Lawyers are steeped in precedent. Lawyers love reusing past precedents, and this has extended to the practice of Law. Lawyers and law firms love the brick-and-mortar approach where exclusivity of technical knowledge, reliance on long experience and conservativeness of the profession is the bane and the leading mantra.
But things are changing. Two schools of thought are emerging: the ultra conservative older generation (perhaps?) of lawyers and the hungrier, savvier generation of lawyers who are willing to throw exclusivity of technical knowledge and the ultra conservativeness of the profession out of the proverbial window to be dashed to figurative pieces on the cobblestones. Lawyers and law firms are descending into the battleground of marketing, strategy and market share equity gains over other firms, all of these things that were previously almost never talked about or whispered about in shocked whispers. And with good reason, too. Lawyers of the past saw the legal profession as just that: “the legal profession”. A new term has emerged: “the legal services industry”. I am an ardent supporter of the latter hypothesis.
Profession or Business of Law?
The erstwhile boundaries between the legal services industry and other professional services has become a blur because of the speed and dynamism of business operations, the interdisciplinary nature and heft of professional services, and the incursion of alternative legal services providers—the ALSPs—into the core legal profession. We have the Big Four—the holy alliance of the leading Four professional services firms Deloitte, EY, PwC and KPMG—casting their sights and nets to the legal services industry as well. This goes to show that it is no longer business as usual.
“All this is emblematic of a changing legal industry—the by-product of the complexity and speed of business, shifting consumer needs, new skillsets and elevated expectations of providers, and new buy dynamics. Law is morphing from a lawyer-centric guild to a customer-centric marketplace”, writes Mark A. Cohen, a law business analyst in a Forbes article.
Mr. Cohen couldn’t be more right. If the dynamics of law practice has shifted from lawyers to the consumers, with the attendant result that legal services consumers now have an array of choices of legal services providers—smaller law firm boutiques, alternative legal services providers, or even managed services providers—to meet their legal needs at their price points. This effectively means that Law has morphed from a profession strictu sensu to a Business. Lawyers can knock themselves upside the head with figurative batons, law school curriculum designers can huff at this thought, but it does not change that shifting dynamic which keeps shifting: Law is a Business. The sooner lawyers get themselves married to this new fact, the better.
Static Law or Interdisciplinary Law?
As earlier pointed out, lawyers are steeped in precedents and are literally averse to change mechanisms. However, with the swiftly changing gears of the business world, lawyers now more than ever, need to become thriving chameleons, changing as the business world around them changes. The dynamics of this active change requires leading in law through the deeper understanding of the larger business stratum.
To illustrate, banks are no longer just banks; they are now technological companies that provide a suit of agile services including but not limited to financial services. Oil and gas firms are no longer plain oil & gas outfits but “Energy firms” so they can reflect the shifting dynamics of business and pivot from one end of the business spectrum to another if need be, at breathtaking speeds. To further illustrate, consulting firms are no longer just plain business consulting firms but are now “full-service professional service firms”, one-stop shops for large suits of professional service work covering the entire business operations of clients, from process improvement to change management, employee engagement advisory, to tech adoption and digital transformation . . . literally anything that will help them solve their clients’ business problems and bring about active change without the need for these clients to look elsewhere for any of the myriad services they need.
For law firms, how about becoming “consultants” instead of just plain lawyers? In the former role, a lawyer takes an all-encompassing pivot into the client’s operations. Little wonder lawyers are taking courses in Tech, Strategy, Management, Business, Enterprise Risk Management, all in a bid to become “insider” assets to clients and provide the best services they can render. Consulting firms caught on long ago. The leading professional services firms have bright lawyers in their employ and these lawyers are pivoting into Tax, Business Analysis, et cetera.
“We are building capabilities to deliver seamlessly across borders as a truly global legal service provider. The innovative, technology enabled and integrated nature of our services will disrupt the legal market as a whole,” Piet Hein Meeter, Deloitte Global Leader points out.
Perhaps the consulting firms are getting the idea right about interdisciplinary services more than law firms. They seem to have a better grasp of the larger spectrum of professional services needed to better serve clients while lawyers—in many cases—restrict themselves to just the “reactive” type of services they provide rather than the “proactive” type of services needed to aggressively manage functions.
What do lawyers want? What do law firms want? How do lawyers feel they can best meet client needs? The legal services itself is in constant disruption. Law firms are consolidating their forces to present stronger focal alignments when bidding for top client work (Aelex, Primera Africa Legal, TNP with its acquisition of Adebiyi Tax & Legal comes to mind). Some legal commentators are suggesting a relaxation of the Rules of practice for legal practice so as to enable “multidisciplinary participation” in legal work.
It doesn’t matter whether or not lawyers see the profession as a business or as a profession in the strictest sense of the word, but it bears noting that the legal services industry will keep changing. The Big Four are here, and they are offering what core legal services providers cannot guarantee: one stop shopping for professional services, including litigation support, mergers and legal advisory. The breakneck speed of technological innovations has kept on propelling a forward push to tech adoption and alignment with professional services. As a profession, we have to move with the flow, or be overtaken and swept away. Law is a business and the future of the profession is hinged on a rethink of the practice models we are adopting.
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