Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Heads, Sand, Ostriches and all that....


A short article by John Hyde in the Law Society Gazette last week Prepare for 50% fee cuts, Says 'end of lawyers' professor produced the expected wide range of opinion on the predictions of Professor Robert Susskind. In the article Hyde outlines how Susskind, in an address to the Law Society Management Conference, warned that the economic climate will force clients to seek out firms that embrace the technological advances available in the legal profession  to enable them to reduce their legal costs. Susskind argued that bosses of both small and large companies will seek to reduce their legal spend by 50% over the next five years, as they look for ways of gaining 'more for less' through new pricing structures. Susskind went on to argue that there would be casualties amongst smaller firms and sole practitioners unless they are prepared to embrace new technologies, but for those prepared to embrace the new models, opportunities abound.

So no surprise that the first three comments added by readers in the comments section at the end of the article, covered all bases of opinion about Susskind's predictions. One said he was wrong, one said he was right and one said that some predictions would come true whilst others would not!

There were though other contributors whose comments really struck a chord.  One contributor suggested that whilst lawyers are very quick to pick up on new principles, they tended to want to use them straight away and where non technical skills were concerned, they were unlikely to be put into practice unless there was a real mindset that the firm was committed to change. Another suggested that those that really needed to adopt Susskind's suggestions probably would not until it was too late hoping perhaps that if they were of a certain age, they could get through to retirement without having to change their working practices.

In the area that I practised in throughout my career (claimant PI derived mainly from RTA) huge swathes of changes are about to land upon the profession. Yet I see a great deal of ostrich like behaviour - whole banks of paralegals covering several or more office floors, secretarial staff scurrying around all over the place, a limited use of technology ('we've got a website and PC's - what more do we need?') and partners uttering; 'Don't panic Captain Mainwaring' to anyone who dares question; 'What will happen come April 2013?'

I am sure that I do many firms a disservice, but similarly across a wider spectrum of firms other than the RTA/PI brigade, there seems to be the mentality that 'everything will be all right', that the solicitor is still, along with the mayor, the accountant, the doctor, and the bank manager (where are THEY now?), the respected pillar of every towns community and therefore for that reason the work will still flow and the public and business community will still pay THOSE fees.

I find myself with the good professor on this one. Fixed fee structures will become increasingly attractive and even the norm. Firms like the hugely innovative Riverview Law, based on the Wirral, are leading the way. Technology is available to help all firms achieve the aim of lowering fees - for small to medium firms as well as the big boys and girls. Putting together a carefully structured plan to introduce the right technology and the accompanying cost of the initial outlay, should not put off implementing what are likely to prove life saving changes.

I am similarly dismayed by how relatively few firms have a credible online presence or use social media as a major part of their marketing strategy. For smaller firms in particular this is a low cost means of getting themselves out to the public. Perhaps it is because many of them see Social Media as nothing but a talking shop for teenagers or a place for celebrities to stroke their egos - certainly not a place for any respectable member of the legal profession to be seen. Wake up people. I was recently back in my home town in the north for the funeral of my aunt and got into discussion with my cousin, whom I had not seen for many years. He has been a self employed electrician for many years and when I asked him how business was, he told me that it was steady, but that whilst he got a good deal of repeat business from the older generation, new business from the younger generation was pretty much non existent. When I went on to ask him if he had an online presence; website, Social Media etc, he confirmed what I had thought - that he hadn't. Nothing at all.

My work involves many hours of trawling through cyberspace looking at solicitors websites or in many cases seeking them out without success. Some that do have them, well, might as well have not bothered. There are some truly awful ones out there - in many cases, they probably would be better off not bothering at all.  As for Social Media or blogging - erm, what's that?

There are those too, who know in their heart of hearts that Social Media is the way forward. So they set up Facebook and Twitter pages and even a blog too. They make a couple of posts and then... nothing. The surge of enthusiasm that led them to set everything up, wanes as the realisation dawns that this is something that needs to be worked on on a regular basis. Other, 'more important' matters take over and hence there are endless pages on Twitter or Facebook that have not been used since 2010. What was that that Susskind said about countering the mindset that 'we think we can take on a new discipline over a weekend'?

I know only too well that running a small or medium sized practice is more than a full time occupation. Getting a meaningful days work done amongst all the other distractions can be difficult enough without thinking about marketing the practice or looking at ways that technology can help on an administrative level. I also know from experience, that for partners and  senior members of staff, delegating to others within the firm can  be a huge psychological barrier to overcome, let alone delegating to an outside agency. There is though help at hand. I am not the only former practitioner who now plies his trade in assisting firms in marketing or advising on the new technology available on an administrative level. There are those of us, who have been in those shoes, but who have now got the advantage of having that huge weight of running a legal practice removed from their shoulders and from whom the dark glasses have been removed..and as the advert says 'The future is bright, the future is....' but only to those who make up their minds that it will be and do something about it!

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