Global law firm leaders join up to discuss innovation, culture and change

October 26, 2021

Law firm leaders and general counsel from across the globe joined together virtually once again to discuss an exciting array of topics at the 14th Annual Global Law Firm Leaders Conference hosted by Sandpiper Partners.

Driving innovation, promoting ESG (environmental, social and governance) programs, attracting top talent, and strengthening culture were among the highlights during the thought-provoking panel discussions among a faculty of leading members of the legal community. Williams Lea’s CEO Clare Hart was among the panelists, sharing her views on ESG oversight and how outsourcing can drive innovation and productivity.

Here are the top takeaways from the conference.

Law firms are embracing the future, but they need to do more.

A recent survey from FTI Consulting revealed that 82% of law firms are using artificial intelligence indicating that they are embracing the future. However, 60% of law firms admit that they’re not digitizing business processes, managing data effectively or innovating client services fast enough. Law firms need to look harder at existing processes and use technology to make them more efficient, which is why more are partnering with outsourcers to transform support services. Clare Hart stated during the panel discussion, “Law firms are outsourcing more today because COVID caused everyone to see that remote working is, in many cases, driving greater productivity than working from the office, particularly for support staff and support services. The other reason is economic. In 2020 firms recorded record profits and firm leaders were looking at how they could continue to drive profits by reducing overheads. Real estate, support services and digitization jump out and Williams Lea has helped with rethinking around outsourcing and digitization.”

ESG should be a fundamental tenet in every law firm

Environmental, social and governance principles were top of the agenda at the conference, with law firm leaders and advisers discussing how it should be ingrained within the firm’s culture. Clients are also assessing environmental policies and targets as a key criterion when deciding to work with law firms, showing not only the moral, but commercial implications of overlooking sustainability. Approaching ESG in the right way needs careful planning, and a panelist and leading speaker at the event advised to begin with a strong foundation, “There are three building blocks: Client advisory proposition, sustainability of and within the firm itself, and then the tone set by the leaders.” There was also unanimous agreement that many law firms are focusing on the social element, particularly as a recent survey from LawCare revealed that 70% of lawyers experienced mental health issues during the pandemic.

Clare Hart emphasized that businesses need to make ESG authentic, “I believe you have to simplify ESG and put it into context. We have a name for it, Beyond Business, with mandatory learning programs around harassment, human trafficking, mental health, and diversity. But I recognize that you can’t wave a wand and make everything right. You have to select from a menu from what you can lean on and drive those initiatives with your organization.”

Reverse mentoring can inspire, attract and retain talent

With attrition at record levels and the talent war raging, culture and identity became another key talking point as law firms recognize the need for taking greater ownership towards creating a positive culture, inspiring values and distinctiveness in the eyes of their employees, clients, and the legal market in general. As one managing partner said, “We have this war for talent phrase, but I’ve seen nothing like it. We’re experiencing attrition in our associate, business services and partner ranks, but also being offered up new associates, service staff, and new partners. It’s a merry-go-round that I’ve honestly never seen before.”

Law firm leaders agreed that they need to be bolder in understanding their people and the barriers they face when trying to progress within the firm. Many are now embracing reverse mentoring to ensure that they understand the challenges and ideas of their new associates and partners, make themselves more accessible, and bring greater diversity and inclusion to the workplace, with one senior partner and panelist saying, “I can honestly say that it’s actually very effective in terms of bringing new ideas and experiences from those more junior within the organization.”

Firm culture should extend to all staff, not just the lawyers

The focus on inclusion extended beyond lawyers to support staff at law firms. As a panelist and managing partner said, “The reality is, many of our business services were the heroes of the lockdown and enabled all our firms to get on our front foot and move forward. That has created a sort of step change in many firms in the way that they’re seen, and that kind of inclusion needs to be baked into the culture in a way that it hasn’t been in the past.”

Establishing firmwide feedback structures, such as partner peer reviews, encouraging support staff to work closer with lawyers and partners, and even hosting dedicated sessions on improving ESG can bring more texture and personality to the firm. “Everybody wants their firm to be successful and deliver excellence.” said a senior partner from a top law firm at one of the panels, “but the other things around your culture and your values and how you are working across the world to really make a difference must go further than the old-fashioned vision of corporate social responsibility. You have got to do something really different and that is our focus because there is a war for talent, and our people and our clients are wanting to know who we are and what we stand for.”

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