By Joel Barolsky, Founder and MD of Barolsky Advisors and Senior Fellow of the University of Melbourne Law School
The two questions that every small and boutique firm needs to ask are:
1. Where is the legal market headed over the next five years; and
2. What should we do about it?
This blog post attempts to address the first question. The second will be covered during my 2017 ALPMA Summit presentation.
Before launching into my five-year predictions, it important to stress that I’m focusing on the market for legal services for individuals, families, and the smaller-end of SMEs.
Prediction #1: The market will be bigger than it is today
One of the major benefits of growth of online legal providers, is that it’s made the law far more accessible and affordable. Everyone can now access simple legal agreements, forms and advice for relatively a low cost. The experience of fast-expanding legal enterprises in the USA, like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and AVVO, points to market growth coming from new clients seeking legal advice for the first time. Technology and scalable delivery models are unearthing the latent demand for legal services. I’d expect a similar trend here in Australia.
Prediction #2: Strong retail brands will emerge
Over a lifetime, a typical family may need legal advice for property purchases, employment issues, insurance claims, marital disputes, estate planning and settlements. In Australia, there are no trusted ‘lawyer-agnostic’ retail legal brands offering a lifetime service relationship. By lawyer-agnostic, I mean clients buying a brand rather than an individual. To me, this is a major gap in the market that someone is likely to fill.
Slater & Gordon was on this path prior to their UK troubles. The other leading personal injury firms seem to be sticking to their knitting for the moment. The onliners, like Lawpath and LegalVision, are still relatively small and appear to be undercapitalised for a major brand assault.
This opportunity may be pursued by major service providers like the banks, insurers or super funds. It could also emerge as an adjacent strategy from leading accounting and financial planning firms.
Prediction #3: Costs will decline (for the innovators)
One of my clients, a 12-partner corporate and commercial firm, recently outsourced their entire IT function and moved almost everything to the cloud. The managing partner stated that this approach has more than halved the costs of IT and eliminated most of the headaches. They are now exploring other outsourcing solutions across their firm.
Another client has shifted one-quarter of her permanent workforce onto contract and now engages these lawyers as and when she needs them. By ‘chasing demand’ with a flexible talent pool she has shifted demand risk and lowered her costs significantly.
Stanford Law School’s TechIndex lists 716 technology companies currently developing solutions for law firms to become more efficient and effective. I predict a 5 to 10% per annum productivity gain for those firms open to innovation and willing to experiment with some of these new tools.
A simple example is the new proof-reading and document drafting application, jEugene. For a low monthly subscription fee, jEugene can potentially save hours in preparing and reviewing legal documents. As a SAAS solution, it has few entry and exit barriers and is perfect for small and boutique firms.
Prediction #4: Disputes won’t be disrupted
While technology can improve case prediction, discovery, research and other process elements of disputes, there is a very human role to play in handling the strategic and emotional nuances of legal conflicts and litigation. Not only is there a strong human element, it’s an area where lawyers have a natural advantage given the structural constraints of the judicial system and regulators. This advantage is likely to be sustained for many years to come.
Prediction #5: Invisible competition will grow
Thomson Reuters data suggests that the larger firms in Australia have reduced their overall headcount by around 7% over the past three years. Many of those leaving have continued to practice as freelancers.
At the other end of the career spectrum, this year, Australia’s 39 law schools will produce over 7,500 law graduates. A significant proportion of these graduates will enter the legal market in some form as freelancers or contingent workers.
The growth of the legal freelancer is the greatest threat to small and boutique firms. These freelancers operate with low overheads and maximum flexibility. They use the same powerful personal branding and social networking tools as everyone else. They can also access sophisticated practice management, legal research and CPD services for minimal cost online. The advantages of firm over freelancer seem to be less significant by the day.
With so much change and progress predicted, those firms that just stand still will go backwards. The market will reward the innovators and punish the laggards. Which one do you want to be?
PS. See you in Brisbane on Friday 15 September 2017 at ALPMA Summit for Part 2.
Joel Barolsky will be speaking about the "State of the Australasian Legal Market and strategic implications for small, focus and boutique firms" at the 2017 ALPMA Summit, held from 13-15 September at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. Registration is now open for the 2017 ALPMA Summit, and there are great savings for those who register early! Register now!
About our Guest Blogger
In addition to heading up Barolsky Advisors, Joel is a Senior Fellow of the University of Melbourne and a former Principal of Beaton Research & Consulting. Joel has advised over 100 of Australia’s leading professional service organisations. Over 70% of his client are repeat clients or come directly from referrals from existing clients.
He is a recognised thought-leader evidenced by regular conference keynotes, press mentions and the global reach of his blog, Relationship Capital. Joel’s teaching roles at the University of Melbourne include delivery of an intensive subject on the Melbourne Law Masters program called, ‘Management for Professionals’.
He has in-depth expertise in the fields of strategy, culture, change, organisation design and business development.