Can you describe what it is that your business doesn’t do? This is not a question that always sits comfortably with traditional ‘full service’ law firms, yet it seems to be increasingly important in our rapidly changing legal marketplace.
Commercial clients have been aware for a long time that sourcing all their legal needs from a single source – traditionally, a large law firm – is unlikely to be the most effective approach. With options widening, they are now asking whether a single legal model can provide all the solutions or, indeed, whether some legal tasks need law firms at all.
As clients begin to separate how the various elements of their legal work are resourced, there are multiple alternatives available to them. For the highly complex bespoke work, traditional law firms are still likely to provide an unparalleled service. But, for other more standard or business-as-usual work, there are plenty of other options, from legal process outsourcing (also known as legal services outsourcing or LSO) to relocating work (Belfast, anyone?) to utilising interim freelance lawyers. The latter is the model of the Lawyers on Demand (LOD) business that I co-founded at Berwin Leighton Paisner. All these new options are lending a new dynamism to legal services, but they also require the providers of the services to be clear to clients about what it is that they do – and what it is that they don’t do.
Meeting an industry need
Although it would be easy to say otherwise now, none of that was consciously on my mind when we started LOD three years ago. It was formed in recognition of two trends in the market, with the intention of bringing them together and providing them with the necessary glue.
The first of those trends was the increasing number of quality lawyers who did not wish to work within the traditional legal models, be that following the quest for partnership or embracing the hierarchy of an in-house team, and were happy to work on a ‘freelance’ basis. The second trend was one that I’ve already touched upon – it was clear that clients had certain work that did not require the traditional construct of a large commercial law firm and yet needed quality lawyers.
The intention of LOD was to marry these two elements and also to support the relationship between the client and the freelance lawyers on our team. The LOD team has since grown from a pilot scheme involving nine freelance lawyers to a team of around 80, with clients ranging from major retail banks to national newspapers to global technology businesses.
LOD is a new model so we have had to be very clear with clients exactly what it is we can do and what we can’t. What the service does not replace is the capability of a large law firm when dealing with a cross-disciplinary or multijurisdictional transaction – that’s just not what the solution is designed for. Where LOD comes into its own, however, is where the task at hand is something that could conceivably be done by a client’s own in-house team if only that team had the right number of people, the right person available, or the right area of expertise. In that scenario, LOD allows in-house teams to flex their size to include that additional person or additional expertise, just for the time that they need them.
That said, clarity over what we do and what we don’t do wasn’t at the forefront of our minds when we started LOD. However, it quickly became clear just how important those questions are. With the right approach, all this can be good news for the economics of large law firms too. DLA Piper’s recent announcement that it was to work only with clients that were prepared to commit a certain spend was a nod to deciding ‘what they don’t do’. The UK’s Magic Circle firms have been clear for years that there are certain types of legal work that are just not in their domain, even if that work is for a FTSE ı00 client.
It may have been the recession that accelerated the disaggregation of legal services in this way, but, whichever way the economy moves, it seems too late for this trend to reverse. In a few more years, we can expect a whole host of services and resourcing options in the legal marketplace with ever-narrowing slices of what it is that they do.
Lawyers on Demand co-founder Simon Harper is a partner at international law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner
This article first appeared in Legal Strategy Review, issue 7