In 2004, Blockbuster Video was a $5 billion giant. Six years later, it went bankrupt. The beloved video rental joint of yore now only offers us a cautionary tale: don’t ignore disruptive technologies, never underestimate your competition, and continue to anticipate your clients’ desires.
Legal services are a far cry from video rentals, but the industry faces its own radical changes. Legal futurist Richard Susskind predicts “in less than two decades, the way in which lawyers work will change radically.” That radical change could bring a Blockbuster-style demise to some traditional practices. Susskind warns, “Unless they adapt, many traditional legal businesses will fail.” But he also notes that “a whole set of fresh opportunities will present themselves to entrepreneurial and creative young lawyers.”
Here are 4 steps you can take now to align your work with the changes ahead and future-proof your practice or firm:
1. Explore Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs)
Blockbuster learned the hard way that it’s important to continually pay attention to customer needs and progressing technology. For lawyers, the big wake-up call was the 2008 recession, which made the legal industry a ‘buyer’s market.’ Clients continue to hold more leverage and they’re demanding alternatives to hourly billing.
Increased competition is also coming from alternative legal service providers (ASLPs), which can offer lower prices for their work. Revenues for ALSPs grew from $8.4 in 2015 to $10.7 billion just two years later, a compound annual growth rate of 12.9%.
This is pushing law firms to offer more affordable services and greater cost predictability. Clients want alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) like flat fees, fee caps, and subscription-style billing. But though the majority of the largest law firms tout AFAs on their websites, it appears that actual adoption remains slow.
Whether they’re ready to ditch the billable hour or not, lawyers can take steps to future-proof their firms. The first step to any billing changes is data collection. Before they can offer AFAs, lawyers need to be able to predict the amount of time and resources they invest in different matters.
Some practice management software can easily record this information and make it reportable. More in-depth tools, like Filevine Periscope, clarify the amount and type of work required by different kinds of legal matters. When data-collection like this is automatically rolled into a legal operating core, lawyers can analyze their practice without spending extra time creating and maintaining spreadsheets.
2. Expand Automation
The lawyers who benefit most from AFAs are those who can streamline their work. They’re able to deliver quality service in fewer steps. This helps them break out of the restrictive, stressful paradigm of overworked attorneys—where they labor for 8 hours just to produce 2 billable hours.
Even those who hold fast to hourly billing can benefit from automation. Clearly, efficiency pleases clients, because it gives them faster, more accurate, and more affordable results. But it also helps lawyers manage their many non-billable tasks and focus on more profitable work.
The 2019 Law Firms in Transition Survey by Altman Weil found that law firm leaders understand the need for efficiency. They agreed almost unanimously (96%) that “a focus on improved practice efficiency is a permanent trend in the profession.” The drive toward efficiency isn’t going away. What is disappearing are law firms who refuse to adjust to this need.
Automation future-proofs your practice by making your work faster and more accurate. It also aligns you with client demands.
Lawyers who are struggling to automate should begin with tasks they find tedious, stressful, or time-intensive. This could include document generation, which quickly creates routine documents and customizes them for the matter at hand.
Lawyers are also using automated workflows and deadline chains to help them manage all the moving parts of their work. To help cut down on time spent in business development, they turn to automated reports and data analysis, as well as CRM tools that automate outreach to clients and potential clients.
3. Ditch Complacent Tech—Embrace Adapting Tech
Lawyers don’t walk around with pagers and PalmPilots anymore. But many still use practice management software that’s stuck in the past. This leads to clunky, cobbled-together systems and paper-heavy processes. In addition to the financial drain of slow and inefficient systems, bad tech can create a low-energy culture that’s off-putting to clients, staff, and associates.
Recent surveys show troubling results for slow technology adoption. Wolters Kluwer’s survey on “The Future Ready Lawyer” shows that tech investment is bifurcating the legal market. Early adopters are doubling down on technology investments, leaving slow adopters further behind. Dean Sonderegger predicts tech-savvy firms “are likely to increase the gap between themselves and organizations that are not already innovating quickly enough, or at all.”
To future-proof your firm, you need solid, cloud-based technology on your side. Look for companies that have proven their ability to grow and adapt to new needs and possibilities. Think beyond single-issue apps and toward an inclusive operating core and practice management software for your practice. A bigger investment in a long-term solution is better than smaller short-term investments.
4. Create Space to Scale
Many were shocked to learn that Amazon’s biggest money-maker isn’t retail, but rather its cloud service, Amazon Web Services or AWS. AWS, which controls a third of the cloud market, lets users automatically adjust their computing power and storage capacity according to their immediate needs. Instead of predicting how many servers they will use (and risk having too many or too few), businesses can simply pay AWS for their exact usage.
Lawyers are scaling to capacity outside of the cloud as well. One example is the growth of freelance lawyers. Rather than making a costly, long-term hiring decision, firms can hire freelance lawyers to temporarily expand their capacity. Freelance lawyers can also bring specific subject matter expertise.
Alternative legal service providers are also helping firms scale their capacity. Corporations and firms turn to them for support with litigation, research, risk and compliance service, document review and coding, and e-discovery needs.
One easy first step for scaling your workforce is signing up with a quality virtual receptionist service. Rather than predicting the level of reception services you’ll need at any given time, you can allow virtual receptionists to handle all the overflow. Instead of paying additional employees, you pay only for the services you use.
No one can know with certainty which new developments will disrupt the legal industry in the years ahead. But we can pay attention to the growing trends that are already leading to success or failure for firms. As we enter the new decade, it’s time to take stock of our practice, align ourselves with reality, and ensure we’re creating legal institutions that will endure.