As a profession, the law has never been the fastest to embrace change, but with technology shaking up this last bastion of convention, even the most traditional practices recognise they have to move with the times.
Behind this transformation is a new breed of client, more tech savvy, more discerning and far more demanding of their law firms. Accustomed to high levels of customer satisfaction in other sectors, they are forcing a change in legal services, and regardless of their ability to practise the law, firms that fail to respond and deliver on customer experience risk losing their business.
Facing up to challenges
The sector has made its intentions clear. According to PwC’s 2015 Annual Law Firms’ Survey, 95 per cent of firms plan to invest in IT in 2016 to improve their efficiency and competitive edge.
However, in embracing this customer-driven transformation, they face many challenges, largely concerning their decision-making processes, says Lauren Riley, founder and chief executive of The Link App, a tool that helps UK law firms improve customer service, efficiency and productivity.
She says: “Decisions tend to be made by those who have been practising the same way for many years and can be resistant to change or, worst-case scenario, unaware of the needs of their clients when it comes to technology.”
A key area of change lies in communications, with clients increasingly expecting to be able to contact partners whenever and wherever they are, on the device of their choice.
“It is all about providing a choice,” says Jonathan Sharp, partner at law firm Royds. “Rather than telephoning, it may be easier to talk to someone via instant messaging or web chat.”
The use of social media to communicate and promote legal services has also risen. He adds: “We have seen an increase in the number of prospective clients communicating to us via LinkedIn. As a cutting-edge law firm, we use social media to communicate with our clients, for example, promoting newsletters and blogs over Twitter.”
The process of delivering work should be as much part of the law firm psyche today as the law itself
Innovation is not just about implementing the latest technology. True transformation comes from how technology is used to deliver an efficient service that meets clients’ needs. According to David Pester, managing partner at law firm TLT, the starting point for law firms is to be systematic in the way they listen and respond to the challenges their clients face.
He says: “Today’s clients are in the driving seat when it comes to relationships with their lawyers, which is as it should be. They expect much more than traditional legal advice, and they look to their lawyers as true partners and consultants, able to bring a wide range of expertise to the table to deliver a successful outcome. This can cover everything from how the work is best resourced, to how technology can help deliver.”
Clients are also more discerning about cost and what they will pay a premium for based on the risk or value to their business. Price is no longer aligned to the time or complexity of work, which are the factors that lawyers have traditionally used to price work. They also expect greater flexibility around supplying ad hoc advice without charge.
Mr Pester says: “They expect legal advice to be delivered in the most effective way. Good lawyers must build multi-disciplinary teams and draw on expertise in areas such as project management, technology and resourcing to deliver the best outcome for the client. The process of delivering work should be as much part of the law firm psyche today as the law itself.”
And it is important to keep in mind that technology will never replace the skills of a good lawyer. Cases need to be handled by the right person and, for the client, this needs to be at the right price.
Patrick Allen, senior partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, says: “Clients appreciate clear cost estimates in advance and monthly billing. However, sensible clients don’t want the cheapest service, they want the best service. They appreciate quality and will pay your fees happily if you are the right person for the job. That’s why reputation and referral are vital for winning new clients.”
Millennials and collaboration
Another driver of legal innovation, both from the client’s and law firm’s perspective, is the fact that the millennial generation of employees, those born between 1980 and 2000, is coming of age.
“Older millennials are now holding senior positions within the legal and corporate worlds,” says Rob Jones, managing legal consultant at e-discovery provider Kroll Ontrack. “Having grown up with exposure to a tremendous amount of dynamic change, particularly in the technology arena, these young power brokers are not only open to technological solutions, but expect the most modern, most innovative and slick solutions to achieve the best advantages possible and to conclude matters as swiftly as possible.”
Collaboration is also emerging as a feature of legal innovation and delivering successful outcomes for clients, with the more progressive law firms developing stronger collaboration relationships with other law firms and alternative legal service providers as a means of being more effective and efficient in their approach.
“Law firms are innovating in the way they resource work, including using their own captives, legal process outsourcing and flexible resourcing models. They are developing complimentary non-legal services in areas like risk, project management and resourcing. They are also developing pricing models and methods that provide certainty or at least predictability,” says Mr Pester.
Virtually every business sector is being disrupted by digital technology and law is no exception. However, most experts agree that any innovation in the legal sector needs to revolve around improving client service.
Francis George, managing director of Francis George Solicitor-Advocate, says: “Free legal resources on the internet inevitably mean that clients will have ‘Googled’ you and formed their own view of the advice you will give before you have even given it.
“They will shop around. Those who focus on and emphasise quality can maintain profitability if they provide excellent customer satisfaction. In this ultra-competitive market, superlative customer service and satisfaction can be a unique selling point. Those whose prime focus is customer satisfaction, having managed client expectations, will survive. Those who do not will fail.”
FIVE WAYS TO IMPROVE CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS
01 “Law firms should go paperless as soon as possible and as much as possible,” says The Link App’s Lauren Riley. “Think how much you dislike having piles of paper around your office and multiply that by a factor of ten for a client in their home.”
02 “Introducing a bring-your-own-device policy will enable law firms to support devices of choice for both employees and clients, and deliver a consistent user experience via home phone, office phone or mobile device,” says Royds’ Jonathan Sharp.
03 Billing by the hour is at odds with the notion that technology drives efficiency. “If it takes a partner in a law firm seven hours to type a legal document that can be processed in minutes by intelligent software, the challenge is for the firm to adapt its business model,” says Darren Saunders, legal client director at technology firm Trustmarque.
04 Clients must be able to rely on their law firms’ information security practices. Recent headlines involving law firms, including the Panama Papers data breach, have dented confidence, but also created an opportunity for law firms to market their security credentials.
05 “Listen more,” says Paul Lewis, innovation partner at Linklaters. “If technology can help us organise this better or provide different ways of feeding back, then that would be of great benefit to client and law firm relationships. But the key point is to listen, to assimilate and to learn.”