“Hey farmer, how do you get to Little Rock?”
“Listen stranger, you can’t get there from here.”
(Michelle Shocked, Arkansas Traveler)
There is a variant on this, which is a joke told in many cultures. A tourist stops to ask for directions back to the big city. The response: “Sorry sir, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you.” These apparently foolish answers may be more sensible than overconfident directions. A meaningful response demands more information that could be drawn out by additional questions. Does the traveller need to arrive quickly or via a scenic route? How much do they know of the area already, to help in providing sensible guidance? Do they really want to get to the city, or do they just need a bed for the night?
Many organisations (but especially law firms at the moment) are like the disorientated traveller. They know that they need to do something to deal with changes that are going on around them. Unfortunately, there are few wise fools answering their requests for help.
Instead, there is a cacophony of technology suppliers, consultants, service providers, all shouting the merits of their particular product or approach. This thing, they argue, will fix everything and work for anyone.
Depending on who is speaking, the panacea for law firms will be greater use of technology, artificial intelligence, paralegals, alternative business structures, process mapping, automation, outsourcing, diversification, boutique practice, better client relationships, big data, and so it goes on…
There are few simple answers. (I think there are none, but I may be wrong.) All of these ‘solution providers’ are starting from the wrong end of the problem. They have something to sell, so it doesn’t help them to discover more about their potential customers in case it turns out that their thing would be useless.
The better place to start is to work out in detail what the real challenges are. Those aren’t the macro-level pressures that we can all see — regulatory change, market aversion to traditional billing models, and the like. The real challenges are different for every firm. What does their market (and their clients’ markets) look like? What financial constraints do they have? What appetite for change is there? How strong is the leadership? Are there any geographical issues to consider? What about other cultural expectations? Does the firm’s demographic structure help or hinder? What do clients want, and are they getting it? These might not even be the right questions — other factors may be relevant.
The important thing is to draw out the right knowledge about the firm, and work from there. Often this body of knowledge will surprise the leadership — it may contradict what they have been indoctrinated to expect by their usual suppliers. The firm might also have an incomplete understanding of what their suppliers are offering, and so be unable to articulate a sensible request for help.
Armed with self-awareness the firm is in a better position to challenge suppliers to provide services or products that actually meet its needs, so asking the right questions (and getting sensible answers) in the first place is actually beneficial for all.
This also applies to the way firms serve clients, of course. The lawyer who just rattles off a quick contract to the client’s specification without inquiring more deeply into the motivation behind the instruction risks doing the client a disservice (especially when the client is ignorant of the range of possible options).
I don’t have answers. I am more interested in helping firms find their own way.