“Extraordinary things are happening” outside of traditional law firms

Hamilton: Be patient

Professor Richard Susskind’s claim that the current model of alternative legal services providers has not delivered and needs to be rethought is premature, the boss of Radiant Law has argued.

Alex Hamilton, a solicitor who has led the way in changing the delivery of commercial contracting, said “extraordinary things are already happening” but it took time to create the right structure.

Though the argument for vertically integrated legal services had merit, he continued, “you can’t build the law firm they [Professor Susskind and Neville Eisenberg] are describing starting with, well, a regular law firm”.

We reported recently that Professor Susskind and Mr Eisenberg – former chairman of Berwin Leighton – had argued that the horizontal disaggregation of legal work has not driven sufficient innovation in law firms and alternative providers.

In a much-discussed paper published by Harvard Law School, they said the idea that there was a layer of process-driven work that required little involvement of qualified lawyers had turned out to be “an oversimplification”.

This led to a vertical way of looking at legal work instead. “The idea here is that all legal matters require a mix of legal expertise, legal experience, and process, even if the great bulk of human hours spent are on the process component.

Mr Hamilton, who launched Radiant Law a decade ago, said existing law firms could not be transformed in this way.

“To make it work, you need to radically change how lawyers operate, the incentives that apply and how decisions are made, but partnership models are perfectly designed to protect the current power structure and resist change, with the most successful under the old model holding the reins,” he wrote on LinkedIn.

Traditional lawyers at law firms “literally have no clue how to make everyday contracting (our speciality) go fast”, he said.

“We now generally hire only junior lawyers because it is too hard to reprogram senior lawyers who tend not to take it well when you explain that pretty much everything that they have learned to date from their firms is wrong.”

Traditional law firms were “structured for the bespoke and are in no rush to do anything” – they took at least two days just to complete a conflict check, he said – and were not “optimised for cooperation”.

“They are optimised for autonomy of partners. Good luck telling them that they all have to work in the same way, a fundamental for doing routine work. Good luck getting them to switch to fixed fee only and ditching time sheets (despite being talked about for decades, can you name one large firm that has done it?).”

Radiant Law is now 10 years old and Mr Hamilton said it was built on the idea that, to solve clients’ demands, “we needed to pull together into one place legal judgement calls, [legal process outsourcers’] process capabilities and tech skills.

“It also had to be fixed price to align incentives with the client and we had to take technology and knowledge management seriously, and it would help to be a law firm.”

But the question, Mr Hamilton said, was why Radiant was not larger (it currently has around 50 staff). “The authors have a point that scale is an excellent indication of successfully meeting demand. And my best answer is: be patient.”

The solicitor explained that it had taken several years to create “a new kind of business structure”.

“Radiant Law is a company, so no partners and a simple management structure. The executive committee only has four members with marketing, sales, delivery and business services representatives.

“We are ‘flat-ish’. Our organisational chart is just a big circle underneath the executive committee and we push down decision making and responsibility as far as possible. Official reporting lines for the team are to the relevant executive committee member – there is no other management layer and a strong emphasis on self-management.

“We don’t have timesheets and don’t reward on hours. Bonuses are an automatic 10% paid to everyone… We prioritise cooperation over control or autonomy.”

Mr Hamilton went on: “We don’t really talk about lawyers internally (nor do we use the innovation word much). There are individuals who deliver matters and they work with developers who do software and a data analyst who analyses data and legal engineers who help automate things.

“If you need help from others, just ask on Slack. We have account leads and project leads and whatever leads, rather than managers (outside excom). Your responsibilities come from the particular hat you are wearing at that moment in time, not a rank.”

Further, Radiant Law was only the second UK law firm to become a B Corporation – a socially responsible approach to business –  and Mr Hamilton said about 20% of time was spent on “continuous improvement”.

“I believe that the structure and culture that we have created at Radiant Law is foundational to actually delivering truly differentiated and improved services for our clients, and I don’t think we could have gotten here by transforming a traditional firm.”

This has all meant that the firm has set and met a target of turning around 75% of matters – either new contracts or those coming back from the other side – in just half a day.

“The best service levels offered in the market as far as we are aware is two days (and many can’t meet that – remember those two-day conflict checks before the law firm teams can even start?),” he said.

He concluded: “While I welcome the authors’ argument that we need lawyers, I believe that extraordinary things are happening already, and that scale will come. It just takes time to build the right solution. Patience!”

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