Sustainable business of law
Earlier this year, we did some research into document processes and trends within the Australian legal industry, with a focus on small and medium firms. You can view the findings and the summary infographic here. To further our understanding of the challenges facing law firms, we recently held a roundtable event in Melbourne to further discuss the findings of this research and how larger firms are seeing these trends play out.
Overall, the main trends identified by the research are equally true in larger firms. Law firms are increasingly being led by managing directors rather than lawyers or partners, highlighting a focus on business results as opposed to solely the practice of law. In building the sustainable business of law, we discussed the need for ensuring systems and processes within the firm to work together to avoid duplication of effort and in incurring unnecessary costs in an increasingly competitive environment.
We also discussed the move towards a paperless environment – both in the office and in the courts. While paper use is still increasing overall, this varies widely depending on industry. In the legal sector, attendees at the roundtable reported that the move towards paperless was becoming more of a CSR initiative, leading to print policies such as double-sided printing and multifunction devices which have swipe-and-release capability becoming increasingly popular. With law historically so paper-intensive, this is a significant shift in behaviour that requires proper change management, training and ongoing process re-engineering.
One of the processes needing to be re-examined was that of archiving. One participant reported that their firm has a staggering 200,000 boxes in storage. With changes in laws surrounding how long records need to be retained, and whether electronic records are acceptable, there is a lot of uncertainty. Destruction policies and procedures for electronic records are also missing, so many firms are continuing to do what they’ve always done.
When it comes to the move to being paperless within the courts, participants discussed the challenges of different law courts having different ways of operating. Courts are becoming more electronic however it is still very much down to the preference of the judge as well as the agreement of the lawyers to present documents electronically rather than in hard copy. Right now, paperless trials are the exception rather than the rule, but the sense is this is changing swiftly.
The group also discussed the impact of two significant trends in the legal industry – consolidation of firms and the rise of fixed price billing. With so many lawyers, participants predicted start-ups of “virtual lawyers” abounding. The future where you can browse to a website and “order” lawyers is just around the corner. This is linked with the rise in fixed price billing, driven by increased competition.
We’d love to hear your comments and thoughts about these trends and others having an impact on the legal industry in Australia. What do you think will have the biggest impact on law firms in our country in the next five years?