For many of us, it is the end of the first week back in the office after the all too short Christmas and New Year break. How was it for you? Everyone I have spoken to in our office this week seems to have started the year with lots of work going on, which I suppose is a promising sign if you enjoy working hard and spending all of your life at the office. Just think of the billable hours, right?
Back to work I go…
How was my break? Hey, thanks for asking! As a proud and lifelong hermit, I spent the majority of it doing all sorts of exciting activities, such as vacuuming under the bed and canning and preserving various fruits, vegetables and legumes for the cold winter months ahead. Doesn’t get any better than that.
To kick off what I hope will be some more regular posts throughout the year, through this blog, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what I think 2016 will see for the legal profession. I’ll try and keep it short, and limited to the top three developments I expect from our profession in 2016.
Firms to offer different tiers of legal services
You’re all probably familiar with the technique used by supermarkets in labelling what is essentially the same product under various different labels, and charging different prices for each. This is very common for many common supermarket goods (just look at all the different types of bottled water, usually all from the same supplier), and it’s becoming increasingly common in in the professional services profession.
For example, in the private health insurance sector Medibank Private has its traditional product targeted at families and professionals, and its new generic ‘ahm’ brand, with reduced services and caps but a much lower price point. Ahm is targeted at young singles who have reached the age where not having health insurance starts to get costly from a tax perspective, but couldn’t otherwise afford to buy the traditional Medibank Private level of insurance. Now, Medibank Private has new customers in its fold, simply by offering a product, and doesn’t cheapen its traditional product offerings.
I believe we will see this concept applied to the legal profession in a variety of ways in 2016.
Allens Linklaters (I’m just going to call them Allens if that’s OK with everyone) are, to my knowledge, one of the first law firms to take up this concept and apply it to legal services. Their ‘Accelerate’ offering deliberately and, in my view, very successfully and admirably, targets technology start-up companies.
The idea of Accelerate is to give start-ups an entry point to Allens through a different brand that better suits the needs of these companies. In other circumstances, they might not have come to Allens because, well, it’s Allens and they’re not exactly the Aldi of the law firm world.
Then, once the start-up has grown and hopefully become successful in its own right, they’ll be transitioned into the broader Allens practice, and I guess be expected to repay the early assistance provided by the Accelerate programme with years of loyalty to Allens, and pay the usual rates for Allens’ legal services.
I believe this idea of different tiers of legal services from the one firm has merit to it, and suspect that more and more of the top tier firms will start to offer this type of arrangement, particularly as a way of ensuring staff remain fully utilised and get the opportunity to build long-term relationships with new clients. For clients, this could be a very good thing indeed, if they are able to access high quality lawyers and legal services (again, comments below please) for reduced initial costs.
Contracting and flexible work practices
OK, full disclaimer – I work for myself and do a lot of contracting work. It has been a very rewarding and surprising well-accepted offering, and has meant I’ve had the chance to work for a bunch of different law firms and large businesses over the last 12 months.
Even fuller disclaimer – I’m a very average lawyer, so imagine the opportunities this sort of work practice will have for you excellent lawyers out there, who have moved beyond the difficult first few years of legal practice and now have a set of skills that are highly desirable by law firms and businesses.
This doesn’t mean I think a whole bunch of senior associates are going to quit and try and do contract work with their former clients, or set up their own consulting firms. Please don’t, as then I’ll have to compete with you and I’ll lose (and if you really want to get into this area, give me a call and come and work with me instead).
Rather, what I believe will happen is that law firms will respond to client demands (entirely reasonable demands, in my view) for a closer relationship with their lawyers by offering more flexible forms of secondment, that might see many senior lawyers working in the offices of their clients under fixed fee or retainer style arrangements, rather than the free secondments of the past or the usual hourly rate arrangement where lawyers never visit their clients’ offices unless it is to get something signed or have a one-off meeting.
The biggest advantages for law firms in this arrangement are flexibility in covering shortfalls in their workforce, and reduced costs by being able to avoid recruiters and directly negotiate an appropriate retainer arrangement with an external lawyer. The biggest advantage for clients is having their lawyers always available, and having lawyers that truly understand the way the client’s business operates as the lawyers are there physically, seeing the machine in action and responding to issues appropriately and efficiently.
Computer nerds, it’s your time to shine like a beautiful 4K OLED display
I am a computer nerd. Ask me about why the Sega Mega Drive was better than the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and I’ll be your friend for life. This means that I have more of an interest in the changes that technology is bringing, and will continue to bring, to the legal professional than most.
In 2016, I believe that technology is going to play a critical role in all lawyers’ professional lives, regardless of what type of law they practice and what type of firm or practice they work for or run.
The most obvious way we will see this, and are already seeing this, is in the growth in online legal advice and legal documentation services. LegalVision, LawAdvisor and Lawpath are some of the first movers in this area, but whether they’ll ultimately be successful and challenge traditional law firms remains to be seen.
Regardless, they do pose threats and opportunities for all lawyers and firms, and I suspect that an increased number of firms will, during the course of 2016, take at least some steps towards offering legal services using technology and the internet (and this will be something a bit more innovative than simply posting an occasional article or favourable press release on their Facebook or Twitter page).
This could take a variety of different forms, but in my view the likely starting place for smaller and mid tier firms will be in offering standard documentation for sale to clients on their website.
For example, a firm’s corporate team could take one of their standard share sale agreements, and work out what the document’s variables are (such as party names, the description of what is being bought and sold, the and the purchase price), and put these as input fields on a page on their website. The client could then purchase the document online, fill in the variables on an online form page (much as any of us do when purchasing goods or services online), and hit the ‘submit’ button to generate and purchase their document. They could then get a follow-up call from the appropriate lawyer at the firm to run through the document and get a legal sign-off on it once everything has been checked and confirmed.
I strongly believe that in 2016, any lawyers with good information technology skills will have their time to shine, and the firms that move beyond Facebook and Twitter posts to a more integrated use of technology, cloud-based services and online communication (think online chats and forums) will outperform those that stick to the traditional physical documentation approach.
And don’t even get me started on things like Bitcoin and the blockchain, that’s a subject of a whole other article to bore you with.