Big Law Little Law

Big Law Little Law

Big Law does not necessarily have to follow Little Law

Guest Post by Mark Gould in reply to Brian Inkster’s latest blog post on The Time Blawg

I am generally nervous about technology evangelism because evangelists tend to assume that their preference should be the same for all, without considering that different people have different needs and perspectives. The sterile debate between Mac fans and Microsoft users has mutated into an equally pointless dialogue of the deaf between iOS devotees and the Android camp. I prefer to see this proliferation of powerful operating systems, apps and hardware as a fantastic opportunity for people to choose exactly the right combination to match their needs.

I had a similar reaction to the recent blog post asserting the laggardliness of Big Law, by comparison with smaller firms.

It is true that larger firms have taken time to wake up to the opportunities of newer technology. But the same is true of many large organisations. Yes, larger law firms are moving slowly from Windows XP to Windows 7 (not even Windows 8). This migration mirrors that of their large clients in financial services and other sectors. There are good reasons for this dilatoriness. Consider the following, for example.

As firms become more complex — both in terms of work done and sheer numbers of employees and business units — the interaction of systems, databases, software and hardware becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle. Systems adopted over many years can seriously reduce the ability to make choices that are straightforward for smaller businesses or for individuals. Moving to Windows 7 is not a simple question of getting Dell to deliver new PCs. It is a major project with significant dependencies — any one of which could directly affect client service. It is no wonder that IT departments tread very cautiously in this respect.

Caution is also a watchword when considering moving to the cloud. The vagueness of the term ‘the cloud’ in this context is less than helpful, but I assume it encompasses the storage of data on servers that are not directly controlled by the firm. That proposition is a risky one for firms that have to worry about abiding by regulatory burdens over and above those imposed by their own regulator (the SRA or Law Society of Scotland, for example). Clients in regulated businesses (such as financial institutions) will often demand that their advisers work to the same standards as they are bound to by their regulator. More generally, concerns about market abuse and disclosure mean that firms operating at this level can only make decisions to work in a different way (even when new technology is not involved) after serious consideration. Information security and regulatory compliance are increasingly serious concerns.

Even if there were no technological or regulatory hurdles to overcome, should larger firms be adopting new tools as soon as they are available? Possibly, but only if they serve a valid business purpose. There are always lots of shiny opportunities that could be followed up, but most firms will not have unlimited resources to explore all of these. It takes time to work out which will bring the biggest benefit; that is where larger firms will appear to fall behind their smaller counterparts. Inksters can move more quickly because it is essentially more agile, and because instinctive decisions can be tested much more easily.

The legal market (in England & Wales, at least) is becoming increasingly diverse. There are firms owned by a company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. There are firms using a business model akin to barristers’ chambers. There are firms using Alternative Business Structures to bring non-lawyers into partnership. There are high-performing boutique firms. And there remain some firms that will continue much as they have for decades. All of these will be more or less successful. There will also be some that fail — but I think it is unlikely that the proximate cause of many of those failures will be an excess of caution about new technology.

The diversity of legal structures and market choices will push different firms to choose different models for their technology platform, to ensure that they are best place to serve their clients well. The outcome of those choices cannot be critiqued by a simple adoption curve for one technology. A more appropriate critique needs to take account of how well client demands are being met. It is almost impossible to do that looking from the outside.

Mark Gould

Mark Gould

About the Guest Blogger: Mark Gould is Head of Knowledge Management at Addleshaw Goddard. This blog post reflects Mark’s personal views and not necessarily those of his firm. As Head of Knowledge Management Mark is responsible for finding, developing and promoting ways in which people in the firm can make the most of their own and other people’s knowledge. In addition to managing knowledge activities for the firm, in June 2011 Mark took on responsibility for leading the firm’s 20 Professional Support Lawyers (PSLs) as a team, focusing them on delivering improved profitability for the firm and their practice groups. Before moving into the central KM role in September 2006, Mark was a Professional Support Lawyer in the firm’s Competition, Trade & Regulatory group, looking after the team’s know-how and training needs, and developing client relationships in the through knowledge support. Prior to joining Addleshaw Goddard, Mark was a Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol (1989-2001) and the University of Hull (1988-1989), teaching undergraduate and postgraduate subjects including Public Law, Jurisprudence and EU Law.

NB: Images, captions and credits inserted by The Time Blawg Editor

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