The business of law isn’t what it was 12 months ago, and certainly not what it was a decade ago. Even before COVID-19 consumed our lives—both personal and professional—our work environments were changing. Since the pandemic struck, the economic climate has evolved in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Physical workplaces have been or will be transformed, and, in some cases, eliminated. Long-held assumptions about in-person meetings and interactions with clients are now being questioned. And despite the fact that the earliest article on the internet about the death of the billable hour was written in 1993, there is more conversation around it now than ever before.
Clients in 2021 seek, above all else, exceptional value for their investment, and lawyers face increasing competition not just from traditional rivals, but also digital DIY providers that have commoditized many services traditionally offered by teams at brick-and-mortar law firms, and doing it at a predictable price.
To survive in this new marketplace, firms must be flexible, efficient, cohesive, and highly effective. They must be innovative, and willing to reinvent themselves in order to stand out from the herd, both from a sales and a recruitment perspective. While the ad hoc strategies we used to survive the early days of the pandemic were necessary stopgap measures, setting the stage for success in 2021 will take a more holistic approach—one that acknowledges and addresses the equally important roles of people, process, and technology.
A rising tide: pre-COVID-19 pressures to evolve
In the early months of 2020, stay-at-home orders in response to rising COVID-19 infections forced businesses in all sectors to either adapt or shutter. But even before the coronavirus arrived on U.S. shores, legal organizations were facing a rising tide of pressure to change.
Employees—both current and prospective—were seeking more flexibility in how, when, and where they would perform their work, and an explosion of available tools and technology to support remote work was making it more difficult for firms to ignore the stark differences between their rigid in-office environments and the more flexible ones enjoyed by employees in other industries.
Responding to the COVID-19 tidal wave
When the pandemic arrived, it simply added urgency to an already pressing need to rebuild the legal workplace and rethink service delivery. This urgency, however, prevented firms from much of the planning and consideration that would normally go into such significant changes. Forced to shift overnight to fully remote work, firms found themselves facing unforeseen challenges and roadblocks—largely centered around their technology stacks.
In many cases, technology decisions designed to enable remote work were made largely in a vacuum or with a “path of least resistance” mindset. New or different systems and software were introduced into inherently inefficient processes without much thought, and employees who were already working inefficiently continued to create bottlenecks—now without the support of in-person colleagues. In the interest of survival, firms applied quick fixes or swept problems like these under the rug, convinced that a return to “normal” was just around the corner.
Now, a year later, firms find themselves facing the difficult realities that not only may “normal” not be in our immediate futures, it may not be worth returning to. Employees’ lives have changed dramatically, and their enthusiasm for the kinds of highly structured work environments we were accustomed to pre-COVID-19 has been dampened. Online providers have flourished in this year of no-contact service delivery, and firms are looking for ways to reduce their operating costs while improving the level of service and convenience they’re able to offer their clients.
So… where does your firm go from here?
Rebuilding for profit in 2021
While the lessons of 2020 were hard to swallow, the state in which we find ourselves now—aware that change is necessary, albeit difficult, and more willing to embark on the kinds of introspection needed to ensure that the adjustments we make in 2021 are the right kinds of changes for the long term—presents a unique opportunity.
We can shift out of firefighting mode and into innovation mode. We can be proactive, explore new opportunities, and find ways to build a better mousetrap (rather than simply adding more cheese to the one we have). We can rebuild our firms for maximum profit by addressing not just the ways in which we use our technology, but also the critical roles of people and process within our organizations.
Attracting and retaining the right people is critical to profitability. “Work” has become what people do, not where they go. The old ways of thinking about productivity (e.g., that seeing someone working at a desk in your physical office equals meaningful activity) have been proven wrong. And while some in leadership positions refuse to accept remote work as anything other than temporary, employees who have finally enjoyed the flexibility they always knew they wanted but never thought they could have do not want to give it back.
Rebuilding for long-term success requires a new perspective on productivity. We must find ways to measure the work of our people that go beyond the physical chairs in which they sit. Further, we must acknowledge that in-depth and ongoing training is critical to performance—and even more important when staff are working remotely. Focus your recruitment and retention efforts in 2021 on building a strategy that provides maximum flexibility and ample opportunities for professional development.
How you get your work done matters. For too long, we have accepted inefficient processes so long as tasks are eventually completed. Achieving optimal profitability requires removing bottlenecks, eliminating redundancy, and streamlining workflows across your organization. The current remote or hybrid work environment provides an excellent opportunity to look at your processes afresh.
Documenting processes is a great place to start, but be sure that your documentation reflects the ways the work is really done, not the ways you wish it were done. Only then will you be able to identify opportunities for improvement. While a number of applications can help you with process documentation (e.g., Trainual or Process Street), you can also just start with a Word document. Don’t let overengineering stand in the way of progress.
Employees need proper technology at home, which means it’s time to carefully reconsider your budgets for home office equipment. It’s also time to accept that a cloud strategy is essential—no matter what your firm’s size. Recognize that your cloud strategy isn’t complete until absolutely everything you need or create in the course of your business lives somewhere other than your physical office.
Replace old, unsupported software that is no longer serving you, but understand that implementing new software is the beginning of a journey, not a destination. Ideally, your software ROI should increase year after year. To ensure that it does, you should be taking advantage of each and every feature that could help you run your firm more efficiently and, in turn, more profitably. Leveraging your software to its potential means continually investing time in training.
Taking your first step
Ultimately, you know that if you want to rebuild for maximum profitability, you have to start somewhere. Identifying your current challenges is a great place to begin. Ask people: What are the five things that take longer than they should… or cause the greatest amount of grief and frustration… ? Then start there. Having a simple list of challenges to tackle allows you to prioritize them and begin to address those challenges first that will provide the most “bang for your buck” down the road.
About the Author
Debbie Foster is the managing partner of Affinity Consulting Group, a law firm management consulting firm. She is a nationally recognized thought leader on efficiency and innovation in professional legal organizations, with more than 25 years of experience working with law firms and legal departments.