ABA Journal

The New Normal

Successful law firms provide both proper environment and tech tools

By Randi Mayes

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Randi Mayes

Randi Mayes

The noble legal profession is notorious for its inability to move away from long-standing traditions. While many firms of all sizes experiment with new technologies, methodologies and business practices, the vast legal landscape can hardly be distinguished from itself two or more decades ago.

To see how little has changed, we need only look at the proclamation that “the billable hour is dead”—which has been echoing for many years. We hear the celebratory whoops of success now and then, but we more frequently see the data indicating little has changed.

In this era of the rise of the machine, one is left to wonder how the traditional law firm model will fare for lawyers and staff alike. A modern law firm intent on thriving will likely undergo changes large and small; and a firm that has a high probability of success has thrived in a culture of change that pushed them through the past two decades.

Before we can paint a picture of the 21st-century law firm’s technology landscape, we must focus on the drivers of success: culture, people and processes. Without the right environment in which to leverage technology, success will be accidental and nonrepeatable.


The term innovation sits in stark contrast to notions of tradition, hierarchy, repetition and perfection, all of which are part of the DNA of a law firm. A cultural shift is necessary to create the right environment in which entrepreneurship and innovation can be fostered.

A culture of innovation will drive creative approaches to service delivery that will drive business growth. Innovative firms have a deep focus on the client experience, empathetically embracing the client’s needs.

An innovative culture has no regard for rank or privilege, and it cares nothing for the concept of hierarchy so deeply rooted in traditional law firms. Rather, it creates opportunities where every voice is heard, where the freedom to fail is intrinsic, where department and practice silos are nonexistent, and where the strategic and business goals of the firm are understood, valued and moved forward by every employee. All with a single focus on better service to the client.

Knowledge-sharing isn’t a discreet discipline; it is part of the lifeblood of the firm.


Scouting, hiring and nurturing exceptional legal talent have long been goals of successful firms. The modern firm has the same desire for exceptional talent as it builds a professional staff who will direct and manage the firm’s business and support the practitioners. Savvy, agile, team-focused individuals who thrive in a culture of innovation and share the firm’s strategic vision and business direction will contribute to success.

The complexities and rapid rate of change of our technologies allow us to view human capital with a fresh eye—focusing less on traditional measures of education and experience (though those are important components), but with a stronger focus on mindset—aka attitude—and general flexibility, critically important attributes of engaged employees.

A collegial, collaborative culture requires collegial, collaborative people for sustainability and adaptability. By creating an environment that telegraphs strong support of personal and professional goals while placing value on family and leisure time, a firm will build a reputation that will attract the right people.

Nurturing all employees of a firm through ongoing education and support of peer networks will underscore the importance placed on the critical human element. The smart firm clears the path for its employees to connect with other smart people via professional associations and industry conferences.

As we increasingly see a world of phone-facing consumption of information, the value of real-life peer connections cannot be overstated. And the wider the network, the more learning opportunities exist. Peer connections across industries and across the globe are priceless.


With the right culture and people supporting it, a modern firm will examine its approach to process improvement. Many successful firms dedicate teams to continual examination and refinement of processes using Six Sigma, Agile or Lean disciplines. Absent this level of formality, a firm’s commitment to ensuring the most efficient, client-focused outcomes will drive success.

With the right culture of collaboration and inclusivity, continual improvement of processes occurs organically. Process improvement is aided by technology, and we’ll see the hot spots as we explore our tech landscape.


There is a scene in the original Star Wars where our soon-to-be heroes find themselves at the bottom of a garbage chute. When the compactor begins compressing their space, they struggle to stay on top of the heap. That scene can be reminiscent of how we’ve often dealt with technology, trying to separate the value from the junk and staying on top of it lest it crush us.

Technology should be used to solve a problem or make a process more efficient. And it should be utilized within intelligent processes by savvy people.

There is no perfect inventory of apps and gadgets that will ensure a firm’s success. Good technology is only part of the makeup of a good law firm.

Our modern law firm exploits the technology that supports the processes that aid the people who thrive in a culture of innovation, inclusion and knowledge-sharing. The obsolete garbage-mashers were shut down long ago.

Randi Mayes retired this year as executive director of the International Legal Technology Association, a position she had held since 1997. Law firm technologists Sheryl Dale, Gerry Heidenreich, Lyle McIntosh, Beth Patterson, David Roden and Barry Wheeler, who serve on ILTA’s program planning teams assisted in this article’s preparation.

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