm

  • A need to be even more client and sector focusses – with the team at Adam Smith, Esq looking at the following areas of need:
    • Insolvency, restructuring and distressed assets
    • Private equity (I’m not 100% sold on PE in Oz)
    • Regulatory investigations and dispute resolution a/k/a litigation
    • M&A
    • Tech and all the ancillary practices it spawns, including IP

From an Australian law perspective I would add Insurance law (going to be more claims made) and all forms of Government (Government will be spending big on Infrastructure, Health, Education and others).

But all of the above are my views and so to finish this post I’m going to turn to one of the great take-outs of this week for me – a post by Trish Carroll who interviewed 12 final year law students to find out how they were feeling in the middle of Covid – ‘Is Covid-19 the mother of all disruptors for the legal profession?‘ – and this is about as close as we will get to how the future of law will look.

As always though, interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

rws_01

 

Has the timesheet been thrown a new lease of life with COVID-19?

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Leaving aside for now whether or not you agree with the billable hour; Most law firms, including many of those that work on fixed/flat and other alternative fees, still require their fee earners to fill-out and submit daily timesheets.

For a small, but ever growing, number of us however there was hope – a light at the end of the tunnel so to speak – that the efficiencies that technology was bringing to the profession would eventually reduce the need to complete timesheets. After all, tasks that used to take several hours of [billable] time (e-discovery for example), with the help and use of technology, could now be completed in less than 15 minutes: so why bother with an outdated measure of productivity such as the timesheet?

And then we had COVID-19…

And so what effect do we think COVID-19 may have on timesheets?

Well, as Cal Newport wrote in his excellent blog post of 12 April, ‘Task Inflation and Inbox Capture: On Unexpected Side Effects of Enforced Telework’:

I’ve spent years studying how knowledge work operates. One thing I’ve noticed about this sector is that it tends to treat the assignment of work tasks with great informality. New obligations arise haphazardly, perhaps in the form of a hastily-composed email or impromptu request during a meeting. If you ask a manager to estimate the current load on each of their team members, they’d likely struggle. If you ask the average knowledge worker to enumerate every obligation currently on their own plate, they’d also likely struggle — the things they need to do exist as a loose assemblage of meeting invites and unread emails.

Ouch, but the killer blow comes with Carl’s next comment:

What prevents this system from spiraling out of control is often a series of implicit friction sources centered on physical co-location in an office.

I had not heard of “friction sources” before reading Carl’s post but he is absolutely right:

When you suddenly take a workplace, and with little warning, make it entirely remote: you lose these friction sources.

And what are those ‘friction sources’ exactly?

Well, as Carl writes [quote]:

  • If I see you in the office acting out the role of someone who is busy, or flustered, or overwhelmed, I’m less likely to put more demands on you.
  • If I encounter you face-to-face on a regular basis, then the social capital at stake when I later ask you to do something via email is amplified.
  • Conference room meetings — though rightly vilified when they become incessant — also provide opportunities for highly efficient in-person encounters in which otherwise ambiguous decisions or tasks can be hashed out on the spot.

[/unquote]

Carl writes like someone who has worked in a law firm for decades and his thoughts give food for thought to those of us considering what the future of law might look like post COVID-19 and why the new normal may not look a whole lot different to the old way of doing things.

As always interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

rws_01

ps – If you want to Buy Me A Coffee, you find me hanging out here

 

“This is not just a stop-gap solution…”

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…or is it?

For the past couple of weeks, one of the most common themes I’ve been seeing about COVID-19, insofar as it relates to the legal profession, is how it has changed, and continues to change, the industry/profession. COVID-19, I’m being led to believe, is a “game changer”.

To this end, I have seen (and read) articles that I would not thought possible three to four months ago written about:

  • the changing nature of remote working in the profession, and
  • the importance of Zoom/Skype and Microsoft’s Teams,

to name but a few.

But I want us to stop here, take a step back, and ask: “Is this really likely to be the long-term outcome?

When I ask this, keep in mind that this is a profession that has fought tooth and nail to keep to the same business operating model for over 30 years (if not 100) despite having already recently lived through one of the worst global economic downturns of all time (the GFC).

So I ask: “What can we really say is different this time?

For sure we can say we have given our business continuity plans (BCPs) a tough workout. And, to be fair, I’d bet that even the most conservative of BCPs didn’t factor in a COVID-19 event.

And while we now know that most of our workforce can work remotely and, ironically enough, with the use of timesheets, we can also claim that they remain ‘productive’ whilst working from home – whatever that term may actually mean to a knowledge worker, does this truly foreshadow a change in the manner in which the industry is going to be managed?

My take is this:- while all of the above is true, it is taking place in circumstances that most of us had not predicted and many of us feel uncomfortable even being in (I’d bet there are very few people out there who are happy being locked up at home for four weeks – family or no family).

But this is a far cry from saying we will see the dawn of a ‘new normal’ whenever normality (whatever that may look like without a vaccine, which I am told is no sure thing) returns.

Because, while it’s critical that understanding our purpose is now more important than ever, and while we cannot hope to survive if we do not look to find the solutions our clients seek and need – which (as I mentioned last week) will be changing – in a post-COVID-19 world these will not necessarily bring about a change to the structure of how a law firm operates and is managed.

