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Nicola Jones

Barrister, Athena Professional

Quotation Marks
Whichever way you look at the digital transformation agenda, it seems it always starts and ends with people

The end of legal industry incrementalism

The end of legal industry incrementalism


Change has been forced on many a firm to make them become more efficient, as Nicola Jones explains

When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘This change agenda has been on the cards for a decade and it has not happened yet’?  

I used to hear it from legal professionals regularly at conferences or in conversation.

The burning platform was regarded as smoldering gently for the longest time; no need for action until the flames burst into life. And then the pandemic hit.

Never mind flames – ‘the future’ exploded and transformed the way we work. It is now incontrovertible that the fourth industrial revolution is underway in earnest. 

It’s worth reflecting that this kind of social and economic development has historically played out over centuries.

Think of the printing press. It arrived in 1476, facilitating the Reformation, civil war, the rise of parliamentary representation and industrial revolution. 

But it wasn’t until 1872 that the Education Act made it law for all children to be given primary education so they could read. It took four hundred years for that technology to play out – plenty of time for incremental adjustment.

In contrast, the way we live has been transformed by access to the internet via handheld devices (even before the pandemic).

It is widely agreed that the advent of the iPhone in 2007 marked the tipping point for the transformation of services from traditional to digital formats.

More than a decade later, we’re all living with the reality of services delivered exclusively online, designed and refined to meet user need.

It is predicted that by 2025 we will interact with connected devices 4,800 times per day. 

Lockdown has made the speed and ease of use of, for instance, Amazon or Deliveroo, indispensable.

Farm shops, bookshops and cafes offer ‘click and collect;’ but legal services are, largely, not yet delivered online.

Yet Google is investing heavily in the sector. The Big Four accountancy firms have become established providers of legal services, and boutique startups have automation baked into their business models.

They are offering a variety of legal advice which is easy to access and consume, and competitively priced. 

These market forces were on the move before the pandemic, but it has put paid to the idea that we will be ‘going back’ to the way we worked in 2019.

As Chris Fowler, general counsel of BT Technology recently said: “Covid is the end of legal industry incrementalism.”    

The primacy of user experience (UX) or client experience (CX) now defines the way we interact with the world.

In 2018, the LexisNexis Bellwether Report said 87 per cent of lawyers were confident about their firm’s future; and 70 per cent reported being actively engaged in change.

Yet only 27 per cent agreed their firm was changing to meet the needs of a client-driven market. Has the pandemic changed that?

Thomson Reuters’ recent small law firm business leaders report states that 82 per cent of small firm business leaders plan to increase the use of technology to cut costs in the year ahead.  

In 2021, the challenge will be to re-engage with increasing efficiency, particularly through the tracking and analysis of data.

For example, the Law Society’s report, Horizon Scanning: Digital Futures, cites evidence that by 2030 up to 80 per cent of new wealth management clients are expected to demand access to advice, “in a data-driven, hyper-personalised and continuous context, potentially via subscription”.

Inevitably, the data trail leads back to the question of how people behave.

Whichever way you look at the digital transformation agenda, it seems it always starts and ends with people.

The question of how people operate, and how adaptable they can be, is crucial to initiation and delivery of transformation.

Evidence suggests 80 per cent of business leaders feel their culture has to change in order to meet its goals. 

The good news in that this presages a move away from feeling ‘done to’. In fact, it’s vital that individuals engage with, and own, changes to their work practice – individually and collectively.

Small and medium-sized law firms are agile in scale. Many have had change forced upon them in 2020. 

The challenge is to capitalise on that momentum, inspire curiosity and invest in skills.

Transformation is no longer the stuff of conference presentations. It is now everyone’s lived experience. 

Nicola Jones is managing director of Athena Professional