The business of law is changing swiftly, reflecting our world at large. Global markets are in flux, regulatory winds are ever-shifting, and the fundamental calculus of risk and reward gains new variables every day. As companies evolve to keep pace, their general counsel are rightly demanding more and different services from their outside law firms.
How can their law firms prepare to accept this new challenge? Certainly, not by merely tweaking the existing, traditional framework for service delivery. Law firms must become the engines of their own, swift evolution or risk losing the confidence (and the business) of their clients.
In my view, every lawyer would benefit from having had the opportunity to be a client whose company was going through a tough time. I was fortunate to have served in several executive roles, including chief operating officer, at a tech-focused venture capital group. The experience made me realize that, to many decision-makers in client organizations, law firms are nothing more than an unavoidable operational cost. Our services show up as a line item on a project plan. And there often are a couple of question marks after the numbers, signaling an unspoken belief that the cost exceeded the need and value of the services given.
The challenge for every law firm is to change those question marks into exclamation points—to demonstrate value far beyond the legal advice provided. This requires adopting a profoundly different model for serving clients. I believe that the firms that will emerge as leaders in the coming decades will share certain key strengths, among them:
• Understanding how to create value for their clients, and reshaping their profiles—from practice areas to geographies of operation—to sync with clients’ market-defined priorities;
• Deepening their market savvy as it relates to their clients and their ability to compete—truly understanding the key issues and aligning the law firm’s interests with solving those issues;
• Determining which areas of the law are most vital to their clients, and becoming premier thought leaders and specialized knowledge experts in those areas; and
• Transforming their processes to become more open, predictive, and knowledge-based.
Each firm will, of course, arrive at its own strategies for gaining these strengths. In my view, however, one important strategy can effectively boost all these strengths at the same time: Collaboration.
Let me explain my reasoning. In the legal services business, the client projects with the highest value are those that are large, complex, specialized, multijurisdictional and high-stakes.
How does a law firm match its capabilities to such ventures? By cultivating a method of operating that successfully draws on the talents of a mobile, global employee base that interacts, shares and communicates seamlessly.
It starts with building cross-functional teams that can efficiently deliver not just legal insights, but business insights that can help solve the client’s problems—which is the absolute best thing we can do for them. These teams must possess specialized knowledge of the global legal and regulatory world as well as a deep understanding of the client’s challenges and the backstories behind them. Such understanding is greatly enhanced when teams are comprised of people from a range of disciplines, geographies, organization levels and backgrounds. As a direct consequence—and a powerful client benefit—such teams bring diverse perspectives and ideas to the table, tapping into dimensions of race, gender, culture and other aspects of people’s lives.
Collaboration is the key—the superpower, if you will—that transforms all of this knowledge, diverse insight and dedication into concrete, differentiating value to the client. The tactics for cultivating collaboration don’t have to be sophisticated, but rather sincere and methodical. For example, for every significant client we hold a regularly scheduled one-hour internal meeting so everyone on the team knows what everyone else is doing. It doesn’t add to the billings, but it ensures that everyone sees the larger picture and can be up to speed if he or she is suddenly called in to assist in a certain matter. If conducted in the right spirit it also draws the diverse group together on a personal level, with resulting enjoyment and pride.
It’s important to note that all attendees in these meetings must contribute something, whether it’s an update, a question or an observation. An express rule is that everyone must speak. This helps to ensure that all voices are heard, and demonstrates that everyone is committed to listening, which is particularly important for early-career talent and those who might be reticent due to prevailing cultural norms. Imagine the dialogue, the vibrancy, of these conversations. It’s an apt demonstration of a collaborative culture of intermixed disciplines delivering real value to the client.
It is incumbent upon the firm’s leaders to break down any “walls” to discussion. We can speak from experience that breaking these discussions down from a top-down hierarchy to an open, horizontal dynamic is liberating, enjoyable and very valuable to giving the legal and business solution our clients expect in our complex, rapidly evolving world.
Collaboration also cannot be confined solely to engaging individuals who work close enough to commute to a firm’s office locations. We envision a firm that enables more workforce mobility, and which, not incidentally, can put us closer to clients wherever they are while bringing a wide range of perspectives to a question.
Technology will continue to be a fundamental enabler of collaboration, ensuring that people can interact seamlessly, via video and phone, sharing documents and ideas, in real time. This is one reason why our firm has increased its technology investment by 20 percent over the past three years. We view technology as critical to optimizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the teams that collaborate on client matters, particularly in their ability to manage projects with greater cost predictability.
Developing the superpower of collaboration demands a significant shift from a traditional partner-dominated firm culture. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that partners themselves are often resistant to change. A 2016 Altman Weil survey found that 64 percent of law firm leaders view partner resistance as the biggest impediment to internal change. In fact, just 4 percent of law firm leaders rated their partners as being highly adaptable to change.
Findings like these reinforce the urgency of our challenge: to transform how we operate so that we create perceived value that’s greater than the fees; to aggregate the best ideas and answers from the best minds in our firms; and to continually reshape our approaches and capabilities to help our clients compete and win in an ever-changing marketplace.