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Innovate or fail: will COVID-19 make or break your law firm?
04 August 2020

Innovate or fail: will COVID-19 make or break your law firm?

Published on 04 August 2020

In the COVID-19 economy, the legal industry is confronted with a need to adapt – just like every other industry. But for legal service providers, the pandemic has merely intensified the many challenges they were already facing as a result of increasing digital disruption. So although the need to adapt and change is not new, there has never been a better time to innovate.

Here are the three key challenges law firms are grappling with right now (whether they admit it or not) – and the important takeaways that will help you address them, head-on.  

Challenge 1: Reducing overheads

During March and April 2020, working from home was no longer just a flexible working option. States and territories across Australia made it mandatory. (And as Victoria has shown us, this situation may resurface repeatedly into the foreseeable future.)

Teaching Fellow at The College of Law and Chair of the Chief Innovation Officers Forum, Alison Laird said, “Once the government gave workplaces around Australia the green light to reopen, many firms instead adopted a more cautious approach recognising the benefits of retaining an agile workforce.

“For some firms, it was simply an accelerant of practices they had been putting in place. Numerous firms, including Allens, KWM and Gilbert + Tobin, already had robust cloud systems that allowed for remote work.

“And once the pandemic hit, they discovered that, on top of the lower rental costs, many staff were thriving working from home and benefiting from the improved work-life balance.

“In fact, some firms believe the crisis may permanently change how they use their offices, interact with clients and deploy staff support services,” she said.

The key takeaway: Managing external spend is critically important right now. Firms embracing innovative technologies that allow virtual offices are greatly reducing their overheads. In fact, many are enjoying a double win with an increase in staff productivity.

Challenge 2: Providing better service at a reduced cost

Thanks to digital disruption, we’ve been seeing a change in client attitudes for some time now.

Clients no longer want to pay for hours. They want to pay for solutions. And this shift translates to an increased demand for cost certainty and transparency – as well as more visibility from their legal practitioner.

Now, with the arrival of the pandemic and the tightened economic climate that’s resulted, the industry is facing even more pressure to deliver new and improved customer experiences.

Alison says many client and firm issues can be tackled with ‘design thinking’ – a user-focused problem-solving methodology she teaches in her six-week course, Innovation: The market-driven transformation of legal delivery and the law’s emerging collaborative culture.

“Design thinking is the perfect tool to tackle legal’s wicked problems. It can be used to solve issues like ‘how do we do this 50% cheaper’, or ‘how can we make this service available for everyone?’ – it has unlimited potential,” Alison says.

The key takeaway: Firms need to find new ways to deliver a superior customer experience, at an extremely affordable price. Innovative practices like Design Thinking can help firms develop novel and creative solutions using the diversity of thinking and approach.

Challenge 3: Taking risks

Alison says, “Lawyers are not always fans of taking risks. Their job is usually to think about the absolute worst thing that could go wrong in a particular scenario and prevent it from happening.

“Lawyers aim to minimise risk for their clients – with the knowledge if they fail to do so, it could result in anything from missed opportunities to potential financial ruin for their client. 

“But right now, with the industry and clients’ needs changing so rapidly, lawyers need to experiment. 

“Part of understanding what innovation is – and this is covered in the subject I teach – is getting lawyers comfortable with the idea of taking risks and reframing the idea of failure,” she said.

Alison says because of the new and different circumstances surrounding the pandemic, a number of firms are embracing this opportunity to risk-take and experiment.

“A great example of this is Gilbert + Tobin. They had an internal tech product due for release in December 2020 – but when lockdown hit in March, they saw it had an immediate relevance to enhance collaboration across the firm.

“So they fast-tracked it to go out in April – even though it wasn’t perfect yet. And it was met with a hugely positive reception.

“Firms taking these types of actions have a mindset that, in certain circumstances, they’re better off launching the product, seeing how people respond and continuously improving and refining overtime rather than delay for a perfect product and perfect moment– test and reiterate their products and initiatives. And this is a very welcome outcome for such a risk-averse industry,” she said.

The key takeaway: To capitalise on opportunities that are available right now (if appropriate), lawyers need to be okay with early releases and minimum viable products – which means acceptable risks. This type of innovation requires a mindset change.

The most important takeaway of all

When it comes to embracing innovation, futurist pundits have been quick to label the pandemic as an inflection point for the legal industry. They say it’s taking stale and dated ways of doing things and propelling them in a new direction of positive change.

But in reality, it seems to be more of an accelerant, bringing issues to the surface (that have been bubbling for some time) a lot more quickly.

Today's firms need to embrace change, adapt their attitude towards risk, become more resilient – and probe every element of their processes to achieve greater efficiencies.

Undoubtedly, some firms were better set up for the waves of disruption the pandemic has caused. But it’s not too late for all lawyers and firms to embrace an innovation mindset. 

Bring your practice into 2020

A six-week course from The College of Law, Innovation: The market-driven transformation of legal delivery and the law’s emerging collaborative culture, will help you to face the challenges brought by disruption and the post-pandemic world – head-on.

It will enable you to use methodologies like design thinking and teach you the tools required to successfully innovate. And it will help set yourself up to tackle the current climate, as well as for future disruptions around the corner.

The subject is part of the newly formed Master of Legal Business at The College of Law and is led by Teaching Fellow, Alison Laird. Learn more.