When speaking with one of my lawyers last week, this was a question that he posed to me – it was not one he had an answer to and he suspects that it may not be possible. At least not in the way that law firms are used to. He said,
It’s not possible anymore, in my opinion, to have those vertical organizations where you have orders coming from the top and where everybody is treated the same way. Because people, if they are in different situations, you cannot treat them the same way if you want to be fair. So you must adapt.
So, how CAN one have a law firm in modern society?
If you’ve been here a while, you know I’ve been talking about the “future” of law firms since 2016 and it somehow feels like so much time and no time has passed. COVID and the war in Ukraine and race reckoning and the loss of Roe in the US and the battles for women’s rights globally and battles for many other human rights as well have all changed not only the landscape of our personal lives but also our professional ones. We have come to realize that we can no longer separate work and life because we are still people at work, and our work impacts our lives.
As usual, what this means for law firms is that some things remain true and some will change. The particulars will, of course, be worked out by the firms themselves, but as for the broad strokes, the modern law firm will need the following:
Yes, we’ve been beating the collaboration drum for years, but I don’t see this changing any time soon. And this isn’t your garden variety, “hey, we have a great team of lawyers!” type of collaboration. I am talking about having a deep understanding of your clients (which, I believe by now is tables stakes and everyone knows that) and being able to bring together a strong, smart group of people to tackle their business issues. That may be lawyers, it may be accountants, it may be other business people – but it’s about knowing the right people who can do the right work that your clients need at the right time to solve their business issues. You, as their lawyer, understand their business so well that you can foresee the legal issues to come, understand their appetite for risk and what their needs are, and can make introductions where needed. As the lawyer I spoke to last week said, “the law comes afterward, later on.”
Technology & Improved Business Processes
I put these two together because I believe they are born from the same strategies. Once again, I will caution against jumping on technology for the sake of technology, though of course, I know who my audience is! I rarely worry that lawyers are jumping on the latest new thing. However, when it comes to running and managing your firms, it’s worth taking a critical look at both your business processes and the potential technologies that you can use to see where there may be efficiencies.
That’s not to say that EVERYTHING is made better by technologies or changing your processes – or that in the interim, things won’t be slowed down before they improve. But this is where the low-hanging fruit often is. Yes, there is a financial investment. Yes, there is a time investment (and for lawyers, this means money). But in the long run, there will be efficiencies that you find here that will improve your ability to practice law and focus on the part of practicing law that you actually LIKE. Consultants can be helpful here to advise you (again, an investment) but there will be a return on this for you and your firm. This is not about the shiny new thing – this is about looking at YOUR firm and YOUR practice to identify what will make the most sense to improve things for YOU. Be cautious of anyone who has an out-of-the-box solution for you immediately – that is not going to be your savior. Just…trust me.
Apologies to the Boomers in my audience, but this is going to happen. I struggle with this one too, even though I’ve worked from home for over 18 years – and it’s not that I personally struggle with it, because I love to work from home. I’m an introvert, so I’ve found ways to connect with people, stay inspired, remain motivated and work incredibly hard (sometimes too hard). My struggle is that I recognize the difficulties with training the next generation in the workforce when they don’t have mentors who are easily accessible to them and training has to be more intentional. I’ve spoken to a lot of lawyers about this, and there is really no clear answer.
But that being said, the upsides for remote working are just too high. During the height of the pandemic, although it was terrible for many reasons, the workforce was incredibly efficient. Law firms had their most successful years on the books. People got time back because they didn’t have to commute. Firms can make the decision to downsize very expensive real estate investments.
There are downsides for people with small homes who don’t have a dedicated workspace, young children who are underfoot (though, when we’re not in a pandemic, those children may be in school or other childcare). But the in-office options are still there for those who WANT to travel in and be present – it is only that forced in-office working should be a thing of the past.
Change is inevitable and with any major change, we have all wondered how we will adapt – before phones, we didn’t believe anyone would ever use a device to speak to each other over long distances. Before email, we didn’t believe anything would replace the telephone (now we barely use the phone, if we can avoid it). I truly believe that offices will be much more optional in the future. The next question will be how we can avoid burnout from working too many hours at home because it’s so accessible..
Integration of Corporate Social Responsibility
CSR has gone from a “nice to have” to a “must” have over the last few years, but even now, it’s less integrated in most firm and company cultures than it should be. We consider diversity and volunteering and community engagement and environmental concerns as more of an “add-on” than as woven through everything that we do as people and employees and organizations.
But I think the various reckonings that we’ve had and the blurring of the lines between our professional and personal lines have made it more natural to incorporate these things into every part of our work. We’re clearly way behind on diversity, but I have hope that we’ll do more to be inclusive and equitable, as well as diverse. To lead the way on sustainability efforts as part of who we are as organizations, rather than just something that we’re forced to do because clients expect it.
Being a modern law firm will not be easy – we can already see many of the challenges today. What are some of the trends that you see firms aligning around for the future?