One recurring theme that came up a lot at the just concluded NBA-SBL Business Law Conference in Lagos, was the impending disruption to come in the legal services sector. Some law firms are already rising to the occasion and implementing new business models, that have enhanced the way they communicate and do business with their clients; adopting a hands-on approach to meeting the client’s business needs, brandishing specialised knowledge in unique practice areas, digital marketing proficiency and providing easier access to legal services in cyberspace.
Historically, the changing face of law practice isn’t a new phenomenon; many countries around the world, especially the USA have gone through variations of these changes. The old-line Wall Street law firms in the 1950’s only engaged in specific practice areas like taxes and corporate legal work around issuing stocks and bonds and their decision to be rigid in their business models was based strictly on what was ‘proper’ and ‘dignified’. Litigation was for less fortunate lawyers and hostile takeovers were completely frowned upon.
A classic example of how things were in the 1950’s and 1960’s was illustrated brilliantly by Malcolm Gladwell, a Social Psychologist and Author in his book ‘Outliers’ where the apparent disdain for litigation and ‘proxy fights’ in hostile takeovers, led to smaller less ‘dignified’ law firms doing most of the work. With the advent of the 1970’s, there was less aversion to lawsuits and due to less Federal regulation businesses got more aggressive leading to a surge in hostile corporate takeovers. This enriched the smaller firms due to their expertise and knowledge in those areas and business simply flowed to them first, there was nothing the older firms could do but scramble for the crumbs, they were not prepared to innovate. The period also gave the lawyers from smaller firms a tougher and more rugged style of practising the law, which equipped them for the changes to come in the future.
Fast forward a few decades and you have IBM Watson and the genius invention called ‘Ross’, an artificial intelligence solution to help lawyers with legal research at a very efficient speed. The future is clear and a bit disturbing because there is, for the first time, the worry that AI can possibly replace the need for lawyers altogether, so what do we do as lawyers? Simple – Innovate or die.
These new technologies can only be properly utilised by a new crop of lawyers with in-depth knowledge of the changing need for legal services and the speed in which these services must now be executed.
Coming back home, it is safe to say that large law firms in Nigeria with decades of history are now failing to innovate at the same pace as new/emerging law firms and if history should speak, she would warn that less innovative law firms will grow weak and eventually die from a different kind of illness – the ‘conservative’ ‘brick and mortar’ and ‘general practice’ illness. Nostalgia can be a beautiful thing, but when you run a business with ideas from a forgotten era, you will eventually be left rotting away in a dark corner, covered in dust and cobwebs.
What does the future hold for law practice and who are the leading law firms of the future in Nigeria and Africa as a whole?
Answers to the above questions are not written anywhere because new and older law firms can equally claim market share if they consistently implement operational, business improvement and marketing strategies that will keep them ahead of the pack. You don’t need a crystal ball to see the future of the legal industry in Nigeria.
I certainly predict that in the next five years, most major law firms as we know them today would have either revamped their modes of operation entirely, merged with other firms to transition into more powerful forces or gone extinct altogether. This will seem gloomy, only to people who want to stick to the old and familiar ways, but think about it; the monarchical and often aristocratic styles of law practices, operating primarily brick and mortar law offices, with closed and conservative shops will wither out without any change in the business models they adopt.
Corporate clients don’t want the fancy image and exaggerated display of competence, they want to know how you can keep them safe and make them MORE money. So, in this era where we continually see old establishments get eaten up by new and more aggressive disruptors, no legal services business can afford to sit placidly by, while change happens all around them.
Today, there are law firms where the client is not the primary focus, instead, succession is the main concern; some Managing Partners even decide to bring in their children to inherit their practice without first having them understand the peculiarities in the legal business and future trends, this, my friend is the definition of suicide. The arrogance and bureaucracies surrounding many law firms will eventually lead to their demise or relegation to the attic for obsolete things.
Many firms in Nigeria may not survive the emerging era of disruption unless they adopt the tradition of continuous unlearning of old habits. Many ‘old’ law firms who thrived from decades of continuous business from the same big corporations we know of today, sadly didn’t evolve with their clients, which is the direct cause of dwindling briefs. It is safe to say that the law firm leaders here, also fail to embrace innovation as optimistically as the new kids on the block.
As the phrase goes ‘innovate or die’ many corporate clients and multinationals have evolved tremendously to the point that their in-house lawyers and consultants have continuously upgraded to the level of providing way better legal and business services, including sophisticated market research that helps them grow their businesses and avoid catastrophic losses.
How invested are law firms of today in their client’s business? How can your firm break the cycle and claim market share?
With non-lawyers setting up legal solutions targeting the mass market, you will see a steady drop in the need for Lawyers in areas like Business Contracts, Lease Agreements and Business formation services; if this is not disruption I don’t know what is, the ‘first wave’ has struck…are you prepared to innovate?