Courage needed to change law firm structures

Leading law firms must take drastic action to remain competitive in the rapidly changing English legal profession, a panel of specialists meeting today in London advised.

Karl Chapman

The debate, based the work of US legal sector guru Mitch Kowalski, suggested that lawyers must have the ‘courage’ to make changes at their firms that will ‘re-imagine’ structure and processes.

Law 1.0

Mr Kowalski told the meeting – organised by recently launched legal practice Riverview Law -- that most established law firms have not changed since their creation, comparing them to software that is still running at ‘law 1.0’. ‘Law firm 1.0 is not about long-term vision,’ Mr Kowalski said. ‘It’s about keeping the ship afloat.’
He added that law firm leaders must have the courage to make sweeping changes to reach ‘law firm 2.0’, possibly ditching the partnership model in favour of a corporate design so that ‘the firm is greater than the sum of its parts’.
Riverview chief executive Karl Chapman said that quality and process will keep clients, as well as lawyers, at law firms. Ethical problems at law firms also troubled Mr Chapman, who said that Riverview Law was different as it is ‘customer focussed’ rather than fixed on ‘hitting target hours’.

Absence of leadership

The panel – which was chaired by Professor Stephen Mason, director of the Legal Services Institute – agreed that an absence of leadership was a hindrance to innovation at many law firms. Managing partners were unwilling to take risks after working hard to achieve a senior position, but ultimately that mentality is driving the wrong behaviour.
Paul Gilbert – former general counsel and current chief executive of training and management consultancy LBC Wise Counsel – said there was a ‘huge amount of inertia in legal services’. While Julie Thorburn – head of business management for Lloyds Banking Group’s legal department -- said ‘the lawyer who brings in the most money often becomes the leader, not the lawyer who makes the best business decisions and innovations’.

Possible acquisition

Meanwhile, Mr Chapman confirmed that Riverview is seeking to expand its capabilities and has been approached by two law firms in relation to a possible acquisition. ‘They see what’s coming,’ he said. ‘Big firms are going to find it tough. Customer behaviour is driving change. With prices being driven down by new entrants competing with established brands, the customer is the real winner.’
He added that lawyers are also becoming more interested in joining alternative-fee firms because of lifestyle choices and a disillusionment with traditional structures.

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