Table Stakes: How Young Law Practices Can Play the Big League

  • Bhavin Patel

There was a time once, when smart young lawyers from big law firms could confidently step out on their own, establish a bright new firm of their own, and climb their way into the big leagues. Clients would come, they would tell themselves, if I continue to provide big law service at more affordable (read sensible) rates.

That age is over.

In my conversations with the founders of several such ‘young’ firms in the past months, I’ve heard a familiar refrain: “Big Law is dropping their rates to a point where we can’t compete on cost alone anymore. We must find another way of bringing value to our clients that doesn’t keep burning money-sucking black holes in our pockets.

So, what are these new ways of bringing value that small law practices can explore?

To answer this question, let’s look at things from a different perspective: if your new law practice is suddenly facing competition from Big Law firms keen to capture as much width as possible in the legal market through rock-bottom pricing, what can youdo to gain a competitive edge? Simply put, how can you put together the table stakes you need to play the game competitively with Big Law?

The only way to do this, I think, is for the small law practice to look at what strengths it has that Big Law simply can’t match. Pricing isn’t that strength anymore — but innovation and nimbleness are!

As a young practice that hasn’t scaled massively yet, you have the advantage of being able to take and implement firm-wide process and service innovations that Big Law firms take months, if not years, to implement.

Don’t believe me? Try this simple exercise: find a friend working in Big Law, preferably someone who’s involved in their ‘Innovation’ or ‘Technology’ committee, and ask them what their number one problem innovating their law practice is. The answer?

Adoption.

Innovation-enabling tools aren’t hard to find — heck, nowadays, you can barely avoid tripping over a new software or solution that promises to ‘revolutionise your law practice’ (or some such hyperbolic claim) on your way to work every day — but actually getting associates to use that fancy new time-keeping / invoicing / legal research / AI-enabled due diligence tool the firm’s just dropped a massive packet on is next to impossible. (So what can firms do to boost adoption? That’s the subject of another post, which I’ll publish soon).

Trust me, it’s much easier to get a small group of people to align with a common goal and pull together than it is to get battle-hardened legions of Big Law associates to change their manner of working.

Here’s a three-step suggestion for what you can do to help your law practice gather the buy-in it needs to compete effectively for client business:

Step 1: Incremental Change, Not Overhauls

You’re much better off implementing change by accretion than attempting to throw out all your old systems and practices overnight and expecting people to adapt to a new world order.

Change is good, but change is also hard.

Find one innovation that will help you move towards the goal you’ve got in mind, implement it, measure your success, improve your practices around that innovation, and then move on to the next innovation.

Found a new time-keeping software? Try it out yourself, figure out how best to use it in the context of your practice, train your associates in using it, implement soft and hard incentives for adoption, measure success, and then move on to the next key step in innovating your practice.

Step 2: Keep Checking Back

I wonder if you thought about the phrase ‘measure your success’ in the previous step. This little sub-step is so important that I’m elevating it, right here and now, to a step on its own. Simply finding and implementing a new tool isn’t enough — you owe your practice the responsibility of continuously evaluating your firm’s performance with the new tool.

Are associates who are using that new document assembly tool getting work done faster, and with less time spent on corrections? Look at the analytics that tool provides (What? You chose a tool that doesn’t provide analytical reports? Big no-no!) and determine whether everyone is taking advantage of the efficiencies it offers. If there’s a section of people who still aren’t using it, talk to them, find out why, talk to the vendor who sold you the tool, and find out how you can make adoption easier for that group. Not doing this is the equivalent of taking a whole heap of your firm’s money, tearing it up, and using it as confetti in the next firm party — fun when you’re getting your ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ on, but also financially suicidal.

Step 3: Talk to People Whose Job is in Legal Tech

Hey, you’re a lawyer, remember? You’re supposed to be the person clients contact when they need legal advice, when they need someone to advise them on the challenges their business is facing. What would you rather focus on? Developing your skills, ability, and reputation in servicing those needs for clients, or obsessing over legal tech all day long? I’m willing to bet it’s the former.

For some of us though, it’s our job to look at new legal tech, evaluate it, and provide advice on what the best approach to innovation is for firms like yours. So, reach out — drop in a comment below, a LinkedIn message, or mail me at bhavin@baysidetech.in, and I’d be happy to talk to you about how your law practice can leverage the strengths it already has, and promote itself to the big league!

(Thanks for your time! If you liked reading this story, and would like more such posts and insights on how legal tech is changing the practice landscape, you’ll love the mailing list from Bayside Tech! Write to me at bhavin@baysidetech.in and I’ll sign you right up!)