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Challenges Facing The Legal Industry (Hogan Lovells)

30 September 2015 |

How the legal industry has changed, how it will continue to develop and what the key challenges are for law firms.

If you want a job as a lawyer you"ll need to be able to demonstrate that you know something about the industry you"re entering. The good news is that in many respects the challenges lawyers face haven"t changed that much over the last decade or two. The bad news is that what used to be the preserve of partners are now things that even young lawyers are expected to attempt: understanding the client"s viewpoint; winning new business; managing how the work is done and the impact of that on price; delivering client-focused solutions not just legal advice; being able to work in a team and on occasion showing leadership skills.

But first the big picture stuff. The Bar (if you want to be a barrister) is shrinking. It is as hard as ever to get pupillage, let alone a tenancy. High street practice has polarised between the small one-and-two-partner general practices (ultimately probably doomed) and bigger, multi-location chains that are beginning to attract third-party capital through ABSs (alternative business structures). The threat from what once was called Tesco law (in practice pioneered by the Co-op until it hit its own problems) has not materialised in quite the way expected. Instead, third-party funders of litigation have swept to the fore.

Regional and national practices (often with overseas offices) serve wealthy individuals and local and national businesses. International corporate, commercial and financial practice is dominated by the global law firms. The biggest have at their heart US/UK capabilities but with offices in the most vibrant parts of the global economy – Asia, China and the emerging markets of South America and Africa.

Clients for their part shop around. They often use more than one and go to specific firms for specialist expertise. They also negotiate over price. When appointing firms they make them "pitch" for the business (show the client why they should get it, including flexibility on price). So price is something you need to be aware of. In the old days lawyers charged by the hour. But that"s an open-ended commitment on the client"s side that rewards the least efficient lawyer who takes the most time. Now clients expect fixed prices.

But for a law firm to offer a fixed price it has to be steeped in the type of work on offer and know where the issues (that can throw out a fixed price) are likely to arise. The key is understanding the way in which work is done and delivered, and making it as efficient as possible. This is called "process" and increasingly law firms are adopting project management techniques to make sure that work runs according to course and everyone in a team knows what they should be doing, why and when, and how it all inter-connects.

This means that, although lawyers need to be able to work in teams, they also need to take individual responsibility for aspects of the process. This is where leadership comes in. Traditional leadership is someone in charge issuing orders. Modern leadership is almost the opposite. It"s team members putting their hands up to assume personal responsibility for certain aspects, owning those tasks and seeing them through to completion in a way that complements what everyone else is doing. Teamwork makes it harder to hide. If you don"t do your bit, everyone else is let down. The way young lawyers make their careers is by assuming responsibility, knowing when to seek more senior help, being resilient in the face of demanding deadlines and taking the initiative rather than waiting to be asked.

If you have a good grasp of these things, of teamwork, of process and its impact on price, and you understand the client"s concerns, it means you have a good story when you come to pitch. Business development is really about identifying clients" needs and then showing them how you can meet those needs. The key is being able to quiz clients about their business or circumstances and explain how the firm can help them, with concrete examples of benefits (called value-adds) provided to other clients in similar situations. Hiding behind the law and not being prepared to enter the client"s world doesn"t work any more (if it ever did). It"s a tall order.

And what can you look forward to if you can demonstrate all of this? A fantastically rewarding career, full of intellectual challenge and satisfaction.