Embracing the Future of the Law Firm
In spite of the uncertainties that firms were forced to contend with throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal sector has emerged with a clear path towards future growth.
Below, Lawyer Monthly hears from Shakespeare Martineau CEO Sarah Walker-Smith on the outcomes of the pandemic and how adaptable law firms can seize the opportunity to ready themselves for the future.
Over the last couple of years, the business world has had to adapt to a brand new way of working, and the legal sector is no different. For most law firms, this has meant accelerating plans for remote working and improving flexibility, but we are missing a trick if we fail to capitalise on the additional opportunities this now presents.
One of the main challenges at the start of the pandemic was the acceleration of digital agendas. Depending on the size of the business, this could have meant getting hundreds, even thousands, of employees working remotely within days. While some firms already had remote working in place, enabling the entirety of their business to work from home without issue, not all would have had the resources secured and ready to go.
With the sensitive nature of the legal sector, it was not just purchasing and distributing the equipment that was a challenge. Behavioural habits needed to change too. Many lawyers were still largely paper-based with physical files, and even when firms had navigated their own processes, courts and clients were not always able to meet them on the same digital platforms.
Cybersecurity also played an important role in this transition, especially as we moved to remote working models. Ensuring remote databases and systems were secure was vital, allowing people to work anywhere without compromising their clients’ privacy. Overall, coordinating the switch was a considerable administrative task, and one that had to happen practically overnight. Huge credit must be given to the often unsung legal IT teams.
Ways of working in general have also had to change. Now that remote working has proven to be successful, employees expect a level of flexibility as standard – choosing where they work, how they work and when they work, so that they can fit their jobs around their lives rather than the other way around. Introducing principles, such as Shakespeare Martineau’s ‘empowered working’, which are founded on a basis of trust and support people to work in a way that suits them, whilst still looking after clients and team needs, can be a good place to start. Firms that fail to embrace this will struggle to retain and recruit in what is already a challenging market.
Overall, coordinating the switch was a considerable administrative task, and one that had to happen practically overnight.
Regarding recruitment, remote working has allowed firms to expand their talent pool, focusing more on values and cultural fit rather than whether a person lives close enough to commute. As a result, taking a more flexible approach benefits not only employees, but employers too.
Following the implementation of the more ‘practical’ elements of change, the focus now needs to switch to cultural transformation. By reviewing business strategies, firms may find that the long-term plans they had before the pandemic are no longer relevant. Whether they need a few tweaks or a complete overhaul, the focus should always be on people (both clients and employees), including their wellbeing and development. There is no such thing as B2B; P2P (people to people) is even more relevant now than it was before the events of the last two years.
Pivoting towards ESG
When adapting a business strategy, strength will come from the core values that are weaved throughout. Trust and collaboration have become particularly important over the last couple of years, so ensuring these values are part of the firm’s long-term plans is essential.
Sustainability is another priority that many people have rightly started to focus on. Remote working has enabled many companies to lower their carbon footprint, with reduced commutes and consumables like power and paper, and less travelling to see clients. Sustainability must remain at the top of the agenda, enabling firms to build on the progress they have already made. Not only will this help the environment, but it will also resonate with a growing number of their people. It is no use simply talking about sustainability; action must be taken, whether that is through the creation of green initiatives or by taking the next step up and seeking B Corp status to hold themselves accountable, as we are doing.
There also needs to be a change in the legal sector’s approach to profit. Long-term success has to be the goal. Firms often obsess over the simple annual figure of profit per equity partner (PEP). When investing in a business’s future, profits could take a hit for a short period of time. We need to find a more balanced set of measures which incentivise both short and long-term considerations, creating sustainable value. Not only will this benefit the business, but also clients, investors and local communities.
When adapting a business strategy, strength will come from the core values that are weaved throughout.
Leading the charge
Effective leadership is core to all of these changes. For too long, leaders in the legal sector have been invisible to the majority of employees. Simply being a figurehead is no longer enough; teams must be able to see that the person in charge cares about the future of the firm. Listening is a key part of this, so leaders should consider how they can ensure every voice is heard, from top to bottom. The creation of a shadow board, reverse mentors and frequent surveys are just some of the ways to bring people together over ideas and strategy, leading to positive change for all.
Undoubtedly, there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome to successfully continue to transform our sector. First of all is the fact that change takes time to get right. Firms must be willing to continuously improve their processes through constant review, addressing any issues that arise. Getting feedback from its people is essential to this, as they are the ones who are experiencing the changes most.
Being willing to adapt ensures team members are not left behind during the transformation process. Remote working in particular has raised concerns around collaboration, with some people in the office and others at home. It could be easy to forget to include those at home in discussions that can happen around a desk in the office, but leaders cannot let this happen. Remote workers are as much a part of the team as everyone else, so effort must be taken to promote collaboration virtually as well as in person.
Measuring engagement by adding ‘collaboration’ to leaders’ objectives, as well as holding them accountable for the engagement of their teams, can help to identify any problem areas. Anonymous surveys can also be a useful way to gain honest feedback from the wider firm.
Preparing for the future
A bigger challenge comes in the form of future economic crises. Even at present, inflationary pressures are weighing heavily on many businesses, highlighting the need for agility in the current market. While the country appears to be going in the right direction regarding COVID-19 figures, the economic turmoil that the pandemic has created is unlikely to ease anytime soon.
Although it is difficult to think about, law firms must be prepared should an event such as another pandemic occur. Another slowdown of the economy on the back of the current turbulence would be a problem for many firms due to the transactional nature of the sector. Planning for the short-term as well as the long-term can help businesses to stay flexible and adapt their processes as needed, minimising the impacts of an economic downturn.
The future of the legal sector will be defined by its approach to change management. Historically, transformation has been a slow process, but the pandemic has changed this. Of course, it is still important to ensure that teams are fully informed and have a say in the alterations being made, but recent times have proven that improvements can be made quickly and successfully. The sector must not waste the opportunities that the pandemic has provided to benefit both business processes and our people.
Sarah Walker-Smith, CEO
60 Gracechurch St, London EC3V 0HR
Tel: +44 0121 237 3013
Sarah Walker-Smith is the CEO of law firm Shakespeare Martineau and professional services group Ampa. She was the first female non-lawyer CEO in the legal top 50 and was recently named as the UK’s most influential legal leader on social media. Sarah is also a governor at Nottingham Trent University, a member of the Society of Leadership Fellows at St George’s House and is on the board of the West Midlands CBI Council, as well as non-exec chair of Radikl, a scale-up business supporting female entrepreneurs’ growth and success to investment funds.
Shakespeare Martineau is a full-service UK law firm with more than 900 staff across its offices in Sheffield, Lincoln, Nottingham, Leicester, Birmingham, London, Milton Keynes, Stratford-upon-Avon, Solihull and Glasgow. The firm provides legal services to companies, organisations, government departments, families and individuals in life and in business.