I recently returned from my second International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) conference and thought I would blog about some of the trends I’ve noticed within the legal vertical since I started at Navantis 18 months ago. There’s no real structure to my writing – and I don’t necessarily have a solution or strategy in mind for addressing some of the challenges law firms are facing – but I wanted to capture some of my random observations and musings about the industry as I continue to spend time with and learn from our clients.
THINGS I LEARNED AT ILTA
Alternative Billing Models
Clients are increasingly demanding new value-based billing models as opposed to the traditional hourly rate. Reduced legal budgets (since the economic downturn) has led clients to scrutinize billings more thoroughly. Fixed Fee engagements or billing rates tied to specific outcomes are some of the potential structures firms are considering. However, the challenge from my perspective is that most firms don’t have the ability to slice and dice data to identify when and where to apply alternative methods. I think there is a significant opportunity for firms to leverage Big Data to optimize their Billing Models to target specific clients, industries or deal types – but they need to get a handle on their data first before they can mine it.
Negotiation is something lawyers do on a regular basis. As any skilled negotiator will tell you – there is no substitute for face to face communication. Emails, although heavily used by lawyers, lose context – there is no ability to read facial expressions or sense intended tone (e.g. sarcasm). Text messages and BBMs are intended to be brief and often don’t use formal language. Phone calls do allow you to assess a person’s voice – but you still don’t have the ability to look someone in the eye or see the bead of sweat on their forehead. It is for these reasons that many firms invested in large VideoConferenceing units from Cisco, Tanberg, Polycom and others over the last 10 years. Although modern at their time of purchase, many of these systems are reaching end of life. As well, consumer-based video technology has evolved and it’s now possible to do a video conference using a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop from anywhere using technologies like Skype or Facetime. Enterprise ready videoconferencing solutions like Lync are also helping make firms more productive. The consumerization of video conferencing is causing lawyers to demand a seamless experience across all devices and from any location. There is an opportunity for firms to increase productivity while lowering costs (differentiating themselves in the process) if they find a way to integrate all these technologies in a coherent manner.
Protecting client confidentiality has always been a priority for lawyers – and electronic communication has increased the complexity of achieving this commitment. Many law firms involved in mergers & acquisitions have been hacked. Many firms are concerned about being hacked by the Chinese government. Some firms are even considering conference rooms with no electronic equipment, mobile devices are checked at the door and the room is regularly swept for bugs! The challenge facing law firms is how to enable their lawyers to be more productive in a competitive market while balancing the risk to the firm through the leakage of sensitive information. Those firms that secure their devices, end points and client portals will have a strategic advantage.
Globalization & Organization Models
Increased competition and cost pressures are causing law firms to review their organizational structures. Global firms are moving into new geographies by acquiring smaller firms. Firms are also looking at new models beyond the traditional partnership. A Swiss verein is an emerging legal entity – it’s a combination as opposed to a merger or acquisition. Firms can’t share profits but can share services – it’s essentially a shared services model. Another change to traditional structures is the ratio of lawyers to partners. Clients are refusing to pay top dollar for associates preferring to reserve their legal spending on only the most senior lawyers. Firms are also reducing the number of equity partners. Lastly, the pressure to reduce costs is causing many firms to increase the amount of Legal Process Outsourcing they adopt as a means of increasing profitability.
Demographics & IT Acumen
As is common across all industries, law firms are being forced to adopt new technologies as a means of attracting the best and the brightest new talent. Associates and summer students have been savvy users of social and mobile for many years and are likely to expect and embrace these technologies when joining a firm. While law firms (and senior partners in particular) have never been early adopters of technology, there are those who are trying to change this. Casey Flaherty is Legal Counsel at Kia Motors and has an interesting take on what should be considered an acceptable level of IT acumen for lawyers – and I agree with him. Ignorance of IT skills is no longer an acceptable excuse – IT acumen is required to do your job and to attract new clients.
We’re Not So Different You and I
One of my final thoughts relates to the many parallels I see between the legal industry and that of my own – IT Consulting. Both are professional services and are facing many of the same challenges – but IT has been quicker to embrace some of the solutions to these challenges (e.g. outsourcing, alternative billing models). My hope going forward is that I can take some of the learnings from my own industry and apply them to help my clients in the legal vertical.