Lee Bryant of POST*SHIFT took the lead as the keynote speaker at the HighQ Forum, London last week, providing an insightful commentary on the current state of law firms and how adopting a social, start-up-type model can help them to fight mounting pressures from clients and competition.
In his talk, Building 21st Century Business, Lee argued that no longer are traditional law firms the only players in the legal space. There has been an increase in small start-up law firms and firms run by non-lawyers, which have begun to shake up the legal market (such as Riverview Law in the UK and Avvo in the US). Furthermore, access to technology is allowing clients to circumvent the need for lawyers. Lee cited Bitcoin as a way in which businesses can now deal with one another directly rather than through a lawyer, enabling fully auditable peer-to-peer transactions and contracting.
This kind of disintermediation of lawyers, where people work directly with one another, is a serious issue for the future of law firms, Lee suggested. Alongside this, he argued, the increased corporatisation and bureaucratisation of law firms in recent decades has not added value to law firms, but has instead led to reduce productivity, decreased client satisfaction and a difficulty in attracting the best in legal talent.
Although Lee laid out the threats to law firms as rather bleak, he went on to suggest numerous ways in which firms can counteract the troubles they are likely to face if they were to continue on their current trajectory. He suggested that there needs to be a focus on the fight for the existence of law firms rather than allowing them to be cast adrift amongst in a network of individual practitioners.
His main point of argument was that firms need to be responsive to the changes in the market as they appear, rather than being optimised for business that they did five or ten years ago. Lee suggested the introduction of social technology will be an aid to this, but are not necessarily the fixer.
Lee pointed out that adoption of social technology is akin to the chicken and the egg, asking the question does social technology lead to change within organisations, or do organisations require cultural change or readiness in order for social technology to achieve the benefits? He argued that there is a bit of both when it comes to law firms, and technology can certainly change things.
However, Lee stated, cultural and organisational change needs to happen as well. And with all of the frameworks and tools available now, Lee argued that it has never been easier to innovate in organisational structure and progress than it is today. Firms need to look into ways in which they structure work, teams and projects, and how to work with clients in individual matters. Firms over-bureaucratise because they believe they work in a structured way, when in actual fact they work in an organic way.
Lee suggested that following models used by start-ups would benefit even the largest and most established of law firms, which involve removing barriers to action, aligning every activity towards the needs of the clients, and splitting organisational structure up into small teams. In fact, Lee used the example of some of the world’s most profitable technology companies to illustrate the point that there is no longer a linear relationship between how many people you throw at a problem and the value that they create (teams of 15 at Apple or Google create many millions of dollars worth of technology).
Lee suggested that firms need to accept the reality of the way that they work rather than imposing structures. Lee presented a model of structures within law firms, suggesting that a hierarchical structure is only one dimension of a law firm. Adhering to a hierarchy means that everything operates in a way that is slow, expensive and ineffective. Instead, firms should consider working in decentralise, loose structures, where work is created in small groups of agile teams, communities of practice and extended sector networks.
However, in order to succeed with these more dispersed, organic models of working, Lee pointed out that organisations need to have a strong social fabric linking teams, practice areas and departments which is made possible through social technology. On top of this, firms need to have strong leadership and management, with influential, passionate and present leaders who act as social facilitators connecting teams and individuals.
Lee concluded by laying out the tactics firms need to take in order to work more productively, as the focus on client experience and service, knowledge networking and influencing change, looking at how leadership is changing to become more network centric and focussing on getting tasks done, through lean, agile methods.For HighQ clients, a video of Lee’s talk (and the rest of the HighQ Forum) will be available to view in the Client Community in due course.