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I’m under no illusion that the future is looking rosy for every firm

Tomorrow will be a good day

Tomorrow will be a good day

There are promising signs of a bright future for law firms

I write this on the morning after the sad death of centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore who, with the aid of his walking frame, slowly pounded the grounds of his property for most of April 2020 – raising £33m for NHS charities.

His often-quoted phrase, ‘If tomorrow is my last day, it’ll be a good one…’ has been paraphrased by parts of the press (and adopted as the title of his autobiography in a mark of approval) as ‘tomorrow will be a good day’.

As February commences, there are initial but strong signs that, figuratively speaking, tomorrow will indeed be a good day for the solicitors’ profession. We report the encouraging news that almost all of the law firms in a recent survey made a profit between March and December last year (see p10), putting paid to much of the pessimism that pervaded the market back in the spring.

Is this backed up by other pieces of research? It would certainly seem so: Thomson Reuters recently reported that lawyers across the industry were increasingly optimistic as they went into the end of 2020 compared with the summer; with far fewer expecting a decline compared to June. 

The practice areas currently in demand are not hard to recognise – conveyancing (thanks in part to the stamp duty holiday), employment, private client and family. There is also an increase in litigation which is highly unlikely to dissipate any time soon (there’s a rather large backlog to clear first). 

Separately, the latest LexisNexis Bellwether report reveals a high level of confidence among firms, with some positively thriving and 80 per cent of those surveyed expecting to remain in business long term. 

It is unsurprising the market was nervous when the first national lockdown was imposed. It was followed by startlingly pessimistic headlines along the lines of ‘many high street law firms face collapse’ and ‘law firms face ‘bloodbath’.

But firms are starting to recruit and new firms are springing up. During the course of last year, 426 new law firms opened for business compared to 554 the previous year. 

But I’m under no illusion that the future is looking rosy for every firm: some are struggling to survive while others are already no more. According to the SRA, 311 firms ceased practising and closed in the 12 months to the end of October 2020,.

The problems facing those firms may have been caused by poor operational responses to the pandemic, unwillingness to change the firm’s strategic approach in the face of covid-19 or a sub-optimal technological infrastructure that did not adapt to the new conditions. 

Other firms were – are – offering a legal service within sector areas directly affected by the pandemic, most visibly criminal defence work. Commercial property, commercial and construction have, for instance, taken a huge hit. 

Firms who are in survival mode must grasp the opportunities to innovate and change rather than allow the ship to sink. That may require hard decisions but the practice of law is, ultimately, a business and if firms are to survive and thrive – difficult operational decisions have to be made. 

There are strong signs that tomorrow will be a good day; that this year will be a good year for the profession. There will inevitably be casualties, but lawyers directly affected have the skills and experience and, with a healthy dose of realism, should be able to innovate and reinvent themselves with the right tools and an optimistic approach. 

This month, contributors highlight some of those tools, for instance, employee flexibility, collaboration and maintaining a focus on clients to help in disaster recovery; and the importance of leaders retaining the art of ‘being human’ as they guide their firms through times of crisis. 

And so, with a farewell salute to the late war veteran Captain Sir Tom, we can march onwards and upwards.

Nicola Laver is editor of Solicitors Journal and a non-practising solicitor

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