‘Hungry fish’ a recipe for success as firms chase operational agility

[Australasian Law Management Journal,Compliance & Risk Management,General Management,Strategy & Leadership] July 28, 2018

Law firms must embrace agility and new technology platforms as part of a response to digital disruption while continuing to place a premium on their professional integrity, writes Penelope Mitchell.

The legal profession is facing rapid change, with clients expecting more for less and readily spreading or shifting their business.

Every week we read of another merger, acquisition, lateral hire or mass defection. In this environment, firms must be agile to navigate the rapids of significant industry disruption. What does an agile legal practice look like, though?

‘Complementary expertise’ the key

Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. For a law practice, that means being able to move essential operations swiftly and strategically, and harnessing conditions. It does not mean acquiring the biggest team, leasing the most modern premises or developing the most tailored IT systems. Visualise a school of fish, rather than a whale.

People in an agile practice have complementary expertise. They respect each other’s strengths in a more egalitarian culture. It is no longer all about the senior partner scoring a lucrative client over a long lunch. Rather, a tender is won after the marketing team’s effective launch of an innovative client hub, developed by junior lawyers collaborating with IT.

Keeping overheads down and turnarounds tight requires lawyers to focus on the economics of their client’s business and operate using slick software, without a ‘six-pack’ of juniors. In place of the previous pyramid of delegation from biggest fish to littlest, there are a lot of equally strong, equally hungry fish.

Gig economy changes workplaces

In the gig economy, premises and equipment are decreasing in importance. Traditionally, premises with long-term leases, corner-office views, big desks and impressive reception areas were a significant firm expense. Today’s forward-thinking landlords are offering flexible lease terms of under three years. Staff work on portable devices, using the virtually unlimited processing power of the cloud. They work remotely from home, at a client’s or on the way there. Modern workspaces can accommodate a flow of people and facilitate a variety of activities. Time-poor clients no longer want to be ushered into quiet meeting rooms. They want their solicitors to visit them and the operations of their trusted advisors to be more transparent and integrated into their own.

IT platforms the focal point

As firms become less about a place where people work, they become more about a resilient IT platform from which professionals perform legal services. Processes and systems in a truly agile firm embrace innovative IT solutions that are:

  • firm-wide – pockets of inconsistency will decrease economies of scale and complicate any move, as client data and documents may need to be transitioned via expensive intermediary third-party agnostic platforms;
  • less-tailored – an agile firm avoids over-developing IT systems for a particular client or team. Once a system (or even a version) is customised, you need to maintain the skills and take the time to re-customise subsequent versions. Rolling new versions ‘out of the box’ is much faster;
  • intuitive – with a mobile workforce, finding a time when everyone can attend face-to-face training becomes more difficult. So, software needs to be intuitive and easy to learn, either online or using a train-the-trainer approach;
  • secure – in the efficient transfer of information and documents, there is no room for compromise or complacency when it comes to client confidentiality and privacy. Robust cyber security measures are essential.

It’s time to declutter

Developing, consolidating or merging can be much like selling a house. First, you need to declutter. For a legal practice this may involve proactively:

  • transitioning from paper client files to digital client files;
  • moving to a virtual library;
  • identifying documents (physical and electronic) that must be preserved and those that should be destroyed after appropriate retention periods and complying with all regulatory and ethical obligations;
  • reviewing original certificates and other safe custody documents, especially those held on trust for dormant clients, who may be more vulnerable in any move;
  • defensible data deletion and cleansing, particularly if the data relates to clients with no active files for the past seven years and/or personal information no longer used for the purpose for which it was collected.

You must stay accountable

While driving efficiency and innovative business operations, practitioners cannot forget that they are solicitors with professional obligations. They cannot abdicate responsibility to IT. To stay accountable and avoid a breach or claim, they must stay abreast of new systems and software.

In the race to seize opportunities in our gig economy, a successful firm needs to carefully identify and hone its essential people, premises, equipment, processes and systems. In short, practitioners need to embrace significant operational change without compromising their professional integrity.

Penelope Mitchell is a senior lawyer and risk manager with 25 years’ experience in commercial law firms, both as a practitioner and in practice management. She drives strong risk management cultures, solid corporate governance and robust compliance programs. She can be emailed at peppy.mitchell@gmail.com.