In an Era of Rapid Technological Change in the Legal Market, Do Relationships Still Matter?
As technology continues to change every aspect of our lives, I often wonder what affect it will have on the lawyer/client relationship in the business world. Some experts say that technology will only improve efficiency in areas of service and delivery, while others say that technology will continue to dehumanize the client relationship.
When I first went in-house in the early 1990s, the in-house bar was relatively small and most of the complex non-commodity work was farmed out to outside law firms. I would spread the work around according to subject matter expertise and based on the relationships I had built up over the years. If it was a “bet-the-company” matter, I went to a top 10 law firm just to save my skin in the event we lost the case. But, for the most part, outside legal work was parceled out to lawyers whom I had a relationship with, got good results, and provided me with outstanding service. Over the years, many of these lawyers became very close friends, and we got know each other’s families.
Legal Operations & Tech Grows Up
Fast forward to today, and in-house lawyers are being constantly subjected to increasing scrutiny from the CFO and other bean counters who ask, “Why don’t you run your legal department like the rest of the company?” or “Where’s the project management, pricing, six sigma, and other business disciplines we use in other departments?” and “Why don’t you hire operational professionals to help you effectively manage your large (cost center) department?”
Not willing to totally let go of the purchasing decision, many general counsel reluctantly agree to a convergence process that may include an outside consultant, hired to advise the legal department about which firms get on the “preferred list”. And in many instances, it’s not the lawyers that the in-house team has developed deep relationships with over the years.
Operational efficiency and process improvement is how the business world works, and now these disciplines are sweeping through the legal market — both for law firms and corporate legal departments. Just witness the explosive growth of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and the high demand for professionals possessing knowledge management, data analytics, organizational design, pricing, and project management skills.
The Speed of Change
Everything is rapid today. A lawyer’s thoughts, analysis, solitude, and creativity is subject to the seductions of our engrossing digital life. The industrial revolution was supposed to enhance process improvement and eliminate waste; but now comes the digital revolution, connecting process efficiencies into professional services that minimize the human touch. Just as our doctors spend more time typing notes than listening to us, lawyers now are subject to immediate requests for responses on complex matters or forced into a pricing war on every matter. In our goal to be efficient, we have diluted common sense and thoughtful deliberation.
In addition to staying abreast of the law, lawyers now must become knowledgeable about CI (competitive intelligence), BI (business intelligence), AI (artificial intelligence), design thinking, and predictive analytics. Our dislike of these metric-like disciplines are what made most of us go to law school in the first place. All of these new legal buzzwords are enough to make us want to go cite-check an ERISA case. But no worries, because IBM Watson will do that, Alexa will soon be able tell us if someone is lying on the stand, and subpoenas will be served on defendants by drones, leaving us lawyers to contemplate more noble subjects like the true meaning of the universe or why we became lawyers in the first place.
What’s the Future of Relationships in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The new industrial era is being characterized by a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological sphere as well as the lines of established human interaction and relationships. Will technology obliterate the importance of lawyer/client interactions, disconnecting us from true meaning of being a “trusted adviser and counselor”? Or, is this simply an attack on the inefficiencies of the legal service delivery model? Maybe it’s both… but to me it’s still all about the client.
Nothing else matters.
Do clients still desire relationships where the outside lawyer serves as a trusted advisor who knows the client’s business, its competitive threats, industry, and corporate culture? Someone who will take the time to really listen and provide the support clients desperately want to experience.
Fortunately, the digital age will present lawyers with a host of new ideas to enrich the client experience. For example, technology that reduces costs, improves efficiencies, leverages networks, enhances communication, develops strategy, and overall solves client problems, provides solutions they need and want, when they want them, and in a manner that suits them.
After being on both sides of the attorney/client relationship for more than a quarter century, I believe that technology will never replace the comfort, trust, and human connection clients may get from knowing their attorney is looking out for them and has their back. Clients want to be treated in such a way that they feel good about themselves when they’re with you and to have their thoughts and beliefs validated. Tech can help, but never replace, that feeling.
However, this feeling cannot lead to technological complacency. No longer can outside counsel count on a continued relationship if they do not adjust to the financial, technological, and process pressures that in-house counsel face every day. The world is changing too fast — law firms that don’t get on board will be left behind.
Besides being smarter, more proactive, more efficient, diverse, and service-focused, outside counsel must, above all else, bring real client value and results to the table so you’re not only attractive to your relationship partner… but also to the bean counters. With tech accelerating all around us, it’s best to pay attention to your client’s needs and find ways to adapt your business to meet those needs. To do that, law firms must understand the client’s pressures, concerns, aspirations, wants, and needs. And if that means more reporting, enhanced technological processes, unique pricing, or detailed matter management, then it must be done if you want to keep the client.
The explosion of social media has proven that we humans are creatures of relationship. We crave it and need it to have worthwhile life. Relationships, service, value, comfort, meaning, and results have been the cornerstone of the attorney/client rapport for hundreds of years, and no amount of digital disruption is going to change that.
Adapt quickly to this new world by using the power of technology to improve your service delivery and drive yourself and your team deeper into addressing your client’s needs and wants; then you’ll truly differentiate yourself in this crowded legal market even in a rapidly moving digital age.
"In an Era of Rapid Technological Change in the Legal Market, Do Relationships Still Matter?," by Cole Silver was originally published in Legal Executive Institute on March 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission.