24 Hours

Jordan Furlong: ‘We Don’t Run This Show Anymore’

Posted Oct 15, 2009 4:00 PM CDT
By Jordan Furlong

Jordan Furlong

The single biggest challenge facing lawyers today is dealing with loss of control. The profession’s future success depends on how well lawyers adapt to that loss and adjust our expectations and behavior.Clients, especially the corporate and institutional kind, are stronger and more sophisticated than they’ve ever been, while even consumer clients are walking into lawyers’ offices armed with information obtained free from Google Esq. They’re confident, they’re demanding, and they expect full access to continuous information about their matter and its cost. The day of the dependent client is ending.

Competition is surging over the profession’s traditional barriers and loosening lawyers’ longstanding grip on the legal services marketplace. Document-assembly technology is the latest product to cut wide swathes through consumer practice, while corporate firms are still digesting Rio Tinto’s decision to send $100 million worth of work per year to India.

Regulation is number three with a bullet. The UK’s Legal Services Act and its non-lawyer ownership provisions ensure that by 2011, UK lawyers will be giving up control of their firms – literally. North America likely won’t see that kind of drastic change, but the increasing inability of the working and middle class to afford any but the most rudimentary legal services means that the Unauthorized Practice of Law could be a memory by the end of this decade.

Across the board, lawyers are losing the control we’ve long assumed we exercised over the provision of legal services, and over the clients to whom they’re provided. Lawyers won’t be the only or perhaps even the primary providers of legal services.

Lawyers can thrive in this environment only if we shift the focus from ourselves to our clients – and if we shake off this odd idea that we’re entitled to anything by virtue of our membership in the bar. We don’t run this show anymore. We’re only a part of it, one set of providers among many. How big a part depends on how well we:

• Make demonstrable client value the cornerstone of business development practices.

• Use technology and business processes to rationalize and streamline workflow and to outsource tasks to the most cost-effective and competent sources available.

• Adapt our business practices to introduce transparency and predictability to pricing.

• Use extranets to give clients 24/7/365 access to their work and bills in progress.

• Recruit talent for client and business skills and retain it with structured training and development.

• Reward partners who display leadership, provide mentorship, and deliver client satisfaction.

• Try to forget that anything lawyers do was ever measured and billed in six-minute increments.

Above all: we need to understand our place in this new market. We need to give up our inheritance of control and accept the leveling playing field. Lawyers can still dominate legal services delivery – but on the merits of our skill, professionalism, efficiency and client service, not on the fading influence of an historical de facto monopoly.

Jordan Furlong provides strategic and tactical advice to lawyers as partner with global consultancy Edge International. He is also a senior consultant providing media and communications consulting at Stem Legal. He writes about the extraordinary changes underway in the legal marketplace at his blog Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink.

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