Moving with the times
This article was first published in Private Client Adviser on 16 February 2015 and is reproduced by kind permission (www.privateclientadviser.co.uk)
One of my first blogs examined the changes facing the legal sphere in our increasingly consumerist society. Subsequently I have commented on the decline of the high street firm and the impact of the ABS. I have concluded that law is no longer the 'profession' that it once was, but rather a service and like any successful service provider, law firms need to be consumer-focussed, competitive, cost efficient and innovative.
Previously I have surmised that solicitors would struggle through as long as the consumer valued a quality service above a bargain. However, I now understand that it is not enough for our objective to be merely survival, rather it should be successful adaptation. Some of the newly emerging trends in the legal industry appear to support this theory.
Skype in court and e-bundles
Judge John Tanzer established an innovative precedent in November last year, when he allegedly became the first judge to hear a verdict remotely. An official commitment meant he could not attend court in person and so instead took the jury's verdict via Skype.
Although the use of video link is well established in court proceedings, previously its utilisation was not with the primary objective of expediency. So while we are a long way from a virtual court hearing, there is a clear shift towards using technology to streamline the court system. In particular, the use of e-bundles is becoming more common because (assuming IT-literacy) they are easier to use and less costly to prepare, move and access.
However, it is crucial to remember that technology is by no means infallible and therefore does not always equate to a more expedient service or system. It remains to be seen whether the use of technology will make justice more accessible by cutting costs and streamlining procedure, or instead complicate matters with systems failures and security risks.
'Virtual' or 'dispersed' law firms
The physical presence of a law firm is becoming less important with the increased use of interactive mediums and the possibility of implementing a successful remote system. Less office space means that overheads can be significantly reduced, solicitors have more flexibility regarding how and when they work, and clients benefit from a national service as opposed to selecting a law firm based on their location (which in turn, can affect the fees involved). Of course, the above caveat of 'technological advances do not necessarily equal expedience' also applies here.
Active client involvement
While some firms are exploring the virtual model, others are utilising the same technological advances in a different way. As clients become more consumerist, increasingly they want to be personally involved in the running of their matters. They want accessibility, transparency and a clear view of their anticipated legal path and, importantly, updates on their progress along that path.
In my opinion, successfully managing your clients' expectations is one of the most pervasive difficulties solicitors encounter on a day-to-day basis. This is more pertinent in some areas than others, for example, private client.
Increased technological possibilities that allow clients to observe and control their own matters, is coupled with a general attitude shift of clients wanting to be more involved in their own legal matters. Consumers who are used to tracking their retail orders online can now log onto their law firms' client portal to check the progress of their matter, view correspondence, matter documentation and plenty more besides.
Will more clients opting to 'do it themselves' by utilising the wealth of free legal information online make the task of managing their expectations easier or more difficult? Although greater transparency via client portals may help to keep solicitors and clients on the same page without the need for regular updates, it may conversely also lead to frustrated clients who believe their matter should be moving more quickly, for example.
In conclusion, we are an industry steeped in tradition and are loathe to relinquish this by moving into a new era. Gone are the days where clients come cap in hand and on bended knee to their legal oracle. Instead, they are now informed and savvy consumers of legal services. Solicitors must recognise that we are (and should be) client driven and technologically innovative. As clients' expectations change, so must we.