Will law firms be digitised to death?

Will law firms be digitised to death?


Lawyers need to remember that the human touch is a fundamental part of their relationship with clients, writes Dr Bob Murray

Recently I gave a plenary talk at the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association Conference in Melbourne. The audience was great and the event was beautifully organised.

Although all of the other speakers were eloquent and knowledgeable, some of them left me feeling very sad indeed. One in particular extolled the virtues of being entirely virtual, almost entirely digital, of hiring lawyers on a day labourer basis and feeding other work out to India – all at, on the face of it, great savings. He was delighted with all the money he was making.

I confess that I am biased. I am biased by my training as a behavioural neurogeneticist and as a psychologist. I am drawn to look at the effects of what our society is doing to human beings – to us. I’m not a Luddite whose aim in life is to smash computers, but I am one of the crowd who are saying ‘Hold on there! Let’s think a bit about what we are doing before we let technology make us irrelevant.’ I’m not sure we have that much time left. Particularly for those of us in the business of law, which, as an adviser, I am.

In all professions, including the law, we seem to be getting into a frenzy of ‘if we can, we must!’ If we can digitise our processes, if we can make people work from home and save on rental, if we can reduce everything we do to a series of ones and zeros, then we must. I recall Churchill’s famous phrase about those countries which sought safety in neutrality at the outset of the Second World War: ‘Each one thinks the tiger will eat him last.’ Each firm hopes that by appeasing the digital tiger, they will be the last to be eaten.

What is true is that if law firms retain the false belief that they are in the business of selling law, then they will be digitised and out- and in-sourced to death. The fact is that no human being (outside of law students) ever bought law. Humans only buy four things: shelter (including clothing), food (including drink), reproduction (including, obviously, sex), and supportive relationships. Included in these categories are those goods and services which enable us to acquire these four, the need for which is baked hard into our DNA. Lawyers have always been in the emotional and relational support business. This is something that the old-time local solicitor understood well and modern ‘biglaw’ has forgotten to its peril. In human neurogenetic and psychological terms, legal work has always been the means and the excuse for the relationship.

For the vast majority of people the law is only a means to get or retain one of the four great needs, and if law is all you sell, then all you get is a transactional and uncommitted relationship which, from the client’s perspective, might as well be with a machine. But everyone needs help and guidance, they need to feel that there is someone out there who has their interests at heart. If the client is a business or the senior people in a business, then the need is for someone who isn’t afraid to ask the tricky questions which a staff lawyer won’t. The need is for someone who knows and cares about the client and their business, and yet can be honest and objective.

Studies have shown that rainmaking lawyers instinctively understand that they are in the deep listening, questioning, and supportive-relationship-forming business. Their business is not only, or even principally, advice. They form a bond of commonality with the client. Again, numerous studies have proven that it’s this commonality that sells their services. Commonality breeds trust like nothing else; it is the basis of all lasting relationships (opposites may attract for a while, but don’t usually stay together). Clients want, and need, to have a committed relationship with their ‘legal’ adviser. A really good practitioner becomes something like a knowledgeable and benevolent uncle (or aunt), ready to listen, to ask questions, and, in the end, to give advice. And that advice may have nothing to do with the law.

This listening and questioning can be therapeutic, can lead to self-realisations and to open and frank conversations on almost any topic of relevance to the client. It is the essence of what psychologist and writer Daniel Goleman calls ‘emotional intelligence’, which, according to an article by James Runde in a recent Harvard Business Review, is the core attribute lawyers and other professionals will need going forward.

As Ian Humphreys, the managing partner of Ashurst’s Brisbane office, puts it: ‘I realised a long time ago that I was in the relationship business and that much of the time I spend with clients is often only tangentially to do with the law.’

That fundamental aspect of the lawyer-client relationship cannot be digitised and is the way of the future for the profession. The question is not ‘How can we digitise our people out?’ but rather ‘How can we train them to be excellent listeners and questioners? How can we train them to show that they value the relationship with the client rather than seeing them simply as a way of meeting our financial targets?’

Research has shown that once a client is committed to the relationship with their adviser, once the communication is about more than just the law, then they become ‘sticky’ and price becomes much less of an issue.

And the strange thing is that so many of the managing partners and other law leaders that I meet agree with this. But they seem unable to move their firms, their partners. Many firms still have remuneration systems that prevent partners and others from forming real relationships with their clients – how can you if the clock is ticking every time you speak to a client? Lawyers are still touting their knowledge of the law and their experience in it as if these were real selling points. Of course they’re not. In professional services you should be selling what the client needs, not what you have to offer. If all you have to sell is your knowledge of the law and your expertise, then AI and robotics will soon take your place.

A few years ago I was making these points to the managing partner of a large UK-based multinational firm. He scoffed.

‘Open-ended asking and listening is what therapists do and I don’t want my partners to be therapists,’ he declared. ‘They’re lawyers, they sell legal advice!’

I met up with him two weeks ago and he asked if I would come and ‘teach the partners that asking and listening stuff’.

As the managing partner of a mid-sized UK law firm said: ‘Look, the future for the firm is really about relationship development, not digitising. We refuse to get into a commoditising race to the bottom. It’s about knowing the client thoroughly and going down the where he or she wants to go. It won’t be always about lawyering, and often what I discuss with clients even now, and the advice that I give, may have nothing, or very little, to do with the law.’

Dr Bob Murray is co-founder of Fortinberry Murray and an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, human personality, and behavior. He is the co-author, with Dr Alicia Fortinberry, of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership