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ELE Global’s Chief Elephant Officer, Helen Hammond, shares her thoughts on ‘the law firm of the future’.

There can be little doubt that the core issues of today, issues such as Brexit and GDPR, will have an impact on the future of legal practice in this country. Dealing with the consequences of such paradigm shifts will create opportunities, but law firms will need to be ‘future ready’ to benefit from them. The ability to innovate is, in real terms, merely the ability to evolve with demand. It is less about having a crystal ball and more about simply being ready to adapt as and when necessary. Technology has a role in this, of course, but fearing technological advance as heralding something new and alien is misguided. Really, technology is – and should be – serving only to make well-established processes easier and quicker.

What does success look like?

Research suggests that the client of today and tomorrow is less interested in the quick and cheap service that technology might facilitate, and more in genuine value for money. Cost efficiency is a big part of that, of course, but success certainly isn’t just about being the cheapest. It may be the case that, by means of technology, the law firm of the future will be less bound by the bricks and mortar of a physical building. Certainly it should be the case that technology is adopted in response to a firm’s needs, rather than adopting first and then asking what might be done with it. Hands up who HASN’T done that in their firm?

Successful firms will think from the client’s perspective, strategising by asking what a client wants rather than than just listing what they can already offer. I’ll say that again, in case you missed it. Successful firms will think from the client’s perspective, strategising by asking what a client wants rather than than just listing what they can already offer.

Technology will then be harnessed to achieve whatever is necessary.

Successful firms will also be the firms that are not afraid to confront the need to sell their services. Gone are the days when a law firm can trust its survival to clients seeking it out. Being business- and sales-minded simply must be a key element of a firm’s ethos. It is what the current and next generation of clients expects. Put simply, why would a business-minded client of the future want to work with a law firm that did not share their mindset? Wait… what? But we aren’t businesses and we don’t sell? Come on… have a word, will you?

Future success will lie, in large part, with a firm’s ability to understand the exact nature of its relationship to a client. In a very real sense the practice of law is a service industry, and many of a law firm’s services may offer a client little more in real terms than an opportunity to out-source processes that could, potentially, be done in house. The most successful law firms will recognise this and realise that success lies in using evolving technological solutions to ensure that such out-sourcing makes simple business sense, saving clients money and effort.

But this is only part of the story, because the people in a law firm and their expertise are also of the utmost importance. Technological innovation that allows experts more time to use their expertise creatively is good for everyone, and has the potential to be a huge part of what the client of the future will regard as representing value for money. Yes, you heard me… fee-earners are going to ‘get creative’… [gulp].Firms will need to assess and accept the extent to which some of their services are process-led, and staff accordingly. Having the right people and the best systems in place to do efficiently those jobs that may not require the highest levels of expertise needs to be a fundamental part of a firm’s thinking. Getting it right is having the right levels of expertise at every stage of a process.

Technology, ultimately, will never replace the experience of a human being. That experience, increasingly, will be the added value offered by the legal minds of the future who will be trained in a world where Artificial Intelligence can do a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ that ties up experts’ time today. The client won’t care who or what fills in a form, so long as they have certainty that it is being done quickly, correctly and efficiently. Increasingly the future will bring competition from quarters not seen today. Internet-based A.I. may well be a factor, as might the diversification of other professional services (we all saw the news about EY and Riverview…), but for the foreseeable future at least there is no realistic indication of a decline in the need for the old-school human expertise of a good lawyer in the practice of law… it just might look a bit different…

Of course there will always be those lawyers that will question the adoption of new working methods that reduce their billable hours for their small group of clients and, perhaps, require them to make up the time by taking on additional work – or even, shock horror, to record time spent on BD and marketing. This is inevitable, but it cannot be a brake on progress and I believe it will fade with a firm’s increasing success mapped alongside greater technological transparency.

So there it is: the law firm of the future.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? No. The fundamentals will remain the same in terms of many of the core services offered, but much will change and much needs to change.

Technology to facilitate process must be welcomed, not feared.

Appropriate skill-set-based staffing will be ever more essential.

There will be an ever-increasing need to understand the changing nature of client lawyer relationships and, indeed, the changing nature and needs of the clients themselves.

Value for money and a sound, business-minded outlook will become watch-words for the best firms.

But through all of that will still shine the need for the right person at a given moment. A person who knows the process, understands the technology, has the right training and has the human ability to understand, empathise and think creatively. Most importantly, the person who will make the client feel that here is a law firm that not only has all the skill but that has their back as well.

That is value for money. That is the law firm of the future.