As any reader of this blog would know, it has been my long and strongly held view that to see real change to the business model of law, we need to start with the way in which we incentives and reward our partners and employees.

And to start this process we need to start to truly align our firm’s internal incentives/rewards to those of our customers so that we start to help create value for our customers. In short, our incentives/rewards must be aligned with our customers’ needs and incentives.

And yet nothing I have read in the thousands – possibly even tens of thousands – of words on how COVID-19 will change the legal profession has this even come close to being suggested or even discussed.

So my take from all of this is this:

If we want what we are currently going through to be truly more than a mere ‘stop-gap’ solution, if what we want from a post-COVID-19 world is true structural and ongoing change in the profession, then we need to start to have a conversation around the fact that the way in which we incentives and reward our staff is broken and worry a little less about where our staff are doing their job from.

And right now is the time to be having this conversation.

Failing which, all we really have is a stop-gap solution.

These are just my views, as always interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

rws_01

Pricing is a point of differentiation in difficult times

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In my working career to-date I have experienced, first-hand, four economic downturns:

  1. The first was in the late 1980s in the UK (when I had just moved to UK from Southern Africa) and everyone walked around with negative equity for a few years (at least, those that hadn’t had their homes repossessed).
  2. The second was the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis (AFC). This was shortly after I had just moved out to Asia and it completely redefined my legal career as I moved from someone working in Project Finance and Major Projects work to someone who did an awful lot of Debt Restructuring and Workout work (Chapter 11 stuff).
  3. The third was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007-2008 – shortly after I moved to Australia (anyone else seeing a trend here?). Fortuitously Australia didn’t suffer the GFC nearly as badly as the rest of the world and technically we haven’t had a recession in 30 years (although many of the States in Australia have, the country has not).
  4. The fourth is what is now know as COVID-19 in 2020.

Out of all of these, the uncertainties around COVID-19 concern me the most.

Having said that throughout history, every example of adversity has also provided us with a chance at opportunity and this latest economic downturn is no exception. While there are many who sadly won’t survive, there will be many who do.

And, in my experience, those who do survive will be the firms who both understand the circumstances they face and plan for how to deal with those circumstances.

The problem with ‘value’ in economic uncertainty

The perceived ‘value’ your customer sees in your services should be core to how you price those services – in that it’s not about the cost of your services, but the value of the services you deliver.

The problem with this theory is that in economically uncertain times, your customers’ perception of value will change.

It therefore becomes critical that all in your law firm understand that now is the time to provide solutions to your clients problems and not a service.

The elephant in the room: The unused capacity issue

The traditional professional services business model is one based on capacity. In my experience, one of the immediate results of an economy that falls off a cliff is that firms run around looking for work their excess capacity can do.

And one of the go-to strategies to achieving this is that firms will look to drop their prices to gain competitive advantage.

But, as my experiences of 1997 and 2008 have shown me, this is a short term solution to a long term problem.

In both those downturns lots of law firms dropped their prices significantly in response to the AFC/GFC, who were then never able to recover the lost ground.

Essentially they smashed the value perception equation and couldn’t recover it.

You can still drive growth and profit in difficult times

All doom and gloom aside, there are some pricing-relating things that you can start to put in place to get you through this without putting yourself out of business. These include:

1.  Do an audit of your work types

Do a deep dive audit and look at the types of work your firm does. Are these the types of work we are likely going to need in a post-COVID-19 world? If not, what types of work are we going to need? And can your firm provide this (or will you need to laterally hire it in)?

2.  Stay away from the traditional Alternative Fee Arrangements of discounted hourly rates and capped fees. These will only lead you to a race to the bottom.

3.  Align your law firm’s incentives with your customer’s

Over a decade ago Jeff Carr – Vice President, GC and Secretary of FMC Technology – introduced an Alliance Counsel Engagement System (ACES) on its outside counsel panel. Part of ACES included a methodology of aligning the incentives of the outside firm and FMC through a hold back incentive scheme under the terms of which it was possible to get remunerated more than you billed if you provided a good service outcome (dependent in part on an early form of NPS feedback – Carr was ahead of his time!). 

Take out: What is your firm doing to ensure it incentives its team to financially align with those of your customers?

4.  It’s time to think outside the pricing box

For most of my career as a pursuit and tender manager I have read law firm material about how innovative they are in pricing and how they think outside the box. In most cases this simply isn’t true.

Now is the time when you can change that.

For some time Ron Baker and Ed Klees have talked about subscription pricing being the new Value Pricing 2.0 (Google it). And now really is the time to consider pricing the relationship, not the transaction. Think about what services clients are likely going to need as a result of COVID-19, whether that is Employment, Safety, General Contracting, Debt Recovery, Workouts, Restructuring, Loan Borrowing – and think about this:

Which of these services can bundled into a subscription package?

To End

For a long time I wasn’t sure I held with Deloitte’s ‘Pricing and Profitability Management’ theory that a 1% improvement in price equaled a 12.3% increase in Operating Profit.

Don’t get me wrong though – I KNOW that any pricing improvement kicks the sh!t out of any cost reduction. I know it because I have lived it.

And that’s why I can say with absolute confidence that how you price your services over the next few weeks/months/years is never going to be more important to the ongoing success of your firm than now!

rws_01