Law Firms are Focused on Office Returns and Hybrid Work. They’re Missing the Point.

As published in The American Lawyer.

If Big Law can’t learn to innovate today, there’s no need to worry about reopening the office tomorrow.

By Brenda Pontiff

It would be silly to ponder whether shiplap or wallpaper is the better choice for your dining area when your roof has a big hole in it. Many law firms have serious holes to patch, and if they don’t start worrying about the right problems—client service innovation, succession planning, inclusive hiring and generally joining the 21st century—the hours spent debating when and how to reopen the office will be pointless.

Too much recent dialogue about the future of the legal industry has revolved around in-person vs. hybrid vs. remote work. This line of thinking is very much on brand for an industry that struggles to think beyond itself and embrace sophisticated technology, metrics and client care initiatives that their counterparts in adjacent industries already have, such as accountants, auditors and business operations consultancies.

What the client cares about isn’t where a lawyer is physically sitting; it’s what lawyers are doing to help them and their business succeed that is top of mind. Law firms need to seize this unique pivot moment, where rhythms have been interrupted, to take big swings, embrace proven technologies and processes, and disrupt themselves. They need to refresh and reboot their business models. This is especially crucial as, if they don’t do it now, another portion of the professional services industry will do it for them—rendering the debate over remote work and office space completely moot.

But then again, lawyers love a good debate. How wonderful to exercise those argumentative muscles at weekly meetings devoted to decisions about how, when and who should be sitting at their desk or at their home office. This strange ability to become distracted with what has obvious and simple solutions is, perhaps, why the industry has found itself unable to truly move forward, even as outmoded hiring practices, fear of the fixed fee and a longstanding romance with their own credentials are hastening the possible demise of the law firm and opening the door wider to alternative legal service providers. Given that this is a perfect time for reinventing and reinvesting, it is also a good time to examine why the legal industry and lawyers, specifically, are not embracing new strategies that call for real disruption.

Why Law Firms Refuse to Transform

Many in legal tech, marketing and sales have lost sleep wondering why lawyers can’t get on board with the modern world or even the simplest changes that could benefit their firms, their employees and their clients. The theories range from unpleasant attributes, including several of the seven deadly sins, to more innocent misfortunes like not having a bachelor’s degree in business or general insulation from the real world. It is quite possible something happens to people in law school. Not only do they begin the life-long habit of mostly hanging out with other lawyers, it is here that lawyers become students of critical thinking. While this skill may serve them well in analyzing the law, it does nothing to train their brains for building and supporting  solutions for their firm’s operating infrastructure, much less that of their clients’.

Lawyers view their services as one-off offerings that are highly unique. The Big Four accounting firms and other large advisory consultancies are very proud to have created substantially efficient methods and processes, tweaked for specific industries and company needs. Even the initial prospect phase with clients is met differently by the accounting professionals, as they are willing to show the potential customer how technology will be leveraged and how each team member will contribute value to the engagement at a predicted fixed fee, still being mindful of mitigating risks and setting forth realistic expectations. In other words, accountants are not ashamed that their services might be viewed as a product or a commodity.

Repair, Remodel, Redesign

COVID has required repairs. Once law firms figure out how to leverage office hoteling and come up with some guidelines about remote working that are on trend and will keep employees engaged and on the payroll, they should have plenty of time left to focus on the bigger picture.

Law firms don’t have to demolish the good to start remodeling and redesigning. After all, firms have never been more profitable and, due to great movement among partners, new boutiques are opening up with seemingly healthy books of business. But just as COVID has impacted the supply chain for goods, procurement for services is changing too. Corporations are choosing their outside counsel with much more care and scrutiny, giving alternative legal providers many more opportunities to steal slices of work, and eventually, client relationships.

Every remodel starts with a blueprint. Law firms should look to the Big Four for inspiration. Naturally, Big Law leaders resist comparisons to the Big Four accounting firms, calling foul with the old “apples to oranges” analogy. But surely the comparison is closer than that. An apples to pears comparison is quite fair and demonstrates how the partnership and compensation structure, global reach and client service delivery of the ever-growing accounting firm landscape should influence law firms willing to modernize. Though clients are not asking their lawyers to serve as accountants or efficiency consultants, they are asking them for risk mitigation, forward-looking regulatory guidance and, very often, salvation from the courts and new legislative minefields.

A firm’s redesign will lead to differentiation. The redesign should start with the client list. Which clients can be properly served holistically? What investments in technology will best serve priority clients? What cultural demands are these clients seeking? What are the client’s short- and long-term goals? All decisions can be made from a client-centric starting point.

It is true that law firms must weigh matters of the long commute, face time in the office, and pricey real estate against more productivity, flexibility and greater work/life integration. But it is also high time for law firms to handle the truth and so much more.

Reprinted with permission from the October 27, 2021 issue of The American Lawyer © 2021, ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.