State of the UK legal market: What should firms focus on for 2021 and beyond?

November 18, 2020

Strategy and culture dominated the talking points among law firm leaders at this year’s 8th Annual Sandpiper Partners London Legal Market Virtual Conference. Clare Hart, CEO of Williams Lea, joined the conversation about the direction law firms need to take, from a business perspective, with health and wellbeing, and encouraging a culture of diversity, equality, and inclusion. Here are the top three takeaways from the event:

Leaders need to work harder on their Firm’s common purpose and strategy

There is no doubt that the legal industry has seen more change in the last six months than over the last decade. In a time where many of us have been working remotely and physically separate from our colleagues for several months, the legal sector is no exception. One of the panelists warned that, “People can inevitably feel less attached to the common purpose of the law firm that they’re part of and we need to work harder to paint that picture of our purpose and strategy so that it provides optimism and a sense of identity through this particularly challenging cycle”. Law firms were already aware of this, but the prolonged duration of the pandemic means that the legal sector must sharpen that focus to unite their employees and give them a unique sense of identity; of their firm and where it fits in the legal marketplace.

The pandemic has encouraged law firms to be more honest with themselves about what they do and don’t specialize in. A panelist from a top law firm stated, “Whatever you are as a law firm, this is making you more so. I think the pandemic did bring out law firms to see where their people matter.” Law firms therefore need to focus on what they do best: core legal work, while leaving the day-to-day administrative tasks to people who specialize in that area and can provide 24/7 support – whether it’s secretarial support, e-billing, or presentations and creative design.

Diversity and inclusion are needed to bring greater innovation, creativity and technology

The panelists expressed a growing concern over a loss of diversity in such a polarized working environment. They agreed that law firms need to work harder to become more humane, progressive and express their firm culture. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) need to be at the forefront of every firm – otherwise they may see an exodus of talent, particularly with women, ethnic minorities and the younger generations. A diverse organization that encourages belonging brings innovation, creativity, generates a culture of wellbeing and greater productivity.

One senior law firm leader, pointed out that, “We haven’t got the glue that naturally occurs when people are in the office, therefore you have to make even more effort than usual in making sure that what you stand for as an organization is beyond just working extremely hard. Getting that message across is extremely important especially as getting communications across is more difficult than usual.” Recognition was also key, as the same partner added that, “partners need to give more understanding and appreciate the sacrifices people are going through now.”

Interestingly, another panelist found, through a firmwide survey that, “Younger lawyers and graduates have come out as having the weakest emotional wellbeing scores and that’s been consistent over the last six months. Providing personal support at an individual level is really critical.” This highlights the need for the legal profession to provide those fee earners with much needed virtual assistance, allowing them to focus on legal matters, become more motivated and consequently reduce attrition in law firms. Firms that embrace this will achieve a greater culture of belonging and loyalty in future years.

Clients want to work with law firms that are more innovative and creative

A panel which included senior partners and clients focused on what clients seek from their lawyers as they adapt to the new world of work. A client on the panel said, “There is a real need for firms who partner with us to be flexible and the way that they do that is through rapid provision of information on the advisory side. Flexibility doesn’t just mean I can get you on the phone at odd hours. It’s about rewiring processes and redeploying technology. Law firms who have allowed this flexibility to come through have been huge for us.”

A combination of teamwork, collaboration and outsourcing the right functions are necessary to succeed in this environment. As one panelist described, “It’s about becoming a modern business and that’s what modern businesses do. They put clients at the center of their operating model and they harness the capabilities available to them within and outside their organization and deliver that proposition. The best firms are doing that.”

As Clare Hart said during this session, “We hear directly from our clients about the things they want to see from a partner. The answer is typically around innovation, technology and security.” This is especially important when implementing flexible workflow technology that can enable work to be deployed efficiently to executive assistants, document processing, marketing and financial support teams to harness efficiency. Law firms can monitor utilization rates and work volume by partner, office and region. These are ways of responding to our client needs and thinking differently in a changing world.

To learn more about the evolution of the workplace in the legal sector, download The Future of Work, an in-depth report conducted by UnWork and commissioned by Williams Lea.

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