Legal Business Blogs

Guest post: The New World of Legal Work vs Global Behemoths

There’s an interesting tension between Sir Nigel Knowles prediction of legal behemoths straddling the globe with investment bankers outriders (or is it the other way round) whilst the remainder squabble over the scraps, downsize or fail (I may have sexed it up a bit, which it does not need; it’s a very interesting piece) and Jordan Furlong’s New World of Legal Work (a supercharged, short Susskind-esque parlez with the world of legal work in 2020 where firms are expected to be smaller). It too is an excellent read.

Let me pick up some of Jordan’s key points:

Agile workers …will have to organise and promote themselves in new ways, forming talent and project agencies to advance their interests (much as certified unions protected their salaried predecessors) and constantly renewing and sharpening their own skills and know-how in order to remain competitive in a crowded talent market.

…Firms will be increasingly de-centralised, distributed and diffuse entities that assign tasks not to the highest available biller in the office, but to the most appropriate and best aligned performer, regardless of location. The creation and review of documents, the application of principles to solve a problem, the completion of an approval process, the execution of commercial procedures — all of these can be performed outside law offices, outside the legal profession, or even outside the human realm. With the relentless advance of Big Data, these trends will accelerate.

…In future, firms will abandon this primitive ‘input’ [hours billed] measure in favour of more sophisticated and external-facing ‘output’ measures that revolve around value provided to the client. This will trigger an enormous change in law firm culture, especially with regard to work habits: lawyers will be encouraged to pursue quality of outcome rather than quantity of time, which will further accelerate the trend towards flexible workers providing specialised value from the most effective locations.

I think it is the last point that is most important. Or rather, what will persuade clients that they will get most value? Can the behemoth’s innovate? Can the light on their feet innovators capture sufficient reputation and knowledge to outgun the Big Guns? I’ve really no idea, save to observe that the investment and networking needs of ‘lawyer-knowledge curators, lawyer-analysts, lawyer-technologists, lawyer-educators, serving either fellow lawyers, clients, or the general public’ (which is a key category of new job types in Furlong’s world of new work) may better be served in big firms or very well resourced and well functioning networks. A lot will depend on who has access to the data/knowledge on which such curator/analyst/creative types will have to feed. Firms will have the data and they will suck in those that they want. Quite a few big firms can fail and a few grow and we have BigBigLaw and a similar or smaller pool of outsiders in commercial work.

So, I’m leaning towards fewer, bigger firms. Less pyramid-like perhaps. At least, I am leaning that way for the next ten minutes. But not necessarily law firms.

Richard Moorhead is Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at UCL Faculty of Laws and Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law, you can read his blog here