A law firm pumps out marketing bumpf about how awesome it is and it is received – with ample justification – as self-serving twaddle. An alternative legal services provider pumps out marketing bumpf about how awesome it is and it is met with a round of applause, rather than as the self-serving twaddle wrapped in utopian geek speak it usually is.
The point? These days there are a lot of people talking down law firms. True, plenty of criticism regarding conservatism, high costs and lack of genuine client focus is still justified. But to judge by some claims, law firms aren’t just greedy unresponsive bastards, they are greedy unresponsive bastards standing on a burning deck.
We choose to take a more upbeat view. UK law firms are cutting-edge globally in terms of the business of law, our profession punches far above its weight and achieves high performance from a smart and hard-working staff. And yes, it performs well financially.
But then the debate over the future of the industry has been conducted at an unimpressive level. Caught between vested interests playing up the image of the plodding dinosaur law firms, and the partners themselves who too often look away rather than confront a changing marketplace – there hasn’t been much dialogue at all.
Here’s a simple maxim I’ve learnt in 16 years covering commerce: no one ever went out of business by over-estimating their rivals.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our cover feature this month is one small attempt to put forward some practical ideas about how a law firm can update, renew and improve what it does. Accepting the need for change isn’t a cause for gloom, it’s a call to action for lawyers to apply a little more of the problem-solving skills they use for clients to their own businesses and to build on the emerging free thinking that has been more evident in recent years.
That’s the upbeat part; here’s the other side of the equation. Partners should approach their future with a can-do spirit but also a good dose of fear. Fear of the threat of alternative service providers. Because here’s a simple maxim I’ve learnt in 16 years covering commerce: no one ever went out of business by over-estimating their rivals. Now, under-estimating your rivals… well, you get the drift.
Alternative providers may all flop – but the likelihood is that a select band of winners will become very significant rivals – and not just in retail legal services. If law firms take that threat seriously and are ready to creatively respond, they stand a far, far better chance of meeting the challenge. It’s often forgotten now that the looming threat of the big five during the 1990s was a major factor in the dramatic shake-up of the UK legal profession during that decade. Fear stood the profession in excellent stead then and it will now. Because before you know it, that non-law firm rival will be living up to the bumpf.