Changing Environment for Legal Services And The Role For Technology

It is timely to follow up from a few friendly conversations with lawyers and share a few ideas as to how technology may impact the legal industry.  Initially, lawyers have shared genuine curiosity about hot topics such as Cloud computing — perhaps to improve online shopping or watching movies online.  After further conversation, it is apparent that lawyers are looking for something to jumpstart frustration with the current pathway, searching for how to adapt to a changing environment.

When most of us think about legal services, we don’t think about the Cloud or anything terribly different from what has been tested by time. Rather, we may think about practitioners plodding away, drafting and billing away by the minute, keeping junior attorneys busy and billing, for the most part, immune from technology innovation.

Yet, technology innovation has transformed other industries. A few examples include 1990’s online retailing removing bricks for clicks and rationalization of location based supply chains, 1980’s automotive industry and telecom, 1970’s financial services lowering transaction costs, post-WWII farming moving populations from the country and into the cities, to name a few. Are law firms ready for a re-make in light of the current technologies available and increasingly consumed via clients and business partners?

Law firms along with Professional Service firms are often cited as escaping the productivity boom. This is not exactly true. For example, law firms began adopting RIMM Blackberries, creating a whole new paradigm for mobility and how lawyers may deliver value. As well, this is not exactly true for other service firms including accountancies engineering firms and consultancies — raising alternatives for law firm consideration:

  • Accounting — In the 1990’s, we saw information technology investment to hold the line on audit costs, move on-location with the client and improve speed of delivery; with freed-up know-how, we saw a corresponding growth in accounting firm specialized advisory service revenues. Will law firms provide more standard fixed-fee continuity services? How may firms translate know-how into advisory services revenue growth? Should attorneys be co-locating and improving virtual collaboration with clients?
  • Architects and Engineers — In the 2000’s, architects and engineers enjoyed a heightened impact on construction projects when deliverables began moving from blueprints to building information models. Engagement on construction projects was extended from design to design and build phases, improving both accountability and participation across project life cycle. Will attorneys broaden participation across project lifecycle and immerse into day-to-day business lines challenges? Will firms contemplate additional at-risk fees and corresponding upside revenue on larger projects? Will firm investment into project accountability and client operations improve transparency and develop revenue growth?
  • Consultants — while always in the business of redeveloping and repackaging offerings, in the 1990’s firms began stepping up research and publishing efforts to showcase firm know-how outside the defined engagement. As well, consulting firms began developing data information capabilities such as benchmarking to support advisory services. How may law firms best showcase expertise and share know-how outside the defined project scope? In an era of increasing complexity for legal matters, how will organization and interpretation of data and information management support legal advisory services?

Law firms and supporting companies are reformulating the tried and true status quo and providing alternatives. In the last few years, several firms have developed fixed and alternative fee arrangements to better align business interests with client needs. Firms such as Seyfarth Shaw and Orrick have applied client driven outsourcing strategies and process improvements to create more standard service offerings; as well, firms such as Fenwick & West are creating new offerings to broaden participation and continuity.  In each case, critical for success was putting in place supporting technology infrastructure and firm processes.

New firms have emerged to improve service offerings. Taking learnings from business process outsourcing, Axiom Legal is offering a managed service approach for day-to-day operational requirements of firms, augmented with consulting services for targeted specialized areas. VLP Law Group makes the most of technology to enhance internal collaboration and virtual legal service delivery. Both examples are pushing traditional definitions for a law firm, the workplace — supported by mobile, sharing technology.

General counsels are also taking a constructive approach for managing transformation thru education and sharing thru organizations such as Association of Corporate Counsel and publications such as InsideCounsel and performance benchmarking studies from organizations such as Corporate Executive Board.  Over time, efforts may provide the much needed information and metrics to support a new basis for performance measurement.

A critical lever for service improvement is how we may bring parties together; this is a natural role for technology — collaboration, virtual presence and improved knowledge sharing among parties. Legal OnRamp is making the most of the web to connect and share general counsel and firms, offering a forum for sharing and improving insight. Similarly, in the consumer and small business segment, emerging players such as RocketLawyer are offering alternatives for connecting clients with lawyers.

In a changing environment, one area we may expect to remain constant is the value received for law firm services, offering specialized know-how and distinct perspective.  The how  and corresponding business model formuations is ripe for innovation around the edges with technology  to jumpstart value delivery.

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