Preparing for the future: A multi-dimensional challenge

June 17, 2021

The past 18 months have seen change and uncertainty across just about every aspect of the legal landscape. Even with many firms reporting record 2020 profits and strengthened client relationships, uncertainty remains.

How do we prepare for the future, especially in this environment of heightened volatility? The law firm and in-house counsel panelists at Sandpiper Partners’ Midwest-focused Managing Law Firm Profitability, Pricing and Data Analytics virtual conference see this as a multi-dimensional challenge that requires an approach that’s just as intricate, encompassing data, hybrid working, and alternative service delivery models.

Here are the key takeaways from the event:

The data revolution

“There is a transformation happening in the legal industry,” one panelist said. “Data not previously available is now becoming more readily available to us.”

How is the data being used? [READ: Driving innovation with data analytics]

Some law firm clients, particularly those that have more mature data initiatives, use data as the basis for scorecards to track and measure a law firm’s work performance, financial management, service quality, and strategic input. One client panelist said their company holds discussions with their law firms every six months, leveraging scorecards to evaluate them on a broader level.

“Our goal is to be able to set targets for our law firms, measure them against those targets, and have robust discussions with them.”

The data collected also shapes and feeds pricing models. Clients are using internal data, such as past flat fees and AFA-based (Alternative Fee Arrangement) matters to do competitive benchmarking for rates and costs, which help them understand underlying assumptions, tasks and fees. “With this kind of data, we get a better idea of where the price points should land, and make a good decision about price, and what’s premium or not,” one client panelist said.

It’s not just the clients. Law firms, normally slow to adapt and reluctant to change, are also increasing data collection and usage, capturing real-time data on average time for tasks, claim types, costs of defense, among other metrics, to understand the complete picture.

“Data helps us manage all aspects of our business and our clients’,” one panelist said. “We can use these metrics to measure success, tap into innovative opportunities and services areas, and demonstrate value to our clients.”

One metric that both clients and law firms are keen to measure is diversity. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has become increasingly important to the legal sector. Some clients have metrics as granular as the number of hours billed by lawyers from diverse and underrepresented groups. “We want to be able to drive, from the client side, what we want to see from our law firms, how they mimic our values, especially in the diversity space,” one panelist said.

Hybrid working: The way forward?

Firm leaders are preparing for “the great return” and seeing a stronger push for more flexible work arrangements from both lawyers and support staff. One panelist said: “Employees want to come back to the office, but not 100% of the time.”

What does this mean for law firms in this ongoing war for talent?

During live polling, almost half of the conference attendees cited that their talent acquisition strategy was most changed by the pandemic. When it comes to talent acquisition and retention, flexibility is key. Panelists agreed that law firms need to be more flexible when it comes to supporting an agile workplace and investing in collaboration tools that will enable a hybrid workforce.

Firms also need to focus on new skill building and work allocation. “We need to understand those shifts in talent and realign the budget to allocate for changing or new roles,” said one panelist.

Hybrid working does raise the issue of firm culture, as it increases the risk of employees feeling detached from the organization’s vision. Transitioning firm traditions online and mixing them with episodic in-person gatherings may be key in forging stronger connections. [READ: Hybrid working: A future of work brief]

Real estate will also evolve as hybrid working becomes the norm. “It’s a bit more challenging, depending on the amount of flexibility built into your lease,” one panelist said. More than half of the real-time poll respondents said their firm had plans to give up space. However, if releasing real estate early isn’t possible, firms can invest in creating collaboration and focus spaces that provide employees the opportunity to do productive work and to interact with each other.

Growing demand for outsourcing

“The biggest shift we’ve seen in the last eight months has been the willingness to outsource certain roles that in the past were otherwise untouchable, such as legal secretaries and administrative assistants,” said Clare Hart, Williams Lea CEO.

More and more law firms are looking at partnering with third parties, as clients demand they reduce cost without affecting service delivery. One panelist agreed, saying “Disaggregation of work is being talked about a lot. Alternative legal service providers are now more mature in their business models and in the types of services they offer.”

It boils down to a “make or buy” mentality: Either build the resources in-house or “buy” them from a third party. Normally, associates do a lot of low-level, non-strategic work that can be disaggregated and outsourced to lower-cost resources that firms don’t own. “You’ll have more certainty on production,” said one panelist. “It makes rational sense.”

In this environment of lingering risk and uncertainty, a law firm’s safest strategy is to simply wait and see. However, waiting means you lose a first-mover advantage. The firms that take the first steps and test the waters will be the leaders and innovators in the industry.

To learn more about the future of the legal sector, particularly as it relates to agile work arrangements, download our latest future of work brief on hybrid working.

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