Working practices lawyers could learn from other industries

Many private practice lawyers pride themselves on offering a highly bespoke service to their clients. When you ask a lawyer what their typical day consists of, you hear things like, “every project is different”, “it depends”, “different stuff comes up every day”. The truth of the matter is that as a lawyer, when you start work in the morning, you have very little idea of what surprises are in store for you.

This creates a few problems. For clients, the experience they get from a law firm depends on how that project is staffed. Associates spend client time on projects discovering an individual partner’s idiosyncrasies and ways of working, because processes are largely dictated by individual partner preferences. For firms themselves, it becomes very difficult to accurately predict how long two projects will take (or cost), because they are being run differently.

This is all standard practice at law firms. Many will point to the nature of legal practice as being responsible, but I don’t think that’s the full truth. In this article, I point to three distinctions law firms and lawyers should consider. Many of these are things other industries have adopted for years.

Distinction #1: bespoke versus repeatable

“We offer a bespoke service” is probably something that makes its way into quite a lot of law firm pitches. This is meant to convey the deep personal touch that will be applied to legal services. But there are problems with this approach.

First, it doesn’t scale. A bespoke service requires everything to be exactly tailored to the client or customer at hand. This requires a huge amount of effort and resource. There will come a point where your team reaches capacity, and you cannot take on any more clients (that is, without lawyers working into the night).

Second, it isn’t always necessary. A huge new client that is requiring advice in novel areas of law might require a bespoke service, because a firm has not advised on those matters before. But a medium-sized client coming in for advice you have given time and time again may not need — or want to pay for — that white-glove treatment.

Law firms can learn from SaaS companies here. Companies such as Salesforce usually segment their customers into two buckets:

  • White glove — high-profile customers that are prepared to pay higher fees for highly bespoke services.
  • Self-service — less high-profile customers who are happy to have more general advice given to them. They might have a more limited budget.

This distinction doesn’t sit completely happily for law firms, who are under professional duties to act in the best interests of their clients. The idea of having any self-service clients would probably horrify most law firms.

However, the trap most law firms fall into is treating all customers as white-glove customers. This can be a mistake, particularly where cost-conscious clients would have been happy with a slightly slower turnaround and a generic legal advice note (rather than one tailored to their circumstances), if it meant their legal fees were cut in half.

If firms recognised this, new business opportunities could emerge. Too often, a firm’s business model is around attracting the most complex work, without considering whether they are doing that for reasons of business or for personal pride.

Instead, firms could start to productise their work. This is how software works — build once, deliver to many. It’s a high upfront effort but a lower effort when it comes to onboarding.

The same could apply to legal work. For example, if directors of an insolvent company are concerned about their duties, instead of starting the clock and writing a memo, consider immediately pulling a generic memo off the stocks and offering a 30-minute call to discuss. For low-touch clients, this is a perfect result — low cost, predictable work product. For firms, it is also great — you can even offer this kind of work at a fixed price, and make greater margins than you would with other work.

To help implement this distinction lawyers should consider creating work product with a view not just to the client at hand, but also to future clients who could benefit from it. This makes it easier to productise work and move into the model of ‘build once, deliver to many’.

Distinction #2: reactive versus contemplative

So much of what you do as a lawyer is reactive. When developments happen that are outside of your control, this is unavoidable. This is what can make legal practice so exciting. But there are some things that are inside your control — namely, your response to these events.

Many lawyers have an important skill for getting things done. They have a preference for action over thought. This is an excellent characteristic, but if left unchecked, can lead to a shoot-from-the-hip mentality. This can cause lawyers to spend time on work streams without considering why they are doing those activities, or what problems they solve.

Instead of saying things like “we need to create this document”, lawyers could learn from management consultants here and instead ask, “what outcome do we want?”, or “what problem are we fixing?”. Asking those questions provides a much better framework to decide what to do, rather than leaving the ultimate outcomes delivered by work product unspoken.

Approaching things in this way means that lawyers can become less reactive and more considered on what might be the best course of action in a given situation. It helps avoid situations where lawyers create work product the clients didn’t need or ask for (and therefore wasting their own money and time).

It also elevates the conversation to something more strategic. It’s always surprising that clients demand lawyers to be ‘less lawyerly’, yet lawyers are not given the training or skills they need to have the kinds of conversations clients want to have.

To help implement this distinction, before starting work on a new task or activity, lawyers should always ask, “what are we trying to achieve?”, and “what problem are we trying to solve?”. This is an unfamiliar way of thinking for most lawyers. Ultimately, adopting this framework helps lawyers decide whether their proposed course of action is actually the best action to take.

As exciting as I found legal practice, I always found it incredibly stressful. I found it stressful because we were always up against tight timeframes and unrealistic expectations. This meant you had very little time to consider how best to act in a given scenario. It is not always possible to be as considered as you would like in a given scenario. But it is always possible to reflect on things after the fact. This is where the third distinction comes into play.

Distinction #3: secrets versus knowledge

In most other industries, when things go wrong, the root cause is established and a resolution is proposed. This is common practice in healthcare and aviation industries where checklists are commonly used to define processes that should be followed in given processes.

However, this rarely happens in the legal industry. At worst, lawyers see sharing knowledge with others as giving others a leg up to their own detriment in a competitive working environment. At best, lawyers are apathetic around sharing knowledge, and simply don’t think or have time to do it. Whichever cultural norm is present at a firm, the result is the same — secrets are kept, and knowledge is not shared.

When people in software development hear about these issues, they are often very surprised. Knowledge sharing, as opposed to keeping secrets, is hard-wired into software developers’ DNA. Software developers voluntarily answer questions on Stack Overflow from people they have never met — for free. Peer review processes are required in order for code to make it into a product. Knowledge is captured from these processes and preserved for the future.

These are all hard things to accomplish in law. Yet the consequences of not doing so are severe. Unless they are told otherwise, junior lawyers will make the very same mistakes made by those before them. Partners will find it hard to determine what ‘market practice’ actually is, because they only have their own personal experiences to rely on.

Fortunately, there is a two-pronged knowledge-sharing strategy law firms can adopt.

First, weave knowledge sharing into everyday processes. These means, for example, that when lawyers are organising documents for execution, they are prompted to share the copies for others in their team to use in the future. Before a niche expert such as a barrister is paid their fees, it could be a condition that their opinion or advice is summarised or uploaded to a platform. “Has anyone seen …?” questions could be asked in a particular place that records the answers for others to view in the future.

There are plenty of examples — all of which rely on examining the touchpoint at which knowledge could be shared while lawyers are doing their work.

Second, encourage legal teams and lawyers to reflect on their work at key intervals. Insist that a project retrospective is run before a matter can formally close, and have the minutes uploaded somewhere to be viewed by others. Get people working from the same templates, and every time they use the template, ask them for suggestions on how it could be improved.

To help implement this distinction, work out what knowledge would be helpful to share, and design processes that facilitate the sharing of this knowledge.

Adopting a product mindset, approaching problems in a considered way and sharing knowledge are three ways law firms could improve the services they offer to their clients. On the way to doing this, law firms could become more profitable and also make for better working environments that retain the vast array of employee talent so often present.

This article was originally published in the Modern Lawyer

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Jack Shepherd

Ex biglaw insolvency lawyer and innovation. Now legal practice lead at iManage. Interested in human side of legal tech and actually getting things used.