The coronavirus recession has brought on seismic shifts in the global economy, the effects of which are still rippling through and impacting the legal profession. Changing consumer behaviour and an uncertain commercial sector is making demand unpredictable, and causing a slowdown in some areas of practice.
Insights explores how some lawyers and firms are responding, and even pivoting their practice amidst a pandemic.
Changing the way we work and provide legal advice
“COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work, and buy,” said FamilyProperty and LawSwitch co-founder Fiona Kirkman. “This has propelled a reluctant legal industry to change the way they work and the legal services they provide.”
Many regard these changes as permanent.
“As a result, lawyers will need to rethink the way they do law and look at technologies that can automate their administrative work, freeing them up to focus on providing value,” observed Fiona.
According to Fiona, those who adapt will attract and retain more clients, thus becoming more profitable. Those who don’t will get left behind.
“In these turbulent times, lawyers will not merely be able to rely on their IQ (and black letter law training) but will need good EQ (emotional intelligence) and an understanding of legal technology and artificial intelligence” she said.
Shifting culture towards constant upskilling
A strong grasp of technical legal knowledge and black letter law is no longer sufficient for a client to perceive a lawyer’s services as valuable. Good client service is a chance to stand out. The proliferation of legal knowledge has led to increasingly sophisticated clients; lawyers who understand both the commercial and emotional motivators of their clients are likely to deliver the most valuable advice.
“It is important for lawyers to recognise their ‘areas for improvement’ and upskill accordingly,” said Fiona. “This helps ensure they have the winning IQ + EQ + AI formula to remain valuable and competitive. This includes training in technology, business, and client management.”
Lawyers and firm leaders should also reflect on how they deliver legal services.
Marianne Marchesi, named 2019 Partner of the Year, leads Australia’s Best Law Firm, voted thus twice by clients in the NAB Professional Services Awards. An ex-BigLaw lawyer, Marianne opted to reinvent service delivery when she founded her own firm, Legalite.
“Legalite operates in a very different way to traditional law firms,” Marianne explained. The firm offers fixed pricing for clients, flexible work for employees, and operates as a paperless practice. “I think this helped us to stand out. I have made a conscious effort to create not only a strong service offering, but also a positive work culture.”
Engaging automation and online collaboration
Most firms have untapped potential to automate many of their internal processes, particularly their administrative processes. Doing so can free up lawyers to focus on what their clients want most - delivering sound advice.
“FamilyProperty is an end to end family law platform that helps lawyers, mediators and enterprises better manage family law matters online and collaboratively,” explained Fiona. “It helps with online intake and the collection and disclosure of documents, and includes an interactive auto-calculated balance sheet.”
“LawSwitch helps firms provides automated chatbots, booking pages, and smart forms to stay online, 24/7.”
Both services effectively scale client onboarding for law firms, and are used by Fiona’s own firm, Kirkman Family Law.
“These technologies enable me to better capture and respond to leads,” explained Fiona. “They also efficiently gather client information and documents in preparation for family law financial matters. Using FamilyProperty provides a simple, visually appealing means of identifying items in agreement and dispute, to model and compare proposals and then quickly generate documents setting out any agreements reached.”
They are innovations driven by clear user need, and built for specific purposes.
Adapting to new areas of practice and ways of working
For Fiona and Marianne, the key to their successful career pivots lies in understanding what their clients really want - and need. Marianne used her background in commercial law to focus on franchise law and provide a flat-fee subscription-based model for clients with similar commercial and legal needs.
Fiona innovated within her area of practice, family law, working with her co-founder and husband Tim Kirkman to develop technology to expand and scale what she - and other lawyers - could provide.
It is worth taking a step back to assess what areas of law might be counter-cyclical. M&A deal flow may have slowed, prompting many in the field to focus on restructuring, corporate workouts, and insolvency. Regulatory law is on the rise as the banking royal commission has driven an industry-wide need for compliance. Cyber-security is a growing area of practice in most legal teams, particularly as COVID-19 has made work from home arrangements a long-term fixture of our working lives.
Embracing uncertainty to build career resilience
Fiona is no stranger to change. As principal of Kirkman Family Law and a former College of Law adjunct lecturer, she has been pivoting her practice towards more collaborative, tech-enabled models for several years. In 2018, major health issues interrupted her growing startups; she was hospitalised with meningitis for over a month.
“After two stints at ICU, I was told I might never be able to work again, due to concerns over brain damage,” said Fiona. “Despite the odds, I recovered quickly.”
In the midst of her recovery, she won a trip to London for the Legal Geek World LegalTech pitching competition.
Within a few months of being discharged from hospital, she set off with her husband and co-founder to demonstrate FamilyProperty and LawSwitch in Europe and Singapore.
The resilience this required left Fiona with lasting lessons around embracing uncertainty which is particularly relevant to 2020, the year of global uncertainty.
“Being a female co-founder and CEO is never boring,” said Fiona. “Growing a legal tech startup with my techie hubby while also trying to juggle life as a mum is filled with battles and victories. I’m thankful that I’m (mostly) healthy, happy and able to enjoy this crazy journey!”