The Trend Can be Your Friend, If You Embrace It

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Lawyers have plied their trade for centuries, but change has never been faster than today for a profession in which precedent and tradition have long been the rule.

Part of that reflects the impact of a financial crisis and recession that still have not fully abated.

But another major challenge comes from structural changes within the profession itself that the recession has intensified: globalization, technology, cost pressure, aging demographics and more.

These forces have combined to unleash trends that will be an inescapable part of the legal landscape for years to come. The firms that embrace these trends will survive and thrive; those that do not will face a bleak future.

  1. It's all about the client. To be client-centric is not new for successful lawyers and businesses in general, but this trend will continue to receive more and more attention from major law firms.

    The Association of Corporate Counsel's Value Challenge, with its scorecard that tracks how firms demonstrate their understanding of the client's goals and objectives and use efficiency of management processes to achieve them, will be the kind of client thinking that is the new normal. As a result, more firms likely will start guaranteeing that clients will be satisfied working with their people and receiving their services — and will have to be prepared to back it up.

  2. Leverage is not dead. Getting more work done by less expensive labor has always been a key element for economic success and lower legal costs for lawyers. Increasingly, however, clients will be demanding this leverage by seeking to direct how their matters are staffed, going back to the initial budget and using lower cost legal support whenever possible. Law firms can meet this trend by bringing to the table a formal checklist that defines exactly what is expected in terms of staffing, giving due regard for expertise, efficiency and cost, and with individuals assigned and their billing designated upfront.

  3. Technology will be the key to doing more with less. If billing by time is to survive, using technology to do more, faster, will reduce revenue unless firms find a way to combine technology with leverage to do the work more efficiently, thus improving profitability. More important, being able to maintain billings while becoming more efficient depends on changing the billing system to embrace alternative fee arrangements. Using contingent, fixed, capped and value-fee approaches when time is not the relevant issue to determine the fee will continue to be a growing trend. As a result, the rules of professional conduct must be altered to permit billings without reference to time, particularly in determining appropriateness of fees in disputes.

  4. The law will continue to be an aging profession. Demographic changes will compel more lawyers to consider that their practice has a value that can be transferred to someone else as they retire and sell what they have built, rather than die in their boots. Attorneys will begin to consider a "second season" to their careers as they begin to live longer lives but want to escape the stress of practice. As with the other trends, this is a positive — as long as you're prepared for it.

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