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Not so demanding – clients aren't pushing the legal industry forward

Author: Alex Novarese |

18 Aug 2010 | 09:52

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Read the average commentary on the profession, at least those not written by practising lawyers, and an unmistakable theme emerges: the legal market is set for sweeping, disruptive change and it will be clients that will drag grudging service providers to this promised land.

Yet the harder I look at the profession the more convinced I become that clients - the demand side of the equation - are not only generally failing to enforce change, they are, if anything, more conservative than the law firms, which is saying something.

The last 15 years of the commercial legal market has been notable for clients promising much in terms of change, only to largely disappoint. What evidence is there that all but a few brave pioneers have even tried to make good on that vision? Certainly not the panel system, which has utterly failed to change billing practices, contain fee inflation or usher in any meaningful shift in working patterns.

A financial crisis and a deep recession has hit Western economies and little has changed beyond a modest uptick in alternative billing. Law firms are still focused on two markets, labour and clients, and they remain, to the irritation of clients, more focused on the former. It's a logical response given that the labour market is much more transparent and liquid than the buying decisions of clients.

The internet? Disruptive technologies? Such trends have unquestionably forced more transparency onto the legal profession and in theory should give clients scope to take control of buying legal services. But, as yet, there has been little to back up the hype in terms of shaking up the industry or empowering clients.

Most of the innovations seen in recent years have been about firms trying to get an edge on rivals and have often been largely driven by the internal economics of law firms. Outsourcing, offshoring and attempts to unbundle legal service provision - experiments in these areas are being pushed more by managing partners than pulled by clients. It was the same in earlier years when law firms went international, which was as much a strategic bet taken by the UK legal profession as a response to client demand.

Globalisation? Come off it. The term was debased into meaninglessness years ago. Common sense would dictate that at some point advances in IT will give clients the tools to trigger substantive change in certain sections of the legal market, but if there's anyone out there making a convincing case for where and when, I've yet to find them.

The best guess would be that a new market entrant working well outside the traditional law firm model is the most likely suspect to kick off real change - Google Law maybe. But that's a very hazy prediction of no practical use to anyone. Oh, and it would be another case of innovation coming from suppliers rather than the clients. Perhaps the real mystery is why clients are quite so ready to tolerate the status quo.

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