strategy

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.

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“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.

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Game: ‘Questions to ask your deal team about why your customer is happy to pay your fee?’

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Came across the bones of a really interesting game you can play with your deal team at your next after action deal debrief/lessons learnt meeting.
Handout a piece of paper to each of your deal team members and ask them to rank, in order of priority, the top 5 reasons – from the following list – why the customer is happy to pay your fees in full (no discounts/write-offs, etc allowed):
  1. Demonstrated an understanding of the customer’s business/industry throughout the deal
  2. Demonstrated an understanding of relevant law
  3. Responsiveness to customer’s requests – phone/email/meetings
  4. Built good rapport and a trusting relationship during the deal (was in the trenches with the customer)
  5. Used expertise to help save the customer money (either on the deal or fees)
  6. Used Legal Project Management techniques to stay within the deal scope and didn’t allow scope creep without first taking to the customers
  7. Used technology, AI, Legal Process Outsourcing and value adds to make the customer’s life easier during the deal
  8. Offered the customer a great discount
  9. Hourly rate was attractive to the customer
  10. Any other reason(s)

Remember, they can only pick 5. And they need to be in order of priority.

I would love to hear feedback on which five were the most popular chosen.

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Thinking of starting a podcast?

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Over the past week I’ve had three different people inform me that they were starting podcasts and ask me if I would be willing to be interviewed. Honoured as I am by such requests, I did also wonder why such interest in me and podcasts more broadly?

In mulling this over I recalled a recent podcast (5 June 2019, Podcast #227) between Sam Glover and Bob Ambrogi on ‘The State of Legal Blogging & Podcasting‘ on the Lawyerist podcast.  Listening to this again today it struck me how many great tips these two give out (for free) to anyone looking to start a podcast; some of which are (fast forward to 29 minutes into Sam’s talk to really get the best out of these):

  • are podcast a fad or here to stay?
  • has the revenue model for podcasts been worked out?
  • have we really thought through the market penetration issue (more people don’t listen to podcasts than do)?
  • is there too much content already out there? if there is, what are you doing to be a little bit different?
  • how often should you be producing material – daily, weekly, monthly?
  • should you be framing your podcast with music at the start and end?
  • what equipment should you be using?

Taking all that on board and still want to produce a podcast? Then these are three things that Sam and Bob say in their podcast that should also be considered:

  1. it’s more work than you think it is going to be
  2. it’s really tough to build a subscriber base
  3. the right people over lots of people (love this saying)

On that last point, independent of Sam and Bob’s chat, I also heard this week that the average podcast lasts 7 issues.

To help you overcome this, Bob makes a brilliant suggestion in the podcast – if you are attending a conference take your recording equipment with you. And someone who does that really, really well is Ari Kaplan.

I hope you enjoy all the links. Listen to them – they are great (and free!); and, as always, love to hear your thoughts/views/feedback.

Secondments, labour arbitrage and a new race to the bottom

Follow me:

  • In-house teams have been the biggest ‘growth’ area in legal post 2008 and some in-house teams are now bigger than the law firms they previously outsourced worked to
  • Most GCs report to the CFO
  • GCs are increasingly under pressure from the CFO to reduce their ‘cost’ (including bonuses now linked to reducing cost – note: not external legal spend)
  • GCs have effectively two cost centres: ‘labour’ or ‘ external legal spend’
  • Procurement tells GCs they can reduce both ‘labour’ and ‘spend’ at the same time – secondments (heavily discounted at daily or weekly rates in RFPs – don’t need to advise out and don’t need to hire in-house!)
  • Law firms enter the discounted labour arbitrage market

And a new race to the bottom starts*…

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

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*welcome to the party LoD

The big squeeze is coming: Why it’s important to know if your practice is bespoke or precedent?

Hall Wang penned an interesting post on the Tom Spencer blog over the weekend that looked at two of the different types of consulting – Bespoke and Precedent (Bespoke and Precedent Driven – Understanding the Two Different Approaches to Consulting).

Wang explains the difference between the two as being:

Bespoke: This approach is like making a custom-tailored outfit whereby the focus is on what is unique about a client’s situation and then crafting a customized solution for the client. The mindset in this approach is to think about what might be possible to best fit the client’s needs.

Precedent driven: This approach is similar to the way you bake a cake using a cookbook; following the recipe, but making adjustments as time and available ingredients necessitate. The mindset is to find proven precedents and use them as a guide to provide reliable client recommendations.”

