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Feature Article

September 2014 Issue

Client Demands Driving Change in Legal Profession: 8 Ways Firms Can Keep Up

by Charles Volkert, Esq.

New legal research confirms that law firms need to refine and bolster client services, including case strategy and fee arrangements, if they are to remain competitive. Robert Half Legal’s annual Future Law Office research program examines how firms and corporate legal departments are reacting to current trends in the legal profession. Here are eight ways law firms can expand their business, cement client relationships and stay ahead of the competition.

1. Follow the corporate world’s lead. Law firms are taking best practices from the corporate and finance worlds and adapting them to meet client needs. Paul Farnsworth, the immediate past president of the Association of Legal Administrators and the executive director of Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP, who was interviewed for the research program, notes that “larger corporate clients, in particular, are demanding legal services for less cost, and essentially, are requiring law firms to work with more of a business mindset than ever before.”

2. Narrow the focus. To better serve clients and gain a competitive advantage, law firms are narrowing the scope of their work by forming specialized teams directed at specific industries, as opposed to just practice areas. Firms also are deploying client-facing teams composed of partners, associates and paralegals, to create deeper partnerships.

3. Flex the fees. While billable hours haven’t disappeared, clients are seeking greater control over their legal budgets, and the result is an increasing popularity of flat fees, fixed monthly fees and outcome-based bonuses. The ability to negotiate rates and choose alternate billing methods often translates into more value and flexibility for the client. Legal professionals often benefit as well since flexible fee arrangements can relieve the pressure of billable hours, a top stressor of working in a law firm.

4. “Virtualize” legal services. Widespread availability of mobile applications and cloud computing is enabling law firms to deliver legal services more effectively and efficiently than before. This has opened the door to cloud-based law practices where legal services are delivered to clients virtually, without the need for brick-and-mortar establishments. Remote and mobile legal work can be efficient and cost-effective, delivering more value and choices to clients.

5. Create new non-partner-track positions. Firms are experimenting with new roles and positions to offer clients lower billing rates and address associates’ requests for work-life balance. These non-partner-track options include “career associates,” “practice group attorneys,” and “department attorneys.” While these lawyers are part of a firm’s practice group and perform associate-level work, they do not have staff management and business development responsibilities. Therefore, they bill at lower rates and receive lower salaries than traditional associates who are on the partner track.

6. Allocate work to the right level. Many law firms are restructuring legal support teams to decrease costs while maintaining or even improving support levels. These new approaches to legal support staffing include deploying teams of legal secretaries to work with groups of lawyers rather than assigning one secretary to support several attorneys and creating hybrid or blended paralegal/legal secretary roles.

7. Plan for succession. A critical area of focus for the long-term success of a law firm is proactive succession planning. It’s not simply a matter of grooming a replacement for a retiring partner but making a smooth transition to the firm’s new leaders, including the transfer of clientele and legal work.                        

8. Get on the move. Today’s workforce is in motion — and so are law firm clients. Law firms should consider offering remote work arrangements and telecommuting options not only to meet staff needs for a better work-life balance, but also with client service in mind. As Paul Farnsworth observes, “Staff mobility is a positive trend within the legal field – for workers, who focus on striking a healthy work and personal-life balance, and for clients, who ultimately can receive more real-time response and service.”

In a dynamic business environment, firms that keep up with the latest legal research and industry trends will be better positioned to meet client demands and help their law practices thrive.

Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal®,a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company also offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets.

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Question & Answer

September 2014 Issue

Q:

I’m dissatisfied with my current job and firm, so I’m considering making a career move. The thing is, I’m not sure whether that’s really the answer. And if it is, I don’t know what my options are. Can you help?

A:

Whether you’re an entry-level legal professional or a seasoned veteran, it’s natural for career goals to change and to explore new opportunities. When you’re contemplating a legal career transition, asking yourself the following six questions can help you focus your job search and determine what next steps to take

1. Why do I want to move on?
The reasons behind your desire to make a change can help you determine which avenues you should explore. You mentioned you are dissatisfied, but why exactly? Does your present work leave you unfulfilled? Do you dislike your colleagues or boss? Is the office culture not what you expected? Is your legal career overpowering your personal life? Have you hit the ceiling in your current firm? 

2. Would a change make a difference?
Once you assess your current situation, ask yourself whether you can do anything about these pain points. And, if so, whether you’d want to stay with your current employer. If you determine that the problems with your current position are not easily resolved, a new job could be a positive legal career move for you. 

3. What do I like and dislike about my present legal job?
Make two lists: One that lists the parts of your current job that you truly enjoy, and another with the parts that drive you up the wall. Consider recent projects that have really sparked your interest and the tasks that you dread facing each day. This exercise will help define the kind of career move to make. If, for example, you’re a paralegal who was really excited by working on a conservation and sustainability case, you could target your legal job search in that direction and even look into a law school with an environmental law program.

4. What are my overarching legal career goals? 
As with any career change, it’s important to consider your ultimate goals. Seeking more autonomy in your legal career? Look into boutique firms with their fewer levels of management. If you’re after a wider range of cases and additional opportunities for professional development, a large law firm could be a good fit. Want to make more money? Move toward in-demand and, therefore, lucrative fields such as compliance, litigation, intellectual property and commercial law. Do you desire to make a difference? Consider human rights, immigration or family law and look into firms that do pro bono work.

5. What are my strengths (and weaknesses)?
Analyzing your skills is an important part of any legal career change. If you don’t already have one, start keeping a running list of your major cases and projects to show potential employers your history of delivering results. Take time to highlight or hone any in-demand skills you may have, such as business acumen, technology expertise and foreign language proficiency.

6. What are the emerging hiring trends?
You want to position yourself and your resume for the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of yesterday. This means being well versed in legal software, information technology, global issues, government regulations/compliance, data privacy and security, and more. See how and whether your skill set intersects with current hiring trends. Staying abreast of important trends such as those highlighted Robert Half Legal’s Future Law Office research project can help you align your legal career search goals with the expertise law firms are seeking.

Submit a career-related question to Charles A. Volkert, Esq., executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Charles will answer one question each month!

 
 
 
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