After a shaky start, the threat to legal practices from the Big Four accountancy firms has been gathering considerable momentum, with record gains made over recent years[i]. The ‘one stop shop’ model of combining lawyers with consultants and technology has met a growing end-client need, and the Big Four have been helping clients identify the ‘high-volume, low-value’ legal tasks that technology and the right resourcing profile can streamline, reducing client costs and freeing in-house legal teams to focus on more complex legal issues.

While it’s a threat that the legal sector would be wise not to ignore, there are barriers to mid-size accounting firms emulating PwC and its peers. The Big Four are very well able to leverage their brand, global reach and technological capabilities, despite the diversity of the legal market. However, a mid-size accounting firm first needs to identify the specific area of legal expertise needed and then attract and provision the required talent. You can’t just turn accountants into lawyers overnight.  And if someone has spent a large part of their career training to be a lawyer, what will be their incentive to work in an accountancy business where law is secondary? A more likely, ongoing, threat is consolidation within the legal sector. Legal practices that adopt technology for both efficiency and client value are better positioned to find the ‘sweet spot’ and enhance their growth trajectory more effectively.

But this is where accountancy firms do tend to have the advantage[ii], and where legal practice is really playing catch up. Even the smaller firms are more familiar and comfortable with the use of technology than their legal peers. They have found the interactions which are purely transactional, and where technology is the rational efficiency play. Without reducing value, they’ve discovered they can reduce costs, and share those savings with clients.

The legal profession is lagging behind[iii]. But much is written and discussed about emotional intelligence, and the importance of human-to-human contact, so does this enhanced efficiency come at a relationship cost?  Beyond transactional efficiency, how does a business really use evolving technology to better serve and understand their clients?

There is, we believe, a middle ground which utilises the benefits of technology for efficiency, ease of access and convenience, while retaining human contact for deep understanding, relationships and trust.


The fundamental flaw

A common mistake made by technology software providers—and their clients—is that whilst they successfully achieve product adoption and certainly implementation from a technical point of view, they often don’t implement from a people point of view.

man in grey shirt frowning at laptop because tech isn't working

This frequently creates complex obstructions down the line.

Similar to the accountancy partnership model, legal practices are made up of fee-earners who generate and provide expertise to large, high-value portfolios. Of secondary importance is the Business Management Information system, and lawyers are protective of their clients! A common perception is: ‘If implementing a CRM helps us operationally then fine. Just don’t let it annoy my client. Don’t change what we don’t need to change for the client if it’s not a direct benefit to them that I can articulate.’

This is where firms often miss out, because they don’t get the narrative right. The client doesn’t care what type of system their data is held on. What they do care about is what they need to do, for what reason, what impact it will have and how that’s going to help them. That doesn’t have to be an operational efficiency conversation – it just needs to be framed as ‘For us to be able to serve you best, here’s what we need from you. And then here’s what we’re going to do’.

For example, at one legal firm, an issue they were wrestling with was their ability to populate the data fields in a CRM system they had implemented. The onboarding process should simply have been operational, but they were struggling to get clients to provide the information in the format they needed to enable that process.

Were they asking the wrong questions? Was the system set up incorrectly? In fact, the flaw was likely to be how they spoke to their clients about the necessity of the information, and the vehicle they used to gather that data. It’s interesting that even a large, successful law firm can struggle to make use of a CRM system to capture the starting point data from their clients.


Designing implementation from a people point of view

If you’re running any business in 2022 and you’re not prioritising how you’re using technology to improve the way in which you conduct your business both internally and externally, then it’s hard to imagine how you’re going to be competitive going forward.

People now trust the use of technology for things they may not have done 10 years ago. Even small businesses such as local hairdressers are embracing technology to make transactions easier for the customer. You don’t even have to phone for an appointment – you can hop on an app or booking portal, find a slot when you are free, and rearrange if necessary. You don’t need a human connection for that. It makes sense for the business, and it makes sense for the consumer.

