The ‘Modern Law Firm’ – A Fresh Perspective

The ‘Modern Law Firm’ – A Fresh Perspective is based on my recent conversation with Alastair Morrison, a Pinsent Masons with a penchant for client-centric legal services innovation. 

Thanks for joining us today Alastair.

It’s a pleasure to talk with you in your role as a Pinsent Masons’ Board member and Head of Client Strategy. You are also intimately involved in scanning the global legal services environment and responsible for many of the Firm’s innovation strategies such as Vario and Out-Law (?). In this context, it’s noteworthy that Pinsent Masons has won many FT Innovative Lawyers awards over recent years.

> Q Standing back and looking around the world at the big picture of legal services over last 10 years, to what major trends do you pay most attention?

> A The most important is the massive growth in the complexity of the legal ecosystem. Every aspect is rapidly becoming more complex: digitalisation, availability and impact of big data, #moreforless affecting both inhouse law teams and external law firms, proliferation of legal tech, new service delivery models, rampant Big Four firms, daily realities of globalisation, and regulation of many kinds within and, increasingly, across sectors.

This bewilders the majority of clients and law firms, posing opportunities for those who cut through with solutions where end-clients’ needs are most intense.

> Q Let’s drill deeper into how you see the client-side?

> A In corporations I see:

Stress and strain in the law departments because demand continues to grow faster than available resources, with the customer pushing for risk and compliance services in addition to conventional law. Work flow management, automation and outsourcing are easing the pressure, but not curing, these problems.

At the same time, the boundaries of the legal function (as opposed to law department) of the corporation are being blurred many others, including risk, compliance, data, technology, HR, procurement, sustainability, customers, and more.  

These trends call for novel approaches, new skills and not-seen-before processes. Few lawyers are equipped to contribute in this environment.  This is isolating traditional law departments and leaving traditional law firms out in the cold. New approaches are called for, to which we’ll no doubt come later in our discussion.

And yet, lawyers are best equipped to act as the corporation’s legal conscience and guardian of ethical, moral and good citizenship behaviour. To do this effectively, lawyers need a seat at the executive table – and to earn this seat the lawyer must be fluent in the precepts and language I outlined earlier. There’s a big gap here – and an enormous opportunity.

> Q What’s the single, biggest driver of these changes?

> A In a word, data – structured and unstructured. As futurist Gerd Leonard says, “Data is the new oil”. It’s the accelerant. Whereas, 10 years ago the driver was globalisation, now it’s data. Data knows no boundaries and transcends jurisdictions. It’s not just the likes of Amazon and Tencent we are talking about, it’s every online enterprise – and which ones aren’t to some degree? – irrespective of type or size.

> Q How do you see the BigLaw industry responding?

> A There are two groups, one with a subset. 

First, there is the Global Elite the 20 or so firms, increasingly on Wall Street that are patronised by the investment banks and major PE firms. The work they do is price-insensitive, and their profits remain as jaw-dropping as ever.

Second there the thousands of other firms doing the meat-and-potatoes types of work which are increasingly being commoditised. This is a fragmented group, whether one counts at the level of the world, a region, or a country. While some consolidation is occurring, there’s no power relative to the buying power of clients in being a biggerfirm. You have to be better, that differentiated.

I mentioned a subset of this second group, comprising firms that are taking re-invention, innovation or – in your words George – ‘remaking’ themselves very seriously. With the ingredients of client-focussed imagination, determined leadership, supportive partners, enthusiastic staff and a willingness to take risks and invest, these firms are making great strides.

> Q Is it fair to assume you regard Pinsent Masons one of these firms?

> A 😅Absolutely!

> Q Finally, let’s turn to language and the nomenclature that shapes how we think about legal services. About 10 years ago we first heard about the term alternative business models (ABM), then along came alternative legal service providers (ALSP), legal process outsourcers (LPO) and legal service outsourcers (LSO). Now we’ve added law companies, flex-lawyer services and LegalTech, to name some. Along the way my colleagues and I popularised‘NewLaw’ to describe these new business models and show how they differed radically from traditional ‘BigLaw’ firms – and why the differences are vitally important. What’s your take on this alphabet soup?

 > A My phrase is the ‘Modern Law Firm’. I’ll resist the MLF acronym for fear of adding to the soup – and being misinterpreted! This is language that clients readily understand – it’s not jargon! The modern law firm is a professional services firm with law at its core. It is diverse, both culturally and cognitively. Its people work in multi-profession teams, are enabled by processes and technology. They solve client’s problems and help realise their opportunities, that is they are outcomes-driven.

Firm like this are different to traditional ones. These differences raise questions of ownership, capitalisation, progression, succession and recruitment. For these reasons, few traditional firms are deadly serious about becoming modern law firms; it’s too hard and older partners fear they will lose out.

George, I guess in your research and your book,  you’d call a firm like this ‘remade’, but I prefer the plain English version of Modern Law Firm! 

Thank you, Alastair.


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