Streamlined and Tech-Savvy: Designing the Law Firm of the Future

17 May 2019

We started the week here at SLHQ with a discussion about designing the law firm of the future, inspired by this post on LinkedIn.

What’s changing in the industry right now? (We wondered.) What are the key disruptive trends coming our way? And how much is all of this to do with the adoption of new tech vs changing societal attitudes around work?

But what started as a quick mention in the Monday meeting has become a much bigger conversation, and one that people keep coming back to. It’s provoked some interesting observations and brought out some honest views on our role in the industry – both as individuals, and as part of a start-up law firm trying to break new ground.

We’ve decided to share here, not only to keep the chat going, but also to capture our opinions–now, in 2019–on what are likely to be fundamental shifts in the legal profession.  

Michelle Correia

Head of Commercial & Data Protection

Future law firms will operate along in-house lines, reserving traditional-style services for more complex, high-value and corporate transactional work. Businesses need an ally who understands them in order to grow and unblock issues, not a note telling them what they shouldn’t do.

Many firms talk about being practical and pragmatic, but few really are. Unless you’ve been on the other side (in-house), I think it’s hard to understand the frustrations that in-house teams have with outside counsel.

Support, especially for start-ups, needs a fresh outlook – one that’s flexible and adaptive and uses tech in interesting ways to match the needs of the client.  

Charlotte Holgate

Solicitor

The rise in start-ups will push smaller and mid-tier firms to be more flexible and adaptive, and charging on a time-spent basis will become less and less common – most in-house teams resent paying high fees for advice that they don’t find that helpful in practice.  I think the model will continue for high value work, and will be retained by the top firms, but developments in legal tech will mean fewer trainees and paralegals are required.

For in-house teams, I can see companies investing in basic legal training for the wider business, pushing procurement, data protection officers and information security teams to be more autonomous on basic legal and regulatory issues. The lines between job roles will become blurred.

On the flip side, private practice firms need to operate more like businesses and invest in creative management teams (i.e. non-lawyers with a wider perspective). The service offered to clients and the problem of staff retention are both big issues that need innovative solutions.  

Alice Stephenson

Founder & CEO

It feels like we’re on the cusp of some big changes as law firms increasingly shed their old-fashioned image and become more accessible and approachable for new business. Risk management is a big issue in traditional law firms – which face enormous premiums for their PI cover – and that has created a culture of back-covering and fence-sitting. I think that’s going to change as clients demand advice that is more upfront, practical and business-focused.

On top of that, we’re seeing disruption from all angles. It’s not just start-ups and tech driving change, but also bigger clients becoming more demanding (including looking at a law firm’s diversity), as well as new lawyers coming into the profession with very specific views and expectations around career progression and work-life balance.  

Ed Boal

Head of Digital Media & Technology

We are seeing a shift away from the traditional view of lawyers as expert advisers or ‘professional gatekeepers’ to lawyers as service providers. As a result, lawyers will need to focus much more on client needs and shape their business models accordingly.

In terms of what this means for the industry, we will continue to see consolidation among top-tier firms; mid-tier firms are interesting to observe in the way they are pushing hard on innovation; but for smaller firms it’s going to be a struggle – particularly as legal tech start-ups move in and try to automate much of the process of e.g. buying a home (although we’re yet to see a killer app in that area).

For alternative firms like Stephenson Law, the focus is on working closely with clients and then looking to deliver what they need efficiently and cost-effectively. While larger firms will always have a place for complex and high-risk/value transactional and disputes work, the accessibility, agility and personality of firms like ours should appeal to many clients.  

Rebecca Abercrombie

Trainee Solicitor

We’re seeing it already, but new generations coming into the workforce will place much higher value on work-life balance and job satisfaction. I can’t speak for everyone, but I could have applied for training contracts in big city firms and chose not to because I didn’t like the culture or think I’d fit in. I don’t think money is important; I want to enjoy my job and be valued. And being a tiny cog in a huge wheel just doesn’t appeal to me.

It’s about the standard of training too, though. The responsibility I have here, along with the exposure I’m getting to the industry, clients, work and outside opportunities is fantastic – and much more than I would get at a larger firm. For me, and for the law graduates of the future, it’s about the whole package. Being able to turn up to work in trainers is just an added bonus!