I read with great interest the recent report entitled The New World of Legal Work, by Jordan Furlong, commissioned by legal resourcing business Lawyers on Demand. Jordan is a highly respected international legal market commentator and his material always makes engaging and thought-provoking reading.  I regard Jordan’s work as realistic and pragmatic rather than “futurology” for the sake of it, of which there is no shortage around social media channels.  I highly recommend a read of the report if you haven’t already and also Jordan’s blog.

The rise of agility

One of the striking conclusions of the report is the anticipated rise of what is described as the “agile workforce”.  This is essentially a shift from both organisations and individuals toward more flexible working models, enabling individuals to dictate how, when and from where they market and deliver their services while organisations have access to a greater degree of flexible resource, enabling the reduction of fixed overheads without reducing capability.

From a legal marketplace perspective this makes eminent sense.  The combination of a highly competitive market and increasingly savvy pool of buyers continues to build the pressure on the dysfunctional partnership structure and the moribund hourly billing model on which it relies.

Does this all sound familiar ?

What struck me in particular was the similarity of the “agile” model of the future to the characteristics of the barristers’ chambers, a model which was conceived in the 13th century.  To this day, the chambers model successfully provides a zero-overhead, low-cost, flexible and scalable service to law firms and end clients.  It also provides a flexible work option for independently minded individuals to (using Jordan’s phrase) forge their own paths in any direction they like.  It ticks all of the “agile” boxes.

An obvious example of the success of the chambers model is advocacy.  Many less than auspicious attempts by law firms to build advocacy departments have highlighted the challenges.  How do you achieve the right level of resource to cope with unpredictable  and fluctuating volumes of work, requiring a diverse range of specialist skills without running the risk of expensive under utilization ?  Additionally, a specialist discipline like advocacy requires constant practice in order to be executed efficiently. Those who practice advocacy only occasionally will tell you how disproportionately time-consuming it is to prepare for even the most straightforward court hearing.

The agile model is, I suggest, already a proven one. The question now is how applicable it is to other disciplines within legal practice.  Jordan suggests several categories of possibility including solo niche specialist (of which the Bar is an example in my view), high-calibre project lawyer, flex time contract lawyer with emerging specialities and legal procedural wizard.

Challenges

There are several challenges to overcome in order for this approach to work successfully. The first is managing availability.  The whole point of the arrangement from a buyer perspective is flexibility.  An individual lawyer has only so many hours in the day, so inevitably will not have sufficient capacity to meet the demands of many clients.  A buyer will want seamless access to a reliable resource of sufficient capacity, without the need to make numerous enquiries to see who is available every time a requirement arises.

From the provider perspective, every opportunity turned away due to overcapacity creates the risk of the buyer going elsewhere and not coming back.  The answer to this commercial vulnerability would lie in practitioners forming groups, enabling them to cope with capacity issues without letting opportunities “escape” elsewhere. But inevitably there will be opportunities which escape an individual but remain within the group.  To whom does the next opportunity from that client go and why ? How formal or informal does the group structure need to be ?  These questions point to a strong need for an expert, trusted manager and gatekeeper for the group.

This leads to the next challenge, which is perception.  A buyer of legal services from a group will want to be assured uniformity of service standards, expertise and approach.   Failure to achieve this is a regularly reported shortcoming of existing providers of all forms. Achieving this in a group relies upon clear understanding and alignment within the group. These things don’t happen by themselves, particularly in a collection of independent-minded practitioners.  Skillful leadership, management and investment of time (and money) is needed to articulate the required messages both internally and externally and to ensure they are continually reinforced and translated into practice in a manner that meets the image projected.

This is, of course, essentially what is known as branding.  In my view its significance has been hugely underestimated in the legal sector for many years, which is why very few legal organisations seem to get it right (even within the current predominantly fixed structures: agile structures promise to be even more challenging).

To the 21st century

In my view, the agile model outlined in Jordan’s report represents an accurate and realistic reflection of where a large part of the market needs to go in order to remain effective and commercially viable through increasingly challenging conditions.  We are already seeing it gain momentum through legal resourcing businesses (such as the commissioner of the report – others are available …).  But with a shift in this direction comes a heavier reliance by lawyers on having people around them with expertise in non-legal disciplines.

In my view, the scarcity value of leadership and management prowess will soon be recognized as exceeding that of pure legal expertise.  This might prove to be a difficult view for traditional lawyers to accept, but to me it marks a necessary step forward for the legal industry in order to retain its strong foothold in the economic landscape of the 21st century.  Oh how things have moved on since the 13th …