The end of lawyers? Pah! This is the time of the 'super lawyer'.

Posted on May 20th, 2010 by Chrissie Lightfoot

In March, Alastair Moyes stated that 'law firms need to work hard in the face of commoditised legal providers'. Last month he bravely stuck his neck out and suggested that we, today's lawyers, need to embrace radical change and reinvent customer service to avoid our industry 'becoming the nearly dead dinosaur that the US car industry became'.

I reckon Alastair makes two very poignant points. Let’s face it, the 2008-2010 global recession combined with the Legal Services Act 2007 has given us a wake-up call. Throw the enlightened consumer, digital era and recent technological advances into the mix and what have we got? Our traditional way of life under threat.

We can no longer afford to be Luddites because the transformation of how the world of legal business operates is already underway. Competition from consumer-centric major players, 'DIY free legal documents providers' via the internet and virtual law firms are already challenging our established engagement model, increasing client confidence, levels of expectation and setting new standards in customer service.

If we consider Professor Richard Susskind’s predictions in relation to the role of lawyers and law firms in the new world of consumer legal services (detailed in his provocative 2008 book The End Of Lawyers?), there is further change on the horizon.

The predictions detailed in Susskind’s 1996 book The Future of Law have already come to fruition. Perhaps we should heed his recent prediction that the market is not going to tolerate costly lawyers for jobs that can equally or better be undertaken by less-expensive workers or through smart systems and processes. Enter ‘de-lawyering’ (passing work to paralegals and legal executives), ‘disruptive’ technologies (computerised systemising, packaging or commoditising), entrepreneurial alternative providers and streamlined law firms.

It’s now 2010. What Susskind wrote about in 2008 we are witnessing. Quoting Neuromancer author William Gibson, whether we like it or not 'the future is here … it’s just not widely distributed yet'. It begs the question, will traditional lawyers be needed? The answer, you’re no doubt pleased to hear, is that it’s not all doom and gloom.

Susskind believes that some tasks, for example those requiring deep expertise or interpersonal communication, will still require the traditional lawyer. Furthermore, as to whether law firms can survive, he believes that entrepreneurial law firms will not see threats in all of these developments and some will actually find opportunity. I would add that entrepreneurial lawyers recognise this and have already begun to act. You will identify these lawyers as bastions of light blazing a trail in customer service excellence and innovation while doing battle with colleagues who are stuck in their Dickensian ways. Inertia and resistance to change always reminds me of Einstein’s view that 'great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds'.

I passionately believe that traditional lawyers, entrepreneurial lawyers and the next generation have a wonderful opportunity in this enlightened, consumer-led digital era to become 'super lawyers'.

What do I mean by 'super lawyers'? Let’s propose that the most expensive piece of real estate is what lies between our ears ('deep expertise' as Susskind calls it – I call it 'lawyerly intellectual capital' (LIC)), and that there is LIC too complex to be commoditised (which there undoubtedly is), requiring interpersonal communication and intrapersonal communication. Accordingly, LIC is where the true value lies. Arguably, what we need to ensure is that we can effectively communicate that LIC is what the consumer needs, wants and desires of us. Enter ‘soft-skilling’ to improve our powers of persuasion, communication, relationship building, marketing, cross-selling, up-selling and selling per se.

If technology can take away as much grunt work as possible and leave the real LIC of value to the super lawyer then that should be something we welcome, right? To survive and thrive in the years to come I propose that a paradigm shift is required in the thinking, behaviour, actions, focus and expectations of both the law firm (partners/owners/directors) and the next generation of lawyers.

As both a lawyer and an entrepreneur (legal purchaser), I believe that the lawyer's role is not just about being technically proficient in the use of words (drafting and advising) – it’s much more than that. Actually being able to truly relate and care about the client and his/her business and/or predicament is fundamental to what true lawyering and LIC is all about. Extraordinary relationships and customer service will be the holy grail at the heart of the successful super lawyer. Building an enduring value relationship with the consumer, utilising 'fluffy soft-skills stuff' combined with a total consumer-centric focus is where the real value will be for the lawyer, law firm and consumer of today and the future.

All of the above may actually just give the legal industry a raison d’etre. I came to the profession in later life (working in a mid-tier established law practice for the past three years) with prior customer service exposure, experience and responsibility having worked in the new media, management consulting and leisure industries. Consequently, I can wholeheartedly agree with Alastair that the legal industry needs to embrace radical change, reinvent customer service and work hard (and smart) in light of the inevitable commoditisation of legal provision. However, I seriously question whether established law firms and ‘traditional lawyers’ are geared up, positioned and truly prepared for the competitive challenges ahead. Are we confident that we already possess the skills required to become super lawyers? If not, the godsend is that with ever-increasing availability and acceptance of the delivery of soft-skill coaching to the profession there is help at hand.

