Evolution or Extinction for Law Firms?

Evolution or Extinction for law firms?

Are lawyers destined for the museum?

On 24 September 2013 I attended the annual flagship Law in Scotland Conference organised by the Law Society of Scotland. This year the conference was held in Glasgow and theme was Evolution or Extinction.

President of the Law Society of Scotland, Bruce Beveridge, opened the conference by telling us “It is the species that is most adaptable to change that will survive” (a quote or misquote of Darwin). We were told that whilst optimism in the legal profession is low the fact of the matter is that the number of solicitors is at an all time high, unemployed solicitors are comparatively low in number and there are more traineeship opportunities. From a recent recruitment exercise at my own law firm, Inksters, it was heart breaking to see the number of applicants who were unemployed. From the number of CVs we get each week from aspiring trainees and knowing who have and have not got traineeships within my tutorial group at the Diploma of Legal Practice at the University of Glasgow I think that traineeship opportunities need to be much better. Perhaps comparisons were being made with numbers two or three years ago but I would be surprised if they could be compared with  pre-recession days.

The first keynote of the day was delivered by Richard Susskind who was introduced as a technology geek for having a Blackberry and an iPhone. However, Richard is probably simply evolving his mobile phone usage as the former becomes extinct! Richard’s talk was very similar to the one he gave  recently at Reinvent Law London. I have also reviewed his most recent book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, on this blog. Some points I particularly noted, this time around, as I tweeted were:-

  • Can decompose any piece of legal work – then what is the most efficient way of doing each bit. Meeting the more for less challenge.
  • If there is going to be cannibalisation you want to be the first to the feast – discussion on Lawyers on Demand.
  • We are training 20th Century lawyers not 21st Century ones.

Richard gave many examples of different ways of working in today’s legal world. Many were from England or the USA. There were no Scottish examples other than perhaps the latest outsourcing venture from Ashurst in Glasgow. Are Scottish firms behind the curve? Are we always a few years behind our English neighbours?

Ahead of the conference Richard told the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland why tomorrow’s lawyers can expect a world radically different even from the changed times of today: Moving up the gears.

Richard Susskind - Law in Scotland 2013

Richard suggested that the last time he spoke at a Law Society of Scotland Conference (2009) no one had heard of Twitter. Not quite correct. I specifically recall tweeting from that conference and interacting with CharonQC about the lack of any mention of Twitter at it! Facebook, I recall, was flavour of the day back then and/or the next big thing. A search through my Twitter archive reveals the relevant tweet from 9 May 2009:-

But it is true that very few lawyers were using Twitter in 2009. My Twitter archive shows that 9 delegates at the 2009 conference were on Facebook. The figure today (although it was not asked) is likely to be considerably higher. A poll of hands showed 20% of the delegates were now (at the 2013 conference) using Twitter. When Stephen Gold asked the same question in the afternoon only two hands (including my own) went up. So a good few Twegals (lawyers who tweet) must have flown from the conference early.

On the subject of Twitter: at the outset of the conference I asked @LawScot what the hashtag for the conference was. In the absence of any reply I made up my own: #lssconf (shorthand for Law Society of Scotland Conference and in keeping with the previous evening’s official #lsssgm: Law Society of Scotland Special General Meeting). Later in the morning I noticed @LawScot tweeting using the hashtag #LawinScotland. By then I had tweeted quite a bit using my own hashtag. It was also a good bit shorter which is always a good idea with conference hashtags. So I kept using it. A suggestion for next year would be for the Law Society of Scotland to fix on and advertise an official hashtag before and at the conference. How about simply #LawScot or, if need be, #LawInScot?

Dragons Den at Law in Scotland 2013

A Dragons’ Den style session saw a panel pitch to the audience (the Dragons) ideas for the future health and wellbeing of Conveyancing in Scotland. This covered standardisation of documentation, a quality assurance scheme, one central universally used online dealing room, greater collaboration between the Scottish Property Centres and overcoming conflict of interest concerns. The latter seemed to get the Dragons vote, possibly as a result of the vote against separate representation the previous evening.

