What will the best methods and processes to deliver high-quality legal services efficiently and effectively look like in three to five years from today?
This question was posed to me recently by a law firm, and answering it forced me to dig into all the insights and experience I had available. Fortunately, years of talent research conducted by Thomson Reuters among law firm partners has enabled us to explore cultural factors, retention trends, and engagement drivers to better address this question.
But where to start on a question like this? The obvious place: What do clients need and how well are law service providers positioned to deliver that?
Let’s move on to the big picture by way of another question:
When there is so little differentiation between firms, how can a firm stand out positively?
First, it is not impossible to differentiate your firm from your competitors, but it is harder than differentiating among brands, products, and services in other industries. Despite the advances and investments of many law firms, tech outfits, and other organizations in the alternative legal service provider or “new law” space, legal remains an essentially people-based product.
Indeed, the differentiation needs to come from what almost all firms are telling clients, which is some version of: We care about your business, today and in the future
The difference lies, of course, in how well firms bring this mantra to life. It requires this promise to be demonstrated at every touch point in the client experience authentically and consistently by everyone representing the firm. When that happens, that’s when a truly distinctive style or culture begins to emerge within the firm and more importantly, in the client’s mind.
Delivering on this promise, however, comes down to the free will and goodwill of the individual executive, lawyer, or staff member — everyone has their role to play in bringing that message to life. While a firm’s business strategy and brand ambition are set at the top, without the commitment of individuals to deliver on that brand promise down the line, the firm will just be like any other — a collection of individual lawyers.
Second, differentiation comes from being at the fore of the big issues that clients are going to need to manage in future. And that means, knowing what those issues are, what the implications will be for the client and their business, and what they should do about it. This looks very different for different clients, depending on their business model, industry sector, and geographic footprint, of course.
For example, to be the best in 2025 in the minds of clients, law firms must get to grips with environmental, social & governance (ESG) issues. More than half (56%) of companies globally place ESG as a high priority for their business, according to our research. That means that law firms have got to understand this priority, align their values and purpose with that of their clients, and educate their people about it, so everyone can live and breathe it. Indeed, this topic alone could allow for significant opportunities for differentiation and increased client work among the front-runners in this area.
To do this well, however, requires a law firm to shift the balance of focus from predominantly internal to more external through actively listening to clients, having the infrastructure to share knowledge effectively across teams and the firm, and being able to act nimbly in order to respond to changing events or new developments.
This client listening activity should include formal and systemized client feedback programs, ideally reaching all clients and not just the 28% currently being asked for feedback by their firms, according to the latest Thomson Reuters Market Insights data. Firms need to pay close attention as well to industry trends affecting clients beyond the legal sector, such as how business models are evolving.
Two highly effective ways to create an infrastructure which facilitates knowledge-sharing is by embracing a sector strategy and creating key client teams. Both methods benefit from bringing together cross-discipline teams and establishing an accountability framework. This way, it becomes a way of working — not just the latest node to current marketing speak. As a byproduct of this process, your firm can also create more new, attractive career options to attract the best talent to the firm, which can also help the firm differentiate itself.
It’s not just a case of knowing what clients want, making sure you have the talent to deliver counts
A successful law firm is one that enables and motivates its people to deliver on everything we’ve discussed, which brings into consideration a lot of talent retention and development factors. First and foremost, firm leaders have learned the importance of well-being as central to their ability to be an outstanding place to work that’s able to deliver quality service to clients.
From our research, three pillars of well-being have emerged as essential to communicate to lawyers and staff members, including:
- Give people clarity around how their role fits in with the firm’s goals and how they are contributing to what the firm needs to achieve.
- Give people control over what, when, and how they work; and for partners especially, give them control over changes at the firm that may affect them.
- provide support for people’s well-being, such as training, autonomy to work whatever way makes them most effective, leadership that prioritizes well-being, and managers who show empathy for their team members.
Many firms focus on the support aspects of these pillars, but clarity and control are more important in building a firmwide culture that enables well-being rather than trying to fix problems and issues once they inevitably emerge.
In fact, our research found that when partners, in particular, feel that they have clarity and control, their origins are significantly higher than those who consider these factors to be lacking in their work life.
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