Reinventing customer service will require every lawyer to embrace and action a consumer-centric mindset and behaviour – a paradigm shift in most instances. Scary as this might seem, failure to do the same may well mean that 'the end of lawyers' could actually come to pass – for some traditional lawyers. Perhaps the most famous epitaph in the world is the one alleged to be on the tombstone of WC Fields. As an everlasting reflection of the love-hate relationship with his ‘beloved’ hometown Philadelphia, his epitaph reads 'all things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia'.

As I contemplate the threat of our possible extinction, all things considered, I think I’d rather be a super lawyer. Wouldn’t you?

Chrissie Lightfoot
The Entrepreneur Lawyer

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 20th, 2010 at 3:03 pm and is filed under Entrepreneurs, Lawyers, Women in law. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


72 Comments

  1. Jane Rapin says:

    Chrissie,

    Fantastic article.

    The issues which you raise are part of the reason that I think people like myself and Nancy (who came to law later in life armed with a myriad of skills gained in industries other than law) make great Super Lawyers.

    Because of the time that we have spent outside law we already know how business works, we can relate to business people as customers (albeit external ones as opposed to internal ones) and we can see what they want from their lawyer in order to achieve their goals. We already think outside the law box and we “get” customer service much easier than fresh faced straight out of law school lawyers. Not to suggest that younger lawyers aren’t great, they are, but they have to spend time gaining some of the skills that us “more mature” candidates already arrive at law firms armed with.

    I guess what I am saying is that Super Lawyers have always been here, we just might not have been heard above all the “Professional” noise.

    One thing is for sure, exciting times are ahead for those of us both willing and brave enough to embrace the benefits of change.

    Anyway, I’ve got 5000 words to write on patents and cloned animals so I’m off to do some reading.

    Bye all

    Jane

  2. I see how I have had to be just as much a businesswoman as a lawyer in order to build my book of business. As a lawyer, we are expected to know everything, and if we know a bit more than everything(!), we stand out.

    Great article Chrissie.

    Suzanne Deliscar
    Lawyer-Linguist

  3. David Gabor says:

    Chrissie, this was a fantastic read! I think that lawyers will never become extinct. However, the notion that lawyers are somehow superior to others merely by virtue of their education or status must forever change.

    We are people who happen to have a gift and a power that can be used for the good of the public. That being said, we can best serve the public by providing the best quality service while, at the same time, recognizing the profound importance that this service provides. Once it becomes clear that we give a hoot and at all times try our best, people will regain faith in our possession.

    Once this is solved, we can move to politicians and doctors.

  4. Chrissie

    Another awesome post and thanks. I think that lawyers need to start thinking more like their clients and adopt individual buyer personas for their clients.

    If lawyers want to differentiate themselves then now is the time to embrace social media – both to reinforce their personal brand and the firm’s offering.

    Best wishes
    Julian

  5. Paul says:

    Chrissie,

    Nice blog. Would it be such a bad thing if more lawyers left the business? Like any other business, when supply outstrips demand something has to change if profit margins are to be maintained.

    Also, and more towards your blog, differentiation needs to focus on what the perceived needs are of the end-user. I think you are correct in defining a core area where lawyers can differentiate and that is knowledge. While prepackaged downloadable DIY documents will continue to proliferate, the real value a lawyer can bring is in their deep knowledge of the intricacies of the law. A prepackaged DIY document can’t do that. Companies want to know what is the value you bring and if it is not significantly more than a prepackaged DIY document, you lose.

    Thanks for the blog.

  6. Mike Owen says:

    Your view is spot on, ‘Reinventing customer service will require every lawyer to embrace and action a consumer-centric mindset and behaviour – a paradigm shift in most instances’. I agree whole heartedly, good post, and yes there are entrepreneurs and innovators out there working not just for themselves but for others, too, including for the smaller regional law firms wanting growth and a means to challenge their larger rivals and win bigger, better business. The suite of business websites lawdonut.co.uk, marketingdonut.co.uk and startupdonut.co.uk are examples of this. Information for all, and new business generation for those who truly ‘get it’. The Law Donut syndicates with regional law firms, while the Marketing and Start Up Donuts syndicate with Chambers of Commerce, Councils, Professional Services and Enterprise Agencies. All the sites are linked and governed by postcodes captured in registration so creating expansive local networks of SME business opportunities for those involved. It’s delivered by a specialist publisher and backed by Google… they seem to know something about innovation, so, way to go!

  7. Henry Glasse says:

    We have recently set up our new business

    http://www.maintenanceassist.co.uk

    and we recognise the Dickensian lawyers you are talking about who exist in the family law area.

    On the other hand we have first hand experience of dealing on a businesslike basis with some of the newer competitors such as

    http://www.divorce-online.co.uk/

    who readily embraced what we are offering.

    You are absolutely right to highlight the need to look at new business models and particularly within family law.

    Well done.

  8. […] that is, our ability to simply be human- a social creature – and naked (our authentic self with Lawyerly Intellectual Capital and empathy), will become even more important and […]

  9. […] that is, our ability to simply be human- a social creature – and naked (our authentic self with Lawyerly Intellectual Capital and empathy), will become even more important and […]