Time to get off the dancefloor and embrace the ridiculous

Posted by Chris Marston, chief executive of Legal Futures Associate LawNet

Marston: The importance of interpersonal communications and connections

Spring is in the air, and our New Year resolutions should have formed learned behaviour by now, so where to focus our vision next?

Making sure we help our firms have a future-focused toolkit has been top of my list over recent months and, talking with the law firm leaders in our network, it’s interesting to see what they are prioritising.

While some of the usual regulatory suspects remain on their radar, they are focusing their energies on many less conventional aspects of leadership, embracing psychology and communication in ways that would have been unimaginable in a law firm of yesterday.

Looking at some of the more obvious headaches, there are several well-publicised changes on the way for the sector and one of those is GDPR. While I don’t underestimate the effect that this will have upon law firms, this is a reiteration of previous requirements and as a sector we have shown ourselves to be remarkably resilient at adapting to new regulatory environments over the years.

Something that is likely to have a more profound effect is the knock-on effect of the review into the legal services market by the Competition & Markets Authority. As a consequence, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will soon be mandating law firms to publish information on price and quality, the exact shape of which will be unveiled later this year following the recent consultation exercise.

We are concerned there is too much focus by the SRA on price over quality, and we addressed this in our response to the consultation. We are well equipped to speak on this, both as an interest group with a strong voice – representing more than £300m of turnover within the sector and around 2000 lawyers – and through our requirement for our members to achieve and maintain our ISO 9001 quality standard accreditation, which includes external assessment of customer service delivery.

The reason we introduced our excellence mark was to focus on enhancing the client experience, by helping our firms to identify and target areas for improvement, because quality is a differentiator, and this is what will deliver happy consumers, not a race to the bottom on price.

Other priorities, or challenges depending on your perspective, must include how tech will shape the future of legal services, as we all try to keep pace with fast-paced change in this area.

We established a technology innovation group last year and it’s been interesting to see how the group has honed its focus. The objective was to enable firms to explore opportunities for new technologies that will support future growth and performance improvement. We set up meetings with leading edge providers and thinkers in the field and now, the group is exploring co-operative approaches to AI implementation.

The group has cut through the hype to unravel practical ways in which they can harness technology to improve client outcomes, improve efficiency and reduce costs.

With issues like these to contend with, and so many surprises in politics, both at home and globally, we must be increasingly nimble in our thinking, ever faster to anticipate and adapt.

Some professionals may still be thinking that Brexit will not affect them, as their work is entirely domestic, but we are all reliant upon a healthy local economy, and we simply do not know yet how Brexit will impact domestically in the medium to long term.

Uncertainty in the world is helping to shape changing behaviour and expectation among clients and employees. Clients are no longer happy to wait for attention. They demand services on their terms.

Employees, whether lawyers or other staff, are telling us that they value quality of life over promotion and partnership status. We’ve seen a breakdown of trust, in our political leaders and also in commerce and the professions.

We’ve been working with leaders in our member firms to review how we can best support them in developing the dynamic of a customer-centric firm built around engaged employees. As well as looking at new ways of approaching leadership, we’ve been considering the part played by factors such as emotional literacy and trust.

Drawing on a range of expert insights in these areas has introduced some fascinating new angles into the debate and the keynote speakers at our last conference included a global futurist and leadership expert, a behavioural psychologist, and a top-rated academic in the HR field who is also a member of the government’s task force on employee engagement.

Running through all these speeches at our conference was a strong message about the importance of interpersonal communications and connections in our everyday professional and business lives, and the need to appreciate the social wi-fi that connects us all.

Modern law firm leaders must understand the drivers of individual, team and organisational behaviour if they want to develop organisational resilience.

The importance of “stepping off the dance floor and looking at the view from the balcony”, as one of our speakers put it, is vital; but then you need to have the flexibility of outlook to be able to change tack and respond to what’s coming up.

Cognitive flexibility and getting the best from your brain is an essential part of successful leadership, along with being curious and willing to ask the big questions, and being prepared to focus on the transformational change needed to create a culture of trust.

As Keith Coats, our global futurist speaker, said: “Any useful idea about the future is likely to appear ridiculous. But not every ridiculous idea is useful.”

Yes, we need the right filters, but we must be prepared to take apparently ridiculous ideas to the board, if we are to be disruptive.

We film the keynote speakers at our conference each year, so delegates can reinforce their learning and share the key messages within their own teams. After this year’s event, we asked the delegates – all senior people in our member firms – to feed back the most important lessons they drew from it, and what they would be looking to build upon within their firm over the coming year.

The findings make interesting reading, as the message that most resonated was the need to improve emotional literacy – for themselves as leaders, and more broadly within their firms. This is a significant shift for a sector usually characterised by its focus on the factual.

Running a close second in the list of priorities, our members said they would be focusing much more on their leadership style and techniques, and would be looking out from the balcony with the objective of challenging their thinking and any limiting orthodoxies.

One thing is clear: to be successful in what lies ahead, law firm leaders, and all the people within their firms, must learn to deal with complexity, uncertainty and constant change.

It’s time to switch on your radar, be curious, ask questions, spend time on the balcony – and come up with some ridiculous ideas…

If you’d like to engage with the concepts covered at our last LawNet conference, just email me at cmarston@lawnet.co.uk Our regular Insight thought leadership newsletter will be expanding on the conference topics throughout this year. In the meantime, if you’d like to get the flavour of the big issues we tackled, click here to watch our three-minute conference reel on YouTube.

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