I like Wang’s terminology. I particularly like Wang’s use of ‘precedent driven‘ – an alternative to the stale and often misused ‘commoditised‘. It’s smart language, but I think it’s really important that lawyers and their support team understand the difference and workout which of the two their practice sits in.

So why is this even important?

Here’s the reason:- because if you operate a predominantly ‘precedent-based practice’, then you’re going to be feeling the forthcoming ‘big squeeze’ way more than is likely to be the case than if you run a bespoke practice.

What ‘big squeeze?’; my practice is already seeing an uptick in legal work you may be asking – see the latest Altman Weil ‘Law Firms in Transition 2019: Change Efforts Stalled in 2018 as Business Boomed‘ report for why this may be the case.

Well, as I recently blogged The State of Australian Corporate Law Departments Report 2019 has stated that “45% of Australian GCs are forecasting a decrease in their 2019 legal spend” – so ask yourself:- “Where is this massive savings going to come from?” Add to this the recent Thomson Reuters ‘Alternative Legal Services Provider Report‘ (February 2019) stat that

In just two years, revenues for alternative legal services providers have grown from $8.4 billion in 2015 to about $10.7 billion in 2017. This represents a compound annual growth rate of 12.9% over that period.

and it doesn’t take Einstein to tell you that a big (or bigger) squeeze is coming and that the middle – precedent-driven – market (where the majority of the market players sit) is going to be the epicentre of that big squeeze.

But knowing and understanding this is very important. It helps take you – as lawyers, business developers or leaders – a long way to understanding that in reality very few people want or need bespoke legal services; but what the really really really don’t want is a precedent legal service dressed up with a bespoke ‘full service’ price.

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

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Would you use an unlicensed or unqualified legal advisor?

Last Friday’s (April 26) The Soul of Enterprise Free Rider Friday podcast (Millionaires, Marxists, and Minimum Wage) with Ron Baker and Ed Kless, included a ‘stack’ (their term not mine) by Ed on the news that “Kim Kardashian Is Right: Lawyers Shouldn’t Have to Attend Law School”. As someone who knows absolutely nothing about the Kardashian family (nor wishes to), not much in that – apart from the comment that Ed and Ron go on to make in respect of Episode #225 of their series of podcasts in relation to “occupational licensure”.

In short Ron and Ed talk about the fact that there are some jobs around the world where you need a ‘licence to practice’ – examples: a barber (hat tip to Ron’s Dad there), an accountant, and even a lawyer.

On the back of the Kim Kardashian issue, Ed and Ron then go on to ask this question:

If you know someone isn’t qualified (e.g., don’t have a law degree) or isn’t licensed (e.g. have a practising certificate), should you still be able/allowed to ask them for professional advice – provided that you sign a waiver/agreement/whatever stating that you know that persons isn’t qualified or licensed to provide the requested advice?

Never, no way, stupid idea.

And I would agree with you.

But wait, we’re all adults here and should be allowed to determine our own future and make our own decisions.

Exhibit A: this is an excerpt from the British Government’s website (April 2017) in relation to obtaining legal advice in Thailand:-

“There is no restriction on any Thai national , with or without a law degree [bolded and underlined for emphasis by me], to offer you legal advice.”

Now Thailand is a civil law jurisdiction with a codified law, but still…

…leaving aside the whole issue of how stupid you may or may not need to be take legal advice from a non-licensed, non-qualifed expert (bought a pre-pack will lately?) – here’s a precedent.

There are “lawyers” who advise “on the law” who are not educationally qualified (as opposed to possibly life) or institutionally licensed.

Interesting as that all is though, that’s Thailand – hardly the US, UK or Australia.

Well hang on a second…

Listening to Ed and Ron’s podcasts there are States in the US where you can now obtain ‘legal’ advice from someone who isn’t qualified or licensed, provided that you sign a waiver saying that you knew this to be the case.

And, in my view the following comment from legalfutures.com – reporting on The UK Legal Services Consumer Research Report 2019 yesterday:-

A smaller majority (58%) would be prepared to use freelance solicitors, due to arrive this November with other Solicitors Regulation Authority rule changes, if they could save money on fees.

means they are not a long way behind.

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

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* if I have misrepresented or misunderstood my take-outs from Ed and Ron’s podcast, then I apologise to them.