Eric Wright of The Business Champions Limited had a practical session on how to negotiate with your bank. An important area for any law firm in these days of squeezed finance. The message was one of being organised and prepared. You need good housekeeping, planning and to prepare thoroughly. You should speak to your accountants, know your numbers and be a smart operator. Although Eric didn’t say it I was thinking that it was those types that always get the backing they are looking for when they go into the Dragons’ Den. Same principle whether it is private equity or bank loans you are after.

Eric continued with questions to ask yourself: What do you really need? Can you service the debt? What security is available? Eric pointed out that it was better to have a deal than no deal! But don’t threaten your bank as to do so is likely to result in a ‘lose’ situation. I know from recent personal experience in obtaining funding for Inksters‘ continued expansion and in particular our new Glasgow HQ that Banks do, understandably, want a significant amount of detail, facts and figures. Present them with that and if it all adds up chances are you will get the backing that you need. We certainly did and refurbishment of our new offices are currently well underway thanks to the Bank of Scotland.

Another session on banking had two bankers, James Oliver and Scott Foster, from The Royal Bank of Scotland tell us how to manage the bank manager. There was a degree of overlap with what Eric Wright had been telling us and I was wondering as to the benefits of having both sessions at the same conference. A couple of points that I noted that perhaps were not covered by Eric were (1) are you still using only 30% of your computer systems?; and (2) the benefits on cash flow of accepting credit card payments. It is a certain that most lawyers are using only a small percentage of the computer power at their disposal. I know that at Inksters we could be doing much more than we currently are with the systems we have. However, we are constantly working on improving on and increasing that usage. It takes time, planning, buy-in and resources. But well worth it when you see the systems deliver results for you. On the second point it amazes me that some law firms are not in this day and age taking credit card payments. It is a no brainer. We have been doing it at Inksters for at least a decade and online via our website since 2008. I can’t see how you can run a business today without offering card payments.

Forster Dean logo explained at Law in Scotland 2013

Greg Shields told us how we could compete with the big brands. Greg was CEO of Forster Dean – the largest high street law firm in the UK – for the past 7 years and has recently founded myblui.com. I always like presentations from those that have been at the coal face and can tell of their real life experiences. Some highlights from Greg’s talk that I tweeted at the  time:-

  • Sole practitioners are very entrepreneurial people.
  • You may be the owner of the law firm but not necessarily the right person to manage it.
  • Surround yourself with excellence. Stay away from negative people.
  • Consider a non-executive director.
  • If I was starting a law firm now it would be with an Apple Mac and an iPhone: you can do it all in the cloud. [My add: ... perhaps with a Surface + Windows Phone ;-)]
  • Recognise what people are doing around you. Staff are your biggest asset. [My add: So true. However, I recall a law firm senior partner telling me they were a liability!]
  • Have some fun.
  • Read The future beyond brands – lovemarks by Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi.
  • Forster Dean new branding done through online crowdsourcing of designers. Low cost for good design.
  • Black associated with death – possibly why QS use it! [My add: Ahmm... we use it at Inksters to good effect :-) With colour splashes too ;-)]
  • Inspired a removal of the barriers between lawyer and customer.
  • Secretaries were much better at social media than lawyers were. [My add: Greg doesn't tweet. I think he should]
  • If innovative other companies want to work with you.

I have read Bruce MacEwen’s blog at Adam Smith, Esq for some time and was looking forward to hearing him speak. He didn’t disappoint with the second keynote of the day: ‘Growth Is Dead: Now What?’ Some highlights, again as tweeted by me at the time:-

  • 60% of law firm owners not confident about their own future.
  • Treat your business like a business.
  • Other law firms but more dangerous are “substitutes”.
  • If clients like the substitutes they won’t return in a hurry to the traditional law firm.
  • Obscure logo on law firm  websites and guess which is which. Not easy. All the same.
  • Greatest threat = Complacency.
  • Psychology of lawyers is unique – Sceptical and not resilient.
  • Have to be optimistic.
  • What’s the one single thing that every law firm must have? A = clients.
  • Alternative fees are your new best friend.
  • Must manage costs – have the data from historical transactions.
  • The more client touch points the better to keep them and avoid attrition.
  • The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
  • Grant permission to innovate (and to fail).
  • Have a R&D budget for your law firm.
  • Law firm partners shoot down any ideas of change.
  • Older law firm partners want steady as you go towards their retirement. Younger ones want a plan.
  • Technology is relentless. ABS models to come will be unlike anything we have ever seen. US won’t stop it happening there.

