Law Firm Leaders Forum: Adapting to the New Service Model

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Service Model

NEW YORK — Lucy Endel Bassli, Assistant General Counsel of Legal Operations & Contracting at Microsoft, opened a panel discussion entitled, Adapting to the New Service Model, with an important observation: There is a “bit of a disaggregation of service” starting to happen at law firms, Bassli noted, adding that new ancillary services, such as project management, are emerging to complement the core of legal work.

“There’s an opportunity for law firms to really stand out and shine and lead the change themselves,” she said. To accomplish that, Bassli identified data analytics as a powerful foundation from which law firms can extract insights to engage their clients in discussing new ways of working together.

The panel was featured at the recent 22nd Annual Law Firm Leaders Forum held in New York City last week. In addition to Bassli, the panel included Peter J. Devlin, Chair, President & CEO of Fish & Richardson; John Hall, CEO of Intapp; and Laura King, Partner and Global Head of People & Talent at Clifford Chance. The panel was moderated by Forum Co-Chair Betty Temple, Chair & CEO of Womble Bond Dickinson (US).

Intapp’s Hall agreed that law firms have the distinct opportunity to assume the role of entrepreneur by listening closely to client problems and then leveraging data and unleashing technologies and process design to deliver more efficient services. Firms “shouldn’t feel totally terrified” because businesses everywhere are figuring out how to leverage technology to drive customer value. He also noted the upside of a creativity that’s endemic to a population of individuals, many of whom had the vision and tenacity to establish their own practices in the first place.

law firm leaders

Microsoft’s Lucy Endel Bassli

As one of the law firm leaders on the panel, Fish & Richardson’s Devlin shared an example from the early days, discussing when his firm began to receive fixed fee requests from clients. He credited their IP lawyers with really “getting down in the weeds” of the data, in collaboration with the IT team, to develop new pricing models. He likewise attributed ultimate success to the highly interactive and transparent dialogue with the client, who was also committed to finding a new arrangement that would work for both sides.

King, of Clifford Chance, addressed the critical inflection point law firms now find themselves at as they strive to update their systems and processes in order to integrate new roles representing distinct expertise and specialism, such as project managers, forensic accountants, resource and transaction managers. The answer is not to just keep adding new skills to the lawyer base, King said, rather “it’s how to deploy an orchestra when you don’t know how to play the violin, and that’s not really a skill set that we are teaching people.”

Lawyers — and the people they will deploy with as part of new delivery models — will need to understand each other’s respective roles. She said law schools also need to modernize to help students understand how legal services will be deployed in the future.

Devlin acknowledged the benefits of externally recruiting for new expert roles, such as project managers, even as it may take time for firmwide acceptance. Hall referred to this as the “newly-negotiated division of labor”, as compared to the traditional model that dictates that partners did everything. As the pressing need for greater efficiencies demands new specialists in new functions, it’s the process analysts within the firm who can leverage technology to help guide everyone in operating within a more evenly distributed environment.

Though even amid great operational change, a lawyer’s expertise will remain as the centerpiece of the holistic legal solution, Hall assured. It’s the process augmentation piece that is needed to arrive at optimized delivery.

Betty Temple of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice

Given the complexity of multi-practice firms, Bassli advised starting with small steps toward delivery change, such as beginning with processes for matter intake or real-time client collaboration tools.

As for assessing the uptake of some potential delivery model game-changers, an audience member asked about the use of contingent resources, such as virtual law firms. Bassli replied: “We’re buying what’s out there, if it’s creative and it allows us to flex more easily, and it allows us to drive down costs on non-critical [strategic type of] work, we’re experimenting with all of that.”

Hall asked his fellow panelists how they determine where to instigate change within their respective firms. Devlin provided an example as triggered by the last recession, when price pressures exerted on one area of his firm’s work necessitated a new delivery plan. Their solution involved hiring new groups of professionals, including technologists, engineers and scientists, all of whom were trained to work under the supervision of firm attorneys. As a result of this new working model, they were able to compete for the business and ultimately complete it more efficiently.

Hall referred to a general theory of business disruption, which posits that simple advocacy will predictably result in mere inertia. The opportunity for innovation will start in places that “really have a profoundly compelling reason to change”, he said.