For the businesses we work with, technology is a significant part of their growth and ongoing evolution, and this is an area where we can support their need. Most of the client work we do around technology implementation starts with them saying, ‘We’re going to implement this technology. Here are some broad reasons why. But we’re having real problems, implementing, making use of it, getting people to adopt it’.

When we ask questions about the purpose, the specific intent of technology, and who it’s going to benefit, we invariably get overly simplified answers about efficiency or data consistency, but without any user perspective. 

person in front of grey wall with black arrows and red question mark

Not just from the ground level, operating the business, but everywhere in the business that this might impact.

In the early stages of a project, we seek to understand the reason and specific use and value of any given technological endeavour. There are analyses we can conduct across the business which ask: ‘Where are your operational challenges? Where are people getting stuck the most? Where are people spending time that, in their opinion, is wasted time?’ These are areas where the business might look at improvements in their use of technology. And they apply equally to end-user client pain points.

Then a broader piece of work is designing the implementation, once the journey has been defined. Once that is right and stakeholders have been mapped, the question turns to whether there is internal capability to manage that project and lead that change. If not, then this is another area that we can support.

The role of technology leadership

There are clearly businesses that lead the way in this, but with regards to the adoption of technology, many professional services firms struggle with the question, ‘Where does technology enable or lead our strategy?’ At what point do those firms appoint a head of technology, a CIO to their executive team? At what point does the role dedicated to technology become an executive level role and mandate?

If you’ve got the bandwidth and the resourcing to have a dedicated head of technology, then obviously that makes sense. But not every organisation is at the right point of their growth for that role. Frequently, the heads of IT in professional services are the people who make sure you’ve got a machine to use that you can connect to the WiFi, that if you need to print you can print and when you’ve got a problem, you’ve got somebody to call. But it’s not enough to just appoint a caretaker of technology because you don’t know where else to put that function.

Having very clear, simple, time-measured objectives, is a strong step forward. For instance, identifying some broad objectives for the next couple of years, such as effecting a support model so that every employee has a clear and sufficient IT support; developing the digital workplace, e.g., document storage and collaboration; the client environment. Even without a CIO, thinking around tech strategy can evolve and create clear technology priorities that stand on their own as strategic objectives.

While it can sit with any number of roles, it’s imperative that the person leading technology has the understanding of what the strategic intent and objectives are, what the priorities are and what leadership skills are needed for implementation. 

white paper boats on the sea heading in the same direction lead by blue boat

That doesn’t mean it has to be a discrete standalone role, but it does have to be clear and relevant. These leadership skills might also be shared – they don’t all have to reside with one person. We often talk about this. It might be that there is a technical understanding of what the technology landscape should look like, held by one executive leader, and they’ve pushed it from a solution point of view. But there may be other skills required in terms of researching what other practices do, or engaging internally and trying to take the team along with the proposition. So it’s not that one person has to have that range of skills, but that somewhere in your leadership team, you have accounted for the fact that leadership of the technology aspect of your strategy needs to have its due place, and be sufficient.

The wider picture

Being able to create an environment that is tuned into market developments from a technology point of view is clearly important. But a broader change point is the ability to be open to adaptation, and through leadership, create an organisational environment where people are willing to make suggestions for improvement; are willing to look at different ways of doing things, through a lens of who, ultimately, is going to benefit from it.

Ideally, you want your mid-level people coming up with suggestions such as, ‘I spoke to this person – I understand this is what they do with their clients,’ or ‘I’ve worked here before, this is what we used’; bringing in contributions for what good practice might look like. Then, internally you will have a system whereby you can understand the team better, let them know what’s going to work for the business, and ultimately implement the tools and practices that are really going to help drive performance.

Blackmore Four are an independent consulting company, offering specialist advice, leadership insight and tailored solutions to businesses looking to improve business performance. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business.

If you would like to talk to us about the ways that we can support you in assessing and developing the leadership capabilities in your business, contact us here or call 07734 920 222