Unsurprisingly, lawyers and allied professionals vary in response to our radically changing times. At the conclusion of a blended development programme I ran recently for associates, about half were excited by the possibility of change – the other half felt anxious. It’s only human to react to uncertainty differently. The challenge is, how do we take everyone, optimists and pessimists, forward together?
The future has arrived
If anyone was under the illusion that the pre-pandemic status quo was still the goal, the Law Society published its ‘Future Worlds 2050’ paper this week, which puts paid to the idea of ‘going back.’ It is tough reading, positing, at a conservative estimate, a reduction in full-time legal sector employees of around 50,000.
The pessimistic view is that this figure will be reduced from around 550,000 at present to about 250,000. Granted, the report acknowledges many new roles are likely to emerge in the medium term. However, it is clear the traditional law firm business model is no longer a smouldering platform; the flames are rising around what the report describes as “current paradigms, assumptions, data and infrastructure”.
Neither high-end nor high street firms will be immune from change. Big firms are the most likely to ride out the storm, but corporate clients are increasingly requiring panel firms to provide information about collaborative capacity and approaches to people management. These clients want a human-centred approach; they want their law firm colleagues to be able to connect with and relate to the whole story of their activity, not the isolated immediate issue – and they are not going to pay by the minute for that approach.
High street firms are most clearly under immediate threat from digital processes. A radical change in ways of working requires investment, which will have a significant impact on profitability before it pays off. Vision and commitment to change are crucial to ensure the business is still extant in 2050. Yet these firms can be most agile and responsive to changing client demand.
Look within for the magic
Step forward the optimists and radicals. Do not make the mistake of thinking these are the noisy complainers; without the status quo they would have no raison d’être. Who are the quiet observers that notice what matters to clients? Who are the people with imagination to perceive possibility? Who are the doers, the sense-checkers, the people who make things happen in reality?
Look at everyone in your business. There will be those who form the technical engine of expertise and those who are instinctively good with people. Sometimes they will be the same people. And who knows your clients best? Chances are, it is your secretarial staff. They know what time people call and what the trigger issues and typical periods of tension are in a matter.
Thinking about what people have to offer in this way is like seeing in colour after years of black and white. At the heart of this technicolour perspective is a shared intention holding everyone together, providing direction and driving commitment. Alongside that is an understanding of what collaboration means in practice; appreciation and investment in the sophisticated human skills to enable and lead diverse teams of people from different disciplines, and the added layer of structure and attention which working in a hybrid format demands.
Carving out time to engage collaboratively with what is possible, while still delivering to clients is hard and that burden is falling on the current generation of leaders at this time. The good news is, this is an opportunity which demands the contribution of many; it is not something to be shouldered alone, because even the greatest leaders know they are borne aloft by the talent of others.
The conversation about change is under way, fuelled by the pandemic. Acknowledging that navigating uncertain times is what will pass for ‘normal’ is a great start. The connection between internal relationships, quality of leadership, and the capacity to collaborate within the firm clearly resonates profoundly with the external service provided.
That connection will only become stronger over time. Clients increasingly perceive human skills to be at the heart of value, no matter what size the firm. Harnessing the diverse capabilities within your business is a must.
Nicola Jones is Managing Director of Athena Professional: athenaprofessional.co.uk...