Yesterday LexisNexis broadcast its latest newsletter. It contained a link to its online  “White Paper”. That was literally its title, and it’s a clue to its quality of thought.

That’s a little unfair. The topic is a difficult one, and kudos to LexisNexis for revisiting it.

The newsletter said the White Paper addresses this question: “Is the GFC a catalyst for change in the legal sector?” GFC stands for global financial crisis.

As much as that question is somewhat short-sighted, it is probably true. That is to say, the GFC is a catalyst for change in the operations of law firms in places like Sydney, New York and London.

This has long been evident from those who blog in those metropoles about the business of law firms. The story is finally reaching conservatives and skeptics. Lightbulb long ago crossed the chasm.

Why the question is short-sighted is that getting value for money from law firms has long been on the agenda of business. Big end of town lawyers in cloisters with corporate work may have heard it less, but SMEs have been screaming it to smaller law firms for almost two decades.

To read the present and the near future, LexisNexis brought together 10 leaders in a roundtable. They were mostly from large to medium-sized Sydney law firms. The roundtable explored topics such as client relationships, leverage in law firms, staffing and the use of technology.

"maze_ladder"Lightbulb agrees with the opening sentence of the conclusion in the White Paper, “Change does not happen quickly in the legal profession.”

Are you holding onto your chair? Why should it be so remarkable for the authors of the White Paper, influenced as they are by the roundtable participants, that:

  • Many customers currently take a cost-centric approach to legal matters
  • The internet is changing the availability of law for non-lawyers
  • The cultural mix of clients for lawyers means lawyers must act as if their clients are not just white Anglo-Saxon males
  • There is a strong argument for moving from the billable hour

These “old news” points are made early in the paper. There’s clues on implications in the body of the paper, eg:

  • Clients are seeking to work with lawyers that think of their work in transactional ways – hey it’s called “project management”
  • Clients seek quality output from experienced lawyers, not armies of worker ants (ie junior lawyers giving partners leverage to earn bigger dollars)
  • Legal practitioners must improve their customer relationships and gain a deeper understanding of business needs
  • In tough times, innovative thinking is needed

For Lightbulb the White Paper is a late take on a 1982 book. The Legal Mystique: The Role of Lawyers in Australian Society was published by Angus & Robertson and was written by lawyers, Michael Sexton and Laurence Maher. It did not sell well enough to go into a second edition. The mystique was dominant in 1982, it has since reduced very slowly indeed.

As a lawyer specialising in contract law, including procurement of products and services, I’ve known for decades that the number one purchase criteria commonly sought by clients and recommended by analysts is value for money.

Ten years ago I was shopping for a new car. My budget was $27,000, the then current price of a new basic Falcon or Holden sedan. A car salesman asked me what do you want? I replied “Value for money”. He sold me a used car for $32,000. It was in mint condition and had all the trimmings of an executive car. The year before it had sold brand new for $52,000.

A final note. It’s not just clients that seek value for money. Lawyers seek it too. Solicitors seek it from barristers. Solicitors and barristers seek it from mediators. Everyone seeks it from courts. No surprises there.

Noric Dilanchian