Epidemic structural and cultural issues are shackling the potential of General Counsel and commercial firms alike. Institutionalised time-based billing methods are a source of shared frustration, and there is much to be said for how generational change and emerging technologies might affect this highly-strung ecosystem.
Unfortunately, too much of this conversation is being held in whispered tones, which does little to generate impetus for change. Connect Media and VARIO FROM PINSENT MASONS decided to gather leading General Counsel from all sectors of the national economy to spark a constructive and candid dialogue in the hope of creating this change momentum.
Over twenty executives converged for a transparent look at how these different cultural forces and corporate structures interplay, and to consider what must be done to forge a bright new future for the profession as a whole.
No-one is suffering under the illusion that time-based billing methods are a perfect solution. But to this day there has been a lack of creativity amongst law firms, and a lack of bravery from clients, to disrupt costings. Exponential technologies are giving technology players a competitive foothold in the legal sphere, and this institutional complacency may prove dangerous as the industry is disrupted.
Time-based billing is not a rallying cry, neither inspiring innovation nor aspiring to productivity. It will come as no surprise to hear that time-based billing is also not particularly popular:
The fatigue surrounding time-based billing is colouring the very nature of relationships between law firms and clients. Reducing everything to a measure of time is inherently transactional – more must be done to create true relationships where firms and clients are each invested in the other’s success.
There is a distinct opportunity for firms to approach clients with a different mentality, to say:
Trust and experience are already critical determinants in a client’s choice of firm – costings must evolve to support this sentiment.
In popular social discourse, Generation Y and Z are seen as great harbingers of change. In many cases, this characterisation is well-founded; younger minds bring a new perspective to existing business assumptions, challenging conventional wisdom by asking ‘why’ when others have been content to stay the course. However, this challenger mentality is not being witnessed to the same degree in the legal sphere.
As it stands, those entering the legal workforce are accepting the commercial models that are presented before them. This is, of course, understandable; the structures in question are so deeply entrenched that to attempt to dismantle them from the bottom up would in many cases be seen as laughable.
The responsibility then lies with leaders of the profession to consider new ways of working that will be not only advance commercial outcomes for clients and providers alike, but which will allow for a cultural pivot towards a healthier and more sustainable place of work.
That is not to say that there is not a distinct mindset shared among younger professionals. One attendee captured this shift in attitude with a touch of flair;
To serve and sustain this feeling of community and successfully integrate Generations Y and Z into the workforce, younger professionals must be treated and engaged as valued members of the team. Assigned tasks must carry real weight and be of tangible value to instil a sense of ownership and accountability.
It is this ownership that breeds empowerment and engagement, replacing the shared sentiment of being stranded with prospects for advancement. Of course, not everyone can end up in a leadership role, but that is not to say this is not an admirable goal, and one that drives employees to complete their best possible work.
Attention must also be given to the optics and cultural side effects of flexible workplace practices.
Flexibility relies on accessibility and communication – in theory, location inhibits neither in our age. There is, however, a fine balance between operating remotely and with autonomy, and having a shared identity as part of a team. This balance must be found and driven from the top-down to create an effective flexible workplace culture.
It is all too easy to be alarmist when projecting the trajectory of technological disruption. The legal operations role is gathering serious momentum in Australia, and there is a tsunami of technology options broadcast as being reformative.
A modest forecast is that a part of the law will become automated. Non-lawyers are already entering the industry and leveraging artificial intelligence to claim the low-hanging fruit.
There is some reasonable fear that the elimination of high-volume, lower skill work will undermine the technical capabilities of developing lawyers, and this is a reality that firms should be prepared to confront. To counter, there is also reasonable cause for excitement, a sense of optimism for how an artificially augmented legal workforce may operate.
The law is undoubtedly expanding. Entire new fields will be created, and regulation is already outpacing practitioners. Law firms therefore cannot afford to be static; they must continue to modernise and collaborate with clients to unlock new efficiencies. A measured approach is required to sift through the hype and adopt the most relevant solutions, whilst developing the capabilities to compete and lead in the age of artificial intelligence.
We live in volatile times. Artificial intelligence is intruding on industry, global powers have become increasingly adversarial, and the pressures placed on the planet itself are unsustainable. Predicting the future demands on in-house counsel in this tumultuous climate is something of an unknown. But we all have a perspective, and it is interesting and valuable to try.
As General Counsel look to navigate this uncertainty, the importance of engaging in continuous industry dialogue cannot be understated. Leading professionals around Australia are realising that maintaining a technical knowledge of the changing trends, threats and solutions in the legal arena bears heavily on corporate and personal success. VARIO FROM PINSENT MASONS and Connect Media will be continuing this series of executive conversations across Australia, empowering General Counsel to reach a new height of excellence.