Working differently: Creating an agile law firm

October 08, 2019

Law firms have enjoyed unparalleled performance in the last decade against a backdrop of difficult macroeconomic conditions and political uncertainty. While profit margins in the top UK law firms are holding steady, firms know they won’t remain that way. At the same time, increased non-fee earner staff costs, heightened competition, changing client demands, the need for efficiency, and changing work habits influenced predominantly by millennials are pressuring the status quo. Today’s law firms must evolve in order to remain competitive in an increasingly changing industry.

In London, the 12th Annual Global Law Firm Leaders Conference, hosted by Sandpiper Partners and sponsored by Williams Lea, was attended by key decision makers from law firms across the UK. Williams Lea’s Phil Muller, EMEA Director of Legal Services, joined an esteemed group of law firm leaders and gave his perspective on new business support solutions and harnessing change in the legal services industry.

Here are the top three takeaways from the conference:

There’s a growing chasm between traditional ways of working and how younger associates want to work

Law firm leaders agreed that the traditional law firm model is under threat. Attrition is on the rise, salaries are increasing in an unsustainable way, young lawyers are frustrated with longer work hours and continuously changing rules. In addition, the entrance of US law firms and the ‘Big Four’ in the UK has created greater competition for talent, meaning the best and brightest have more options and more are leaving (for better quality lives rather than more money). Research suggests more than two-thirds (67%) of young lawyers say they don’t want to be partners.

Young lawyers, the majority of whom are millennials, have an entrepreneurial spirit and like to work autonomously and be trusted more by the senior partners they work for, operating with greater flexibility and within their own boundaries. At the same time, they yearn for constant feedback and collaboration, traits not usually associated with Partners and traditional ways of working. Therefore, law firms need to do more to invest in their people by embracing a culture of innovation and technology to facilitate agile working, which can improve motivation and better-quality work. Harboring a collaborative and feedback driven culture can harness their skills, make young associates feel rewarded and result in law firms keeping their best talent.

Purpose, not money, is the new currency

On the topic of strategy and governance, leaders emphasized the importance of purpose. A firm might already have a corporate strategy, vision, clear goals and objectives, but having a purpose that resonates with the people in your firm unifies them, ultimately creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Money is not the only motivator for young lawyers. Many of them want to be a part of a journey of innovation and change. They want to explore new processes and ways to make things better, making them better at what they do and giving your firm greater success. Clarity on why you do what you do can also differentiate your firm in such a competitive environment.

Agile working is important, but it’s not the complete cure

Typically, non-fee earners can make up anywhere between 35-50% of a law firm. That adds up to significant cost, which is almost certain to go up every year. Since the financial crisis, firms have been scaling back on these costs. The days of having a dedicated secretary for every lawyer are now a distant memory. Furthermore, millennials tend to be more resourceful than older generations. They’re more tech savvy and software adept, so they can ‘plug the gap’ better when it comes to daily tasks. However, firms have fallen into the trap of just expecting them to get on with support activities that take them away from doing their actual jobs, such as booking their own meetings, travel arrangements, expenses or putting together their own PowerPoint presentations. These expectations are driving greater frustration, increasing dissatisfaction and leading to higher turnover rates.

Law firms are now beginning to recognize that lawyers aren’t getting the resources and support that previous generations had, but advances in technology and innovation has led them to look towards specialist and cost-efficient outsourcing providers that can implement 24/7 virtual support for secretarial services, document processing, billing and timekeeping, marketing and business development activities. Yes, young lawyers do want to be more agile, but they also want to spend most of their working life practicing law. Adding access to virtual support allows them to do that without adding significant cost to the firm.

Law firms can learn a huge amount from the younger generation and they are now starting to listen to them. The question is, are they prepared to transform their way of thinking to build new efficient structures and create a happier, more successful law firm that attracts and retains young talent?

For more information, visit our Legal Sector page to see how Williams Lea helps law firms achieve these objectives. You can also download our Trends and Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing Survey Report.

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