In my forty six years in law, there’s never been a moment like this.  

Firms are preparing to resume normal operations after a period of totally remote working.  The phenomenon of “resuming” creates a unique chance for firms to take a fresh look at how they operate.  A chance to make those improvements that have been sitting on the drawing board.  A chance to make their firms all they can be, and need to be, to meet the imperatives of the 21st century. 

The moment is uniquely conducive to progress.  All firm personnel have just experienced how well different models work.  They enjoyed the greater flexibility, they embraced the greater responsibility, and they gained increased confidence in modern technology tools.  

And clients are expecting change.  They, too, have learned from the WFH experience.  And they now must recover from the negative economic impact the pandemic had on their businesses.  They need better, faster, and less expensive service more than ever,  

So, what path will law firms choose as they resume?   Will they simply return to business as usual?  Or will they reset, choosing a better and more modern path?  We are about to see. 

“What would you do, Ralph?”

In a video interview with Joe Calve for the Corporate Counsel Business Journal last month, Joe asked me, “What would you do if you were leading a law firm today?”   “I’d make the most of this moment,”  I responded.  Reflecting further on Joe’s question, I believe I would pursue five initiatives:

  • Create a comprehensive, integrated information hub
  • Embrace “Legal Technology 2.0”
  • Modernize the operating model
  • Increase diversity and inclusion
  • Double down on client relationships

I think law firm leaders should seriously consider such an action plan.  In my next few posts I’m going to talk about each of my ideas, phrased as recommendations to law firm leaders.  I’ll address the first one today, preceded by thoughts on how to approach the reset these recommendations will entail.

Resolve to Make the Most of This Unique Moment

To accomplish my suggested initiatives, law firms must first resolve, literally, to make the most of this moment.  These initiatives will take time and money, and, more importantly, will require the collaboration of everyone in the firm.  A firmwide understanding that firm leadership resolves to do this, and a shared commitment to get it done.  If you don’t have the firm’s support, it won’t happen.

As I suggested in an earlier post, this is a moment for law firm leaders to express a compelling vision “for the best possible future for their firm.”  Set out why the firm needs bold action and how everyone will benefit.  

Here’s the first of my recommendations:

Create a Comprehensive, Integrated Information Hub

During the pandemic firms experienced the power of their information, and the technology that connects them to it.  It enabled them to serve clients effectively through the sudden interruption of normal operations.  Everyone initially worried about how well they would be able to meet their obligations, “and then, voilà, it all worked.” 

This is one of the most important lessons of the pandemic.  But it was merely the tip of the iceberg.  What information technology accomplished to enable remote working, it can do to enhance every dimension of law firm operations, day in and day out, benefiting the firm, its people, and its clients.

          The Value of the Firm’s Collective Knowledge, Strategy, and Norms

A law firm’s collective knowledge and experience represents a fundamental element of its value proposition.  It makes the firm what it is. It enables its people.  It motivates clients to hire it and lawyers to join it.

So, too, a firm’s strategy, norms, and culture.  They determine what the firm does, how it serves its clients, the kinds of people who comprise it, how it builds careers, and how it supports its communities.  

          Unleashing that Value to Enable Success 

As law firms re-enter they should resolve to harness all of their enterprise information, and unleash its full power to enable everyone in the firm to make their greatest contribution.  

In the hands of the right people at the right time, the firm’s information permits everyone instantly to draw on the firm’s collective experience and knowledge, and do whatever they do better, more efficiently, and in harmony with the firm’s strategy, norms, and culture.  

This is not how things have worked in the traditional model.  In most firms it has been difficult and time consuming to draw on firm information beyond one’s immediate working group.  That’s why firms continue to have e-mails “to all,” asking if anyone in the firm knows something.  It is why law firm leaders continue to be frustrated that not everyone is pursuing the firm’s strategy, and drawing on its full resources.  The information people need has been captured somewhere in the firm, but it can’t readily be accessed.

Today, information technology permits all firm information to be integrated, curated, accessed, distributed, consumed, and, most importantly, acted upon by every person in the firm, whenever they need it, wherever they are.  This is huge.  

          Empowering Every Professional to Make Their Greatest Contribution

Firms can literally empower every professional with their collective knowledge.  From deciding which potential engagements to pursue, to staffing and pricing decisions, to managing projects, to getting paid, to ensuring client satisfaction and building client relationships, each person can draw on all that has gone before, and everything currently underway, in every office, department, and other subdivision of the firm.  Here are some common illustrations:

  • Accessing details of prior similar matters to examine what they cost, how they were resourced, and how they turned out, to guide staffing, strategy, and pricing in a new matter.  (How did we approach this kind of matter previously?  How might we do it better, faster, cheaper, and more profitably this time?) 
  • Accessing professional development plans of lawyers and other professionals to match assignments to their developmental needs.  (In addition to cost and expertise considerations, take into account how to support the career plans of the team; doing this in a systematic way will develop people better and increase their job satisfaction, benefiting them, the clients, and the firm.)
  • Accessing experience of every lawyer and other professional anywhere at any time.  (A common challenge for multi-office and multi-practice law firms is the inadequate knowledge people have of what their colleagues in other offices and practices can do; it prevents them serving clients as fully as they could and from pursuing business opportunities when they arise, as well as impeding firm collaboration and integration.)
  • Keeping all professionals fully informed on client preferences, client developments, and the status of firm matters for a client.  (The more fully informed everyone working with a client is, the better each person will be at serving the client’s interests, acting in accordance with its preferences,  enhancing the relationship and otherwise being responsive.)
  • Expediting all decisions so that client service is faster and more responsive.  (The easier it is for people to get information independently, the faster they will decide and act, and the more likely they will satisfy clients’ demands for faster and more responsive service.)
  • Achieving greater compliance with firm initiatives.   (An effective information hub not only provides access to information, it enables the firm to remind everyone of their duties and to monitor their progress.)

          Action and Investment Required

To realize the foregoing value, will require serious action and investment.  The tools are there, but it will require leadership and internal work to update existing systems and practices. 

Firm data has been collected at different times, by different people, for different purposes.  To be actionable, it needs to be organized, integrated across the silos, expressed in a single taxonomy, and distributed by applications that will make it actionable by those who can do something with it. 

To achieve its full promise, the information hub must also have an intuitive and compelling user interface. I call this the information “hub” because the information needs to have an organizational center from which it can be accessed and from which it flows.  If the people won’t use the information technology, they won’t access the firm’s knowledge.  All law firms have experience with what is called “shelfware”–software that sits on the shelf because people don’t use it.  To succeed, firms must install software that people will use and that enables them to act on the information they access.

          Revolutionizing Effectiveness 

This one initiative  will revolutionize how effective all firm personnel are.  It will make real for clients the benefit of the firm’s collective knowledge and experience.  It will provide a meaningful return on the firm’s investment to make it what it is.  It will enhance the firm’s pursuit of its strategy, and reinforce its culture. And, perhaps most important, it will connect all of its people to each other and to the firm more than ever before.

In my next few posts, I will discuss my other four recommendations, and examine in more detail why law firms should adopt this course of action now.