But the availability of alternative business structure (ABS) status and the actual or threatened entry of new competition has focused minds, and in some cases becoming an ABS has proved of direct value.
These are some of the conclusions of the latest Legal Futures Special Report, Innovation Nation, published today in association with Thomson Reuters, which examines the trends driving change among SME law firms. It can be downloaded or viewed online here.
Innovation in this context, the report concludes, requires “an acceptance that the tried-and-trusted methods of practising law are not necessarily optimal – for clients, for staff and for partners/owners alike. It is a willingness to try new approaches and accept that not all of them will succeed.
“It is an appreciation that those without legal qualifications have a valuable role to play in developing legal practice, and that the old view that you were either a fee-earner or a fee-drainer has long had its day”.
The report also highlights the central role technology is having, with firms using it either to improve what is already in place today – what has been described as ‘mess for less’ – or to enable the delivery of services in new ways.
But while there was an acceptance that lawyers have only scratched the surface of what technology has to offer, law remains as much art as science – technology only takes us so far. Where the trends of technology and business structures are pushing us is to focus brains on the real legal work, not the process that can just as efficiently be handled by less-qualified staff or advanced systems.
The report concludes: “The innovators recognise these shifts – for those who do not, a rude awakening may not be far away.”
Chris Jeffrey, head of strategy for SME law firms at Thomson Reuters, said “innovation is not driven by structure, but by culture”.
He highlighted the importance of firms using technology “that is intelligently combined with expertise and content, and delivered at the point of need in a lawyer’s workflow”, and of improving efficiency.
He added: “Innovation and efficiency aside, the firms prospering today are the ones putting the client at the centre of everything they do. This came across loud and clear from the roundtable discussion: with a typically broad workload, firms need to focus on what will make a real difference to the way they serve clients.”