The pubs are open. The hairdressers are back. The country is starting to move again.
As we begin to re-emerge, blinking, into the world, it’s inevitable that we will fall back into some old patterns.
Companies are no different. It would be easy for law firms to settle back into their old ways of working. Already, the great migration back to offices has begun.
In a lot of ways, returning to old patterns is a good thing. We hold on to patterns because they work. We repeat behaviours and processes because they are effective.
In an ideal world, our work patterns would improve regularly, as we learn more about how to improve the quality of our work. But this doesn’t happen in practice for all sorts of (cultural, structural, personal, ideological) reasons – which are a topic for another time.
The pandemic has highlighted some new patterns in the legal industry. Here, I’ve picked out three that I believe we should try our best to hold on to.
Lesson #1 – Innovation can and should happen rapidly
The legal industry is naturally cautious and resistant to big changes. Again, this is generally a good thing. But the pandemic has given all of us, law firms included, a sense of urgency. No industry is exempt from the shock of what has happened and what is to come: and we are all searching for a way to navigate back to clear waters.
In the past couple of months, we have seen our customers launch projects, that might previously have taken years to push through, in days. My old firm, Herbert Smith Freehills, has already built and released two COVID-19 applications in Neota Logic. One, called “Pressure Points”, assesses the availability of force majeure relief under English law. The other helps people navigate the Australian government’s “Jobkeeper” payment scheme. Another customer, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, released a COVID-19 Estate Planning Tool, to help people identify minimum requirements for executing wills, trusts and powers of attorney.
We should indulge in more of this kind of experimental, rapid innovation in the firm. If it doesn’t work, we lose a few weeks. If it does, we might create enormous leverage from a relatively small amount of work.
The innovation that firms like HSF and BCLP are practicing is a different species to the innovation of 5 years ago – it moves much faster. We should try our best to keep this pace.
Lesson #2 – We should continue to deliver services asynchronously
Historically, legal advice could only be provided through one-to-one interactions. Law is complicated, and you have to study a lot to understand and package it for others.
In the post-pandemic world, this is no longer true. An expert system can replicate human logic and deliver a nuanced and thoughtful analysis on a point of law. A machine learning algorithm can read and understand a document in its context – just as well as a human.
As a nation of remote workers, we have realised that important transactions and conversations don’t have to be conducted in real-time with the other party (you only have to look as far as the growth of online courts around the world).
The upside is that many aspects of legal services can be delivered asynchronously – no matter where the recipient of that advice is, or the time of day.
We should double down on this kind of service delivery. It is better for clients, and it is better for lawyers.
Many law firms still underestimate just how popular asynchronous, digital versions of their services would be, and how quickly they could enter and succeed in the legal tech arena. A law firm can leverage existing reputation, credibility and relationships to supply digital services and find quick success.
Technology and credibility is a potent combination, and it’s how our customers have expanded their digital service offerings so quickly.
Lesson #3 – We should be generalists, not specialists
You might have heard of the T-shaped lawyer or the O-shaped lawyer. Other than making us wonder what shape lawyers are usually, these concepts point to something critical to the future of the law firm – the future of the lawyer.
A law firm with a culture of rapid innovation demands different skills from its junior lawyers. Leading juniors will be generalists: less focussed on the letter of the law, more focussed on the business of law. Less concerned with pristine documents; more concerned with client experience. Less driven by the hours they bill, more driven by the results, revenue and feedback they produce.
Perhaps this is a little hyperbolic – after all, legal academics have been predicting this kind of thing for years. The difference now is that professionals at the sharp end have personal experience of embracing innovation – and seeing it work. The lawyers at the forefront will be “generalist professionals”, leading agile teams of specialists with an executive mindset, and deploying them to create the increasingly automated service offerings that clients demand.
This has profound long-term implications for the firm. We’re not just talking about offloading the prestige City headquarters but embracing a whole new partnership or corporate model – one that rewards these behaviours.
If we want law firms to change, then lawyers must change too.