Disruption is top of mind for law firms these days—either they’re harnessing it for their own benefit or falling victim to it.
And while adapting new technologies and offerings is critical to survival, it’s not enough. If you really want to stand out, you need to break through the noise of others law firms’ offerings and demonstrate your value.
That’s exactly what panelists discussed at “Disruption: The New Buzz Word in Tech,” a session at Relativity Fest last year.
We heard the perspectives of three disruptors we know and love: Kelly Friedman, national counsel, discovery services at Borden Ladner Gervais; Chris Mammen, partner at Womble Bond Dickinson; and Colleen Kenney, partner at Sidley Austin. Each panelist shared their thoughts on how to avoid the kind of disruption that threatens law firms while trying to break through with innovative disruption of their own.
Minimizing the Bad
The biggest threat that law firms are facing is how complicated the practice of law has gotten. Cases have more stakeholders within the practice than ever before, and the billable hour is getting harder to quantify. Clients are expecting more, and staff need a deeper understanding of technology—and all the options out there—than ever before.
“Technology changes the boundaries of what is even within the regulation of the practice of law, and that can be really disruptive,” Chris said.
Working in a law firm these days is no longer just going case by case and doing your best to win. It’s about leveraging the right tech to show real value to your clients.
This is easier said than done. Colleen spoke to how stratified law firms have become—you need to bring real value to the table beyond your degree and legal skills.
“There are so many tracks that didn’t exist at the law firm 20 years ago,” Colleen said. “There are also a lot of different jobs in the e-discovery world.”
Chris also noted that, while everyone agrees technology is pertinent to the practice of law nowadays, it can be an uphill battle to show higher-ups a return on the investment in technology. You have to show that the technology is really impacting the practice to get buy in.
All this can make “disruption” seem like a bad word around the office. Luckily, our panelists had some suggestions on how prevent disruption from becoming destructive.
Kelly noted that fear of failure is holding a lot of firms back and stopping their progression. She said that it’s okay to fail as long as you learn something.
“You can’t innovate without being willing to fail,” she said.
Chris encouraged the audience to invest in the industry and spend the money on the necessary technology. Being proactive is the best way to be in control.
That way, “You can ride the wave of disruption instead of have the wave of disruption ride your practice,” Colleen said.
Enhancing the Good
With all these existential threats come a lot of really great opportunities for law firms to break through.
But first, some advice from the panelists: You need to redefine what success is to your firm. It has to be about more than just the bottom line.
“We need to shift the focus from cutting costs to value. Where do you add value?” Colleen said. “Capitalize on that value. Be good at what you do, be known for it, and have the tools to back it up. Clients are willing to pay for your expertise if you demonstrate your value to them.”
The way Chris sees it, positive disruption is all about a change in mindset, or applying a “MacGyver mentality” to your work. Try tackling your problems in an unconventional way, or look at them from an unexpected angle. Having the right technology can help, but the right people and mindsets are what will really transform your practice.
The panelists also warned of not moving too fast. Sometimes, you need to slow down to speed up. Take a step back and look at your issues holistically, then strategically work toward resolving them. Analyzing your processes at the start can create more cohesive systemic change and lead to more rapid growth down the line.
Above all, you need to listen to your clients, Kelly said. See where their pain points are and what you can help them with—that will give you a jumping off point for the rest of your practice.
Once you’ve worked on changing your mindset and truly evaluating your firm, you can start incorporating tech. Tech should elevate your legal practice, not overly complicate it.
“We use tools like Relativity—all the analytic functions combined with legal judgment we bring to bear,” Kelly said. “We use all the tools in our toolbox to become better litigators.”
Bottom line? Disruption has the potential to be both good and bad. So what determines the outcome? Well, you. You can choose whether you are going to disrupt the industry or whether you’ll let the industry disrupt you.
Kelly, Chris, and Colleen’s message could be a cautionary tale, or all the motivation you need. You can ride this wave. No, you are the wave.