“Partnership is dying” as law firms need greater agility

Bull: Innovation needs to be part of firms’ DNA

“Partnership is dying” as a model for new law firms, though it remains “an option”, a law firm management expert has said.

Chris Bull, a consultant at Edge International UK, also said lawyers were leaving fee-earning roles for tech roles where they could develop new products.

Mr Bull, a former CEO of Bristol-based Osborne Clarke, said there were now a “constellation of business models” for law firms to choose from, and more law firms were limited companies than partnerships.

“If you were setting up a new business now, you wouldn’t set up a partnership. Partnerships are dying. It’s still an option, but it’s not the default or predominant option.”

Speaking at the inaugural Law Firm Ambition conference in London, Mr Bull said that looking forward to the 2030s, there was “a lot of uncertainty about what the world will look like, what business will look like and what law firms will look like”.

He went on: “Agility will be crucial. A lot of organisations, not just law firms, are going to have to be a lot more agile. If you’re not agile you won’t be here in 2030.”

Mr Bull said he was “frustrated a little bit” by the “remnants of exclusivity and exceptionality” that law firms still preserved, for example in saying something would be “OK for accountants” but law firms were different.

“Every business does something different. This exceptionality has been massively eroded. We need to look outside the legal world to find out how we are going to operate in the future.”

Mr Bull predicted that Generation Z [people aged from 10-26] would have “more influence on how we work than any previous generation”.

The way they “don’t seem to want to do what we want to do” frustrated a lot of senior people in the law, as in other businesses, he acknowledged.

He added that there had been a “power shift” in the relationship between large companies and law firms in the past decade, with companies assuming a “much stronger” position as buyers of legal services.

Meanwhile, he said legal technology roles were “often the in-demand roles, with lawyers converting from fee-earning roles to tech roles where they can develop products”.

Mr Bull, author of The Agile Law Firm, said the ‘agile methodology’ was “not new”, having been created by software developers in Utah 20 years ago, from where it had spread to the boardroom and was now used by the “businesses that dominate our lives”, such as Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

“We can’t just sit here and say we’re different. We’re still thinking with a 20th century mindset. What can we learn from it?”

Mr Bull said most agile firms had an “obsessive” focus on being client-centric, having empathy and understanding, and running a business based on what the clients want.

Agile firms were also “constantly innovating and improving”. Law firms were “worried about overloading people”, but innovation needed to be “normalised and part of their DNA”.

A third feature of agile firms was being “insight-driven” and “obsessed with data”. Law firms tended to be “more instinctive”, but without data and insight “we don’t know what is going on in this uncertain world”.

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