Bruce MacEwen’s book ‘Growth Is Dead: Now What?’ was given out to delegates at the conference so I am looking forward to reading that.

Ros Taylor was the third keynote speaker of the day with ‘Ten commandments for success’. She had interviewed many of the most succesful business people in the world. She told us that a leader’s behaviour influences profitability by + or – 15%. Successful people are good at what they do. They don’t have personal goals but business ones. Networking, surprisingly perhaps, is not a priority. They do, however, possess great interpersonal skills. Her research shows that consistently these people have the following attributes:-

  1. Problem solve.
  2. Deliver the goods.
  3. Want to win.
  4. Relate.
  5. Trust the team.
  6. Destress.
  7. Love change.
  8. Know yourself.
  9. Love to make a deal.
  10. Confident.

shapesRos also had us drawing our own train with the people who have most influenced us on it. Most forgot to put themselves on the train – driving it. This could have been a significant omission apparently. We also found out what type of person we were: based on whether we liked a square, rectangle, triangle, circle or squiggle! I am a triangle if you were wondering. That makes me a leader apparently. It should also mean that I drive a sleek sports car. I don’t. I catch that train I’m not driving instead! See: What shape is your personality?

You can always rely on Stephen Gold for a good talk on managing your law firm. Stephen has been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. He transformed Golds from a Glasgow suburban sole practice to a cross-border market leader that merged with Irwin Mitchell. I always enjoy a chat with Stephen and it was good to hear his words of wisdom at the conference on ‘Take the High Street! Success, not just survival in the new normal’. These, again as tweeted by me at the time, are:-

  • We as legal practitioners need a clear vision that is achievable and affordable.
  • We take a pride in technical ability but fundamental is that sale has to come first.
  • Didn’t practice law for last 20 years. Spent it winning work and managing relations.
  • Many lawyers do not aspire to be rainmakers.
  • No longer the case that if you have a pulse and a practising certificate you can make a decent living.
  • Good lawyers + astute business people = successful law firm.
  • Service more important to client than technical ability. What gets you ahead re. competition is a brilliant service experience.
  • Take it for granted that a lawyer will know the law.
  • Can you make an appointment with your lawyer on your iPad of an evening – are you really accessible.
  • Phone a lawyer. Get “what is it concerning”? Why?
  • Use Skype for client meetings.
  • … Use paypal to get payment for that meeting before the Skype call.
  • Anybody can do online. Invest properly in a great website. Done properly will repay the investment several times over.
  • Importance of having real ambition and understand growth as much about changing mindset. About energy and open-mindedness.
  • Successful law firms invest time and money in people who are non-lawyers but experts in areas required as a business.

Another successful Glasgow lawyer is Austin Lafferty. Again with him you get the coal face stories and he is still chipping away at that coal. He wrapped up the conference well with ‘Not just surviving, but thriving. A High Street blueprint for success’. Once more you get Austin’s words of wisdom by way of my tweets:-

  • Lot of work will come from existing clients but building external connections will reap more.
  • Branding to do with client experience. Front office: is it a mess? Old pot plant, files of papers, crushed coke can?
  • Clients not wondering about quality of legal advice. Is he wearing the same old jumper and is his office still smelling of curry?
  • Solicitors don’t like change or being made to change.

The conference was brought to a close (as it was opened) by President of the Law Society of Scotland, Bruce Beveridge. My review covers all the sessions at the conference that I went to. There were, however, other streams and so my apologies to those speakers whose talks I have not covered but I couldn’t have been in two or more rooms at once unless I had used my Tardis and it has been playing up of late ;-)

So will we lawyers evolve or face extinction? I have no doubt, as we heard at the conference, that there are many opportunities to evolve if you have the resolve to do so. But those not prepared to adapt may well face extinction. A look around the room or a read through the delegate list showed that the evolutionists were preaching to the converted. Those that are likely to face extinction don’t know it yet. They were not there to hear why.

[Image Credits: Dodo in a lawyer's wig from Duhaime.org: The Lawyer Witness: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - inserted into gallery scene using PhotoFunia; Dragons' Den Chairs: ©BBC]

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