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Changing the culture of traditional partnerships

Changing the culture of traditional partnerships


For a law firm to become truly agile, it cannot simply rely upon technology and flexible contracts, explains Robert Morley

Technology can deliver a great deal in the provision of legal services. Put simply, it allows routine work to be done quicker, at less cost, and often more accurately. Progressive firms are just starting to experience genuine efficiencies from technology, although quantifiably significant benefits have yet to arrive for the majority.

A further technological leap is underway: allowing legal software and solutions to work just as seamlessly on every mobile device, such as a tablet or smartphone, as they do in the office. Just as the use of mobile technology becomes not just prevalent but ubiquitous, anytime anywhere access from any mobile device to a firm’s systems and data is becoming a reality.

One of the great liberating factors for law firms that embrace this technology is the opportunity it creates for much greater remote and flexible working. A lawyer can communicate just as easily with clients and colleagues while on a train, in a café, or at home. However, for many traditional firms, this runs completely counter to their culture, their history, and their way of doing things. Since they are stubbornly conservative by nature and inherently risk-averse, a cultural shift in attitude is inevitably more difficult to achieve.

And yet this is already how many of their clients operate and what they increasingly expect as a business norm. Law firms that want to look and feel more like their clients – and therefore become better able to relate to and engage with them – need to embrace an agile business culture that mirrors the agile technology which they use. This goes far beyond remote or flexible working. It is a culture that is genuinely more collaborative rather than hierarchical: less about owning and more about sharing.

Regulators have been forward thinking in allowing ABS firms to compete with the traditional partnership model. But the future impact of an increasingly flexible labour market, clients that demand agility, and ever more freelance working present a huge challenge to the traditional employment relationships still undertaken by most firms. About 1.3m people in the UK are engaged in such work and to date, only a very small percentage of them are in law firms. However, these numbers are set to grow exponentially, and so far, regulators are playing catch up in addressing the issue.

So what does a law firm of the future look like? A successful firm will have a more dynamic and agile environment which enables their lawyers to operate without a traditional equity partnership or hierarchical structure. The firm should utilise technology to maximise flexibility and enable agility for every lawyer and every employee. Finally, the firm should aim to attract lawyers who share their vision so its philosophy becomes self-perpetuating. This will all contribute to liberating lawyers’ passion for law.

A number of traditional law firms are now introducing flexible working schemes, but for a firm to become truly agile, it cannot simply rely upon technology and flexible contracts. For a firm to achieve the enormous benefits of true business agility, it also has to undergo a significant cultural change, one that embraces flat structures, delegates authority, and makes rapid decisions; promotes exploration, change and innovation; is free from internal politics; promotes coordination over control; has no departmental barriers; and operates throughout the entire firm with complete transparency and trust.

Businesses with a truly agile culture enjoy significantly higher levels of performance, principally because they are much more enjoyable places to work, fostering higher productivity, and they attract high-performing entrepreneurial people. Lawyers are empowered to focus on delivering real value to their clients, and not just doing the job and recording time. The removal of the traditional hierarchical structures promotes cooperation over competition and dissolves the politics of promotion.

Driven by economics, expectation, and emancipation, business agility is the future. To become fully accepted as the new normal in the legal sector will take time, but it is clear that successful law firms of the future need to embrace the concept and the philosophy behind it with both hands. While today’s technology can already enable flexible working, changing the culture of the traditional partnership model to achieve true business agility will be a longer and harder battle, and one that may incur further casualties.

Robert Morley is chief operating officer at Excello Law