Facing off with a BigLaw behemoth can be intimidating. They have very deep pockets. They have a firmly established image and, quite possibly, an intimidating legacy. But don’t think for a second that they are necessarily better equipped than you—especially when it comes to offering clients the efficiency they demand.
Often, finding the most efficient method of handling legal work requires experimentation, as well as the agility to experiment without incurring losses. In this, small and medium-size law firms have a huge advantage over BigLaw.
An agile business is quick to adapt to the changing workplace and marketplace, and every year, new technological solutions are emerging for the legal industry. Where BigLaw is firmly entrenched with expensive legacy systems and can’t afford to risk experimentation with new tools, smaller firms are able to tweak their processes and try new technology to explore which offerings actually provide them (and therefore, their clients) the greatest efficiency benefit.
For BigLaw, experimentation is almost always dangerous. No matter how lucrative a new solution might be, large firms that bill even partially under alternative fee agreements can’t afford a temporary dip in efficiency without seeing a direct negative effect on their profit margins. Even without AFAs, corporate clients are increasingly hawkish in their scrutiny of billing statements.
A 2014 survey even showed that “law firms [already] reported handing out an average 12.7 percent discount to their largest clients.” The need for efficiency in BigLaw is very real, and extremely vital, but they lack the breathing room necessary to pursue large organizational changes. Even with the leaps and bounds legal technology has made with the introduction of new productivity tools and cloud-based solutions, larger firms often find themselves unable to respond to demands for lower cost structures. But a smaller, more agile firm can easily adopt process changes and tools to make the levels of efficiency demanded by clients possible. And, once done, they can use that to position themselves as an alternative to the larger firms with potential clients.
Where can a small to medium-size law firm leverage this advantage?
Everyone at your law firm should be on the same page when it comes to how you bill your client, but such an initiative is easier said than done. A variety of software solutions now exist that make every step of the billing process easier for both the client and your office. From centralized systems that allow you to calculate invoices in a standardized fashion to online payment portals, many barriers to payment have been removed, and controls have been developed that ensure both client and law firm understand how the billing process works. A time-tracking system can help lawyers better manage their time and understand how they spend it more fully, enabling them to more accurately bid on fixed-fee work and optimize profit margins.
While implementing these solutions may be only a few minor changes in procedure for an agile law firm, the idea is a gargantuan undertaking for BigLaw.
Shouldn’t a law firm’s representatives have easy access to its knowledge? To operate at peak efficiency, a lawyer needs up-to-date, accurate information at all times.
Nowadays, an agile law firm is able to implement a document storage system that a lawyer can access from anywhere. Some solutions even intelligently aggregate court documents that pertain to a lawyer’s case. Again, BigLaw would run into the problem of assimilating its existing knowledge base and training its staff on how to use the new software (and also trusting that they will!).
The way in which the latest technology aids the legal profession in the most profound way, however, is arguably in the area of collaboration. In an agile firm, the physical location of attorneys and staff can become almost irrelevant (which is critical in today’s mobile world). Email is useful for sharing ideas and documents over distance, but a system designed for sharing and reviewing legal documents is better and provides a more meaningful context for communications. By using dedicated collaboration software, a firm can ensure documents (and therefore work) are not duplicated and that all the documents that exist are tracked.
The agile, responsive law firm
By resolving to experiment, a law firm can gain a greater understanding of what clients need and of the support its attorneys require to work at full capacity. This will in turn contribute to a culture that is open to new ideas and fosters innovation and growth.
When a firm takes steps to ensure its lawyers use their time effectively, have ready access to knowledge and have a framework within which to collaborate, and share documents with their co-workers, it can perform at the highest levels and serve the interests of its clients more effectively, building a reputation for success that attracts many more.