Bridging the cultural gap

Blog posted by Jonathan Cook, managing director of Legal Futures Associate Advantage Consulting

Cook: Two distinct approaches to practice

Over the Christmas break while relaxing, I decided that while the country was settled and quiet, it would be a perfect time to catch up on a few stories from the legal sector to see how the profession was coping.

There were some interesting articles: a firm fined because it had allowed £700,000 of unpaid disbursements to build up, a firm that kept more than £1m in its client account without any underlying legal transactions, a firm suing departing ex-members for £1.2m, and a solicitor charged with attempted murder.

Also, and guaranteed to get many readers’ hackles up, an item on the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) meeting every target in a glowing end-of-year assessment from the Legal Services Board.

All of this is against a backdrop of significant challenges caused by the likes of the upcoming personal injury reforms, court delays, and conveyancing backlogs due to volume of work ahead of the stamp duty holiday closing.

It’s a difficult time, for sure, and you see, in very broad terms, two distinct approaches to it: the traditional and the modern.

Let’s be frank. Some of the old guard are not necessarily at work because of a love of practising law, but because it funds a lifestyle to which they are accustomed and brings them respect and satisfaction. Or because they don’t play golf. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this.

The daily stresses of dealing with client matters have become the life blood that keeps them going until the point they can no longer physically continue, or they sell up. In some instances, however, it is because of the long hours and strained relationships that many put themselves through that they baulk at the valuations on their businesses.

But what many forget is that being trained solicitors does not automatically make you a good businessperson. In our experience, many do not understand, or simply do not want to acknowledge, the factors and variables upon which another firm will buy them out.

Less important are the past victories and legal complexities of current matters; rather, potential buyers are looking at the work in progress and the processes and tools a practice has which will facilitate a smooth transition.

When this is pointed out to some, they complain about the demise in standards and the dissolution of the partnership structure. Yet they still view the selling decision as a means to enhance their take-home remuneration.

For those lawyers and firms that are still moving forward with momentum and a wish to embrace change, many face their own problems, such as working under the belief that their indemnity insurers will, and should, bail them out if anything goes wrong.

Few have a full understanding of their cover, the housekeeping clauses in the policy, and the issues where their insurer may legitimately refuse to cover a claim.

Many of these issues aren’t exclusive to the legal sector alone, but they are representative of the increasing ‘cultural gap’ between small and large practices, commercial and high street practices, and older and younger practitioners. There is an increasing divergence between more traditional firms and those with more innovative views.

That cultural gap is especially prevalent in the use of new legal technologies. Many of the more traditional firms do not understand what lawtech is, how it works for law firms and more importantly what it can offer their clients, especially when client care should be at the top of their agenda.

That is not to say that there are not very good, capable and committed solicitors in these more traditional firms. My point is more that the divergence of approach to client engagement, working practices and ways of undertaking basic legal work are so wide between the two types of practices that, for a prospective client, making comparisons is becoming more and more difficult.

Modern firms are not immune to these issues, but they are more willing and capable in adapting to new ideas, working methods and technology which arguably facilitate a more structured and therefore, more quality-driven and client-centred way of working.

As a client, I would rather trust a firm that can track and document every step of my matter than one that can’t.

Should it then be reasonable to expect the sector governing bodies, such as the SRA and the Law Society, to be more involved with an overarching approach to what the client should expect, how they are treated and engaged, what the common standards are in real-world situations and how law firms should align with technology for the next decade?

Until that happens, the front pages of legal sector publications might well continue to resemble the recent scenes on Capitol